The peace walls of Belfast: Do they still help keep the peace?

More than 20 years after the Good Friday peace agreement was signed, the so-called peace walls remain in Northern Ireland. Host Nahlah Ayed heads to Belfast to find out if the walls are helping or hindering community reconciliation between Catholic and Protestant, Republican and Unionist. This is the first episode in our series, Walking the Border: Walls That Divide Us.

Meant to divide, the Troubles-era walls unite those who want reconciliation

More than 20 years after the Good Friday peace agreement was signed, the walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities in Northern Ireland remain. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

* Originally published on September 2, 2019.

By Nahlah Ayed and Philip Coulter

When Noel Large volunteered to fight on the streets of Belfast he told his recruiters he was willing to do anything for the cause: anything but plant bombs.

Even with that caveat, he wreaked bloody havoc, becoming one of the most active and feared gunmen for the pro-British Ulster Volunteer Force, targeting and killing Irish nationalist fighters and Catholic civilians alike.

Back then, Large would only enter Catholic neighbourhoods at night, and always with a gun. His missions were often hit-and-run jobs typical of paramilitary fighters on both sides in the era commonly called The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

It was partly those tactics that inspired the building of what are often referred to as peace walls between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods — to choke the getaway routes and keep warring communities apart.

Noel Large was serving four life sentences in prison for the murders of four people. After serving 16 years, he was released when the Good Friday agreement officially ended the conflict. Now, he’s a community worker who preaches reconciliation. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

'A barrier to peace'

More than 20 years after the Good Friday peace agreement was signed, the Troubles-era walls remain — the oldest of which have been standing longer than the Berlin Wall was.

As Northern Ireland struggles with the destabilizing effects of a looming Brexit, and with an ongoing political impasse paralyzing the local power-sharing government, the fate of those peace walls — and of peace itself — is uncertain.

Large's rampage ended at age 27, when he was locked away to serve four life sentences in the killings of four people. Sixteen years later, he was released when the Good Friday Agreement formally ended the fighting.

In a twist of history befitting Belfast's winding road to peace, Large, at 61, is a community worker who preaches reconciliation. He believes the many peace walls that remain here are obstacles to that. 

"It's actually a barrier to peace in the long term," he told CBC Ideas on a recent tour of the largely loyalist and Protestant Shankill Road neighbourhood. It is separated by one of the oldest and most colourful walls from the adjacent Falls Road, a mostly Catholic area.

"We're living side by side with a wall between us … there is no integration. We need peace. And we need people to stand together."

A section of the peace wall in Belfast dividing the Catholic Falls Road from the mostly Protestant and Loyalist Shankill Road. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The walls — more than 60 of them in Belfast alone — exist in a kind of limbo between war and peace. 

They come in many forms – there are concrete walls, metal fences and even gates that are still locked at night. Several have been built since the Good Friday agreement, while other concrete walls have since been extended up with fencing.

They are often adorned with murals and political messages — the content and the colours of which depend on neighbourhood loyalties. Many are dotted with the signatures and peace signs of visitors.

Gated tension

Even two decades after the Good Friday Agreement, the barriers are still popular with many residents who have grown up believing they keep them secure. 

Under the local government's 10-year plan, they are to be torn down by 2023. But shortly after that decision, a survey indicated it didn't sit well with a majority of respondents.

"Belfast is a city that's very compartmentalized and people live in a compartmentalized way," said Garett Carr, who has explored Belfast's peace walls and walked the entirety of the border that divides Northern Ireland from the republic in the south.

"It takes people longer … to get to know one another. And it can mean all suspicions are kind of fostered. 

Garrett Carr explains that in Short Strand, peace walls encircle the neighbourhood. He says the trauma of the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles led many to feel more secure living with the walls. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

"What's happening with Belfast is a little bit like the gated community phenomenon," he said. For many, it's about "a comfort in knowing that strangers aren't going by your door."

But do peace walls keep the peace?

"There's still a lot of trauma hanging around. We've had a long period of a kind of low-intensity conflict, which has left scars on people.

"And so something that simplifies things — that demarks your neighborhood and gives you a sense of safety — I can see I can see why people may cling to it," Carr said.

Some residents tell Carr the walls actually become magnets for trouble, when youth throw bottles over them simply "to see if they can."

In other places, like the neighbourhood of Short Strand, the peace walls, disguised as shrubbery, encourages traffic to keep moving in an area that still occasionally sees rioting.

A younger generation of Belfast residents, who know nothing of The Troubles first-hand, may still be key to changing attitudes and ridding the city of its more visible wartime scars.

Glenn Doherty, Naomi Burns and Rebecca Coggles are part of a program helping build peace between Protestant and Catholic communities. The program is run by the non-profit organization Springboard Opportunities. (Nahlah Ayed/CBC)

The peace walls are "a division, which I don't think should be there," said Glenn Doherty, a 15-year old student in Belfast. 

He has made friends on the Catholic side of town with the help of Springboard Opportunities, a Belfast non-profit organization that runs programs that encourage students from both sides of the sectarian — and physical — divides to build bonds, not walls.

"I don't see the need for [walls] to be there anymore," said Doherty's friend, Naomi Burns, who admits she is still nervous walking on the Protestant side while wearing a Catholic school uniform.

"It's like a big prison. It looks like we're all closed in on one another."

With Brexit looming, the fate of the peace walls in Northern Ireland — and of peace itself — is uncertain. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

Reaching across the divide

The walls themselves have actually become a kind of prop in the efforts to build relationships between communities. 

Victoria Sheridan, who works with Springboard, takes groups of students on tours to familiarize them with the people and the lives on the sides they don't know.

"The walls are there, but at the end of each wall there are gates that lead you through," said Sheridan, who went through the Springboard program herself. She takes students on tours of the walls with guides on each side to explain the murals.

James Begley, who was also a participant and now a workshop leader, remembers the first time he took one of those tours.

"What struck me was the similarities. There was a lot more similarities than there were differences and what I'd been told was a lot of nonsense basically," he said.

"I was 24 when I first had a proper conversation from the other community, which to me is baffling, it's mind-blowing. But it was just the reality of growing up [here] — you were sheltered."

There are more than 60 peace walls dividing Belfast in Northern Ireland. The local government’s plan to tear them all down by 2023 is proceeding slowly. (Philip Coulter/CBC)

The youth have a common cause with Large and other ex-fighters who are reaching across the divides. 

There's urgency to his message.

Large wants to be the cautionary tale for the younger generation because they are key to the future.

"There is no cause in the world that is worth the shedding of innocent blood. No cause," he said. 

"That peace is not there. And it's not there because … it needs people to be united. And what we have done is we have divided the people."

Guests in this episode: 

Diarmaid Ferriter is an Irish historian, broadcaster and a regular newspaper correspondent. The author of 11 books, he's professor of modern Irish history at the University College Dublin.

Noel Large is a former Loyalist paramilitary who was serving four life sentences in prison for murder. He was released under the Good Friday Agreement, and now works in community development around the Shankill Road and Falls Road districts of Belfast.

Garrett Carr is a map-maker and writer, and author of Rule of the Land; Walking Ireland's Border. He teaches creative writing at Queen's University Belfast. 

Rebecca Coggles, Glenn Doherty and Naomi Burns are high school students in Belfast.

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