Uneasy peace, the segregated reality of Northern Ireland

In the 14 years since the peace accord, Northern Ireland's political foes have made some remarkable accomodations. But as Margaret Evans writes, sectarian walls still dominate the landscape.
The 'peace wall' separating Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods in the Alexandra Park area of Belfast. For part of this past year, a gate has been opened every day until 3 p.m., as an experiment. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

When I was in Northern Ireland 12 years ago, the turnstiles at the gates of the Maze Prison outside Belfast were working overtime.

As part of the Good Friday Peace Accord of 1998, the last of the paramilitary prisoners were finally being released. It was a hugely significant, and difficult, day for people on both sides of the sectarian divide.

So I was more than a little curious on my return last week to see what changes have been wrought in the meantime.

I was also arriving at the tail end of the marching season when sectarian tensions are most wont to "kick off," as local expression has it.

This past weekend, Protestant Loyalists were celebrating the centenary of the Ulster Covenant enshrining their determination to remain a part of Britain.

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And there were fears that the parade's traditional route past St Patrick's Church in a Republican neighbourhood of North Belfast would spark violence, as it has in the past.

But the Loyalists contented themselves with banging their drums extra loudly as they passed the church.

And Catholic protesters congratulated themselves on not responding, even though the marching bands hardly limited their playing outside the church to "sacred music," as ordered by the parade's commission.

All this was billed as a big success, although in no small part due to a heavy police presence.

'Much better place'

In the run-up to the parade, one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, the former Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, now a member of the British House of Lords, said things were looking up in Northern Ireland and that despite "some wrinkles," it is "a much better place, much more prosperous with a political system that is working."

And it's true that the power-sharing arrangements between those who were once mortal enemies appear to be working.

Local Sinn Fein councillor Conor Maskey showed me around City Hall, taking some good-natured ribbing from his DUP opponents and pointing out new stained glass windows celebrating women, the history of trade unions, the peace movement. In other words, to themes not always hearkening back to Northern Ireland's controversial history.

I also met up with the historian Paul Bew at a book launch in the recently restored Christchurch Library.

He pointed out two local political figures laughing together in the midst of the wine and cheese and told me that, in the past, one of the two had his home firebombed by the other man's faction.

An adviser to Trimble during the Good Friday negotiations, Bew says he remains "utterly, utterly amazed" at how the accord has actually stuck all these years, and how invested political parties are in it.

But he also admits its spirit hasn't really trickled down to the street.   

"The peace process, often romanticized as something to do with people power, had very little to do with people power," Bew says.

"This was the work of political elites on both sides who for one reason or another wanted to develop this political strategy."

Blighted by fear

You have only to look at the ugly grid of the so-called peace-walls criss-crossing Belfast to understand just how segregated and blighted by fear Northern Ireland remains.

A recent survey conducted by the University of Ulster found that 69 per cent of people living close to the walls, which separate mainly working class Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods, believe they are still necessary.

Barber and former pugilist Marty Quinn. His barbershop is a communal gathering place, but would his Protestant and Catholic customers drink together after? (Margaret Evans / CBC)

In fact, some of those walls have only just gone up in the past five years.

"The fear is still about sectarian attacks," community worker Ciaran Shannon told me. "They mightn't be realistic, but they're genuine. People feel that they're not safe."

Shannon grew up in a Catholic part of North Belfast and now works with Republican and Loyalist communities on both sides of one of the peace walls cutting through Alexandra Park.

For the past year, a gate in the wall has been opened every day until 3:00 PM as an experiment.

Shannon insists that projects like these are giant steps, not to be underestimated, even if there is no "Berlin Wall moment" on the horizon.

But it's hard not to feel pessimistic. Even people who move easily in both worlds worry about the level of segregation in today's Northern Ireland.

Marty Quinn, for example, owns a barbershop, across the street from St Patrick's Church, with just as many Protestant customers as Catholic and "long may it last," he says.

A Catholic, he also happens to be a former boxing champion, winning a medal for Ireland at the 1969 Olympic Games in Mexico (and proudly tells of having defeated the actor Liam Neeson in the ring when they were in their teens).

But, as he puts it, the world of sports has given him a way of avoiding politics.

"You get a Catholic sitting beside a Protestant and they're talking away ... but then you say to yourself 'Would he have a pint with him at a bar?'

"I don't feel he would because he'd be too afraid to go into his area and he'd be afraid to go into his area. But in a barbershop they can come together and talk and then they both get their hair cut and leave."

'Educational apartheid'

If you look closer you will find that fewer than 10 per cent of schools in Northern Ireland are integrated.

The Hazelwood Primary School in North Belfast is one of them. It sits on a communal interface and has a peace wall running along one side.  

Houses on one side fly the Union Jack. Those on the other, the orange, white and green of the Republic of Ireland.

Vice-principal Jim McDaid and some of his charges. Fewer than 10 per cent of Northern Ireland's public schools are integrated. (Margaret Evans / CBC)

Jim McDaid is the vice-principal and he believes nothing will change unless there is an end to what he calls "educational apartheid."

"The vast majority of children, they don't encounter another community than their own, monolithic culture," he says. "It's only by attending a school such as this" that they can see how the other side lives.

Stuart Dickson, the chief whip for the non-sectarian Alliance Party, is another passionate advocate of teaching Protestant and Catholic schoolchildren together.

He says that that removing the psychological barriers is just as important as going after the physical ones like the peace walls and the segregated neighbourhoods.

"Middle class areas are equally divided," he points out. "They don't actually need peace walls because they're very nice to each other, but they don't live on the same street."

Enough of a peace

In today's Northern Ireland, it is clear that some of the old barriers are coming down. But many aren't and others will likely go up, particularly when some of the political parties — despite overtly co-operating in the legislature — continue to appeal to the more tribal elements among their supporters come election time.

Also, there is no denying the fact that many people want these existing walls to stay up.

"I mean they have their own culture," a 30-year-old man with the Protestant Boys Band told me up on the Shankhill Road outside the Orange Lodge after the parade on the weekend.

"I don't know what they do, but they have their own culture, and our culture is very strong, and you have to believe it."

A Catholic man outside the gate in the peace wall at Alexandra Park had said much the same thing to me when describing life on either side of the barrier. "They left me alone, I left them alone."

And so despite all the extraordinary steps taken over the past 14 years, all the successes big and small, for many here that appears to be enough of a peace: to build the walls so high that the other side can't climb over.