No end in sight for Belfast 'peace walls'
Wednesday, 26 September 2012 00:04

Study finds two-thirds of residents on sectarian frontlines want dozens of barriers separating loyalists and Republicans to stay

As Belfast braces for a mass loyalist rally on Saturday and the possibility of sectarian rioting, new research shows that more than two-thirds of residents living along the city's notorious peace walls separating Protestant and Catholic communities still want the barriers to stay up.

And more than half of the people living on sectarian frontlines have no faith in the police keeping the peace if the walls came down, according to a report released today by the University of Ulster.

The views of those living by the walls are in sharp contrast to overall social attitudes towards the barriers across Northern Ireland. While 69% of those living alongside the walls said the separation barriers were still necessary because of the potential for violence, 78% of those surveyed across the north of Ireland want them to come down.

It is nearly five decades since the first barriers were erected by British Army engineers to separate the Catholic Falls Road from the Protestant Shankill Road. Even after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires of 1994, the number of peace walls proliferated with more than 50 now in existence.

Among the general population, the authors of the report found that 82% regarded the walls as "ugly". Nevertheless, 38% of all those surveyed believe that the walls are a tourist attraction. There are daily tourist buses from Belfast city centre that travel along some of the barriers, especially one resembling the Berlin Wall in Cupar Way between the Falls and the Shankill Roads.

The researchers interviewed 1,451 people for the survey, which was carried out by Cathy Gormley-Heenan, director of the Institute for Research in Social Sciences at the University of Ulster, and Professor Gillian Robinson of the International Conflict Research Institute (Incore), based at the Magee campus in Derry.

The contradictory public attitudes towards the barriers pose a major challenge to the power-sharing executive at Stormont, the authors of the report conclude. The research was funded by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Gormley-Heenan said two-thirds of the general population believed that the peace walls should be a "big priority for the Northern Ireland government", adding that a similar percentage of people living alongside the walls would like to know more about initiatives and discussions concerning the barriers. "This shows there is a huge public appetite for greater engagement between the communities and those responsible for the peace walls," she said.

Jonny Byrne, another social scientist at the University of Ulster and one of the co-authors of the report, noted that while there was an aspiration to see the last walls dividing communities in Europe outside of Cyprus come down, there was also a residual fear about what would happen next.

"It is important to recognise that 69% of those that live closest to the peace walls believe that they are still necessary – due to the continuing potential for violence. Although 58% would like to see the walls come down now or at some point in the future, only 38% could actually envisage a time when this would happen," he said.

North Belfast, where the majority of the peace walls have been constructed or fortified since 1969, continues to be a "sectarian earthquake zone". Last month 67 police officers were injured after 72 hours of trouble at the sectarian dividing line between the Lower Shankill and Lower Antrim Roads. A huge security operation will begin this Saturday to prevent a repeat of the trouble sparked by a controversial loyalist parade past St Patrick's Chapel in nearby Donegall Street.

Tens of thousands of loyalists are due to attend a rally in central Belfast at the weekend to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant by nearly quarter of a million Protestant men opposing Home Rule for Ireland. The route of one of the Orange Order parades from North Belfast into the city centre will again pass by St Patrick's.

Henry McDonald © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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