On the Fence: Northern Ireland’s Peace Impasse

Travelling through the cities of Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Portadown, and Lurgan history is never far from sight. Peace walls still stand and are a symbol of the fragile peace in contemporary Northern Ireland.

But Northern Ireland’s peace walls (or interfaces) should soon be gone. Plans are underway to remove all peace walls by 2023. Initially built to ensure civility between nationalist (Catholic) and loyalist (Protestant) regions of the country, in recent years, they are viewed as counterproductive to future peace developments. There is a growing desire to remove the walls. However, is there still a need for them? The re-emergence of overt interest in an united Ireland may have reframed the role of the peace walls in Northern Ireland. 

The Together: Building a United Community strategy (2012) to remove the peace walls by 2023 will end 52 years of physical divisions within Northern Irish cities. The term peace wall encompasses “all kinds of physical interface barriers that keep communities apart – including walls, gates and security barriers”. Over 100 barriers exist across Northern Ireland and they are “symbols of continued division and segregation” according to the International Fund for Ireland.

A Divided Nation

Peace walls emerged in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, a period of sectarian conflict that formally began in 1969 and officially ended in 1998, with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (aka The Belfast Agreement). The origins of the conflict date back to the division of the island of Ireland in 1921. The Troubles erupted between nationalists: those who identified as Irish, were predominantly Catholic and wanted a united Ireland, and loyalists: who identified as British, were majority Protestants and wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the UK. 

In 1969, the first permanent barriers were erected by the British Army to keep nationalist and loyalist communities in Belfast separated from one another and to control fighting. The success of these initial barriers led to more walls appearing in Belfast and other Northern Irish cities. Their role in ensuring civility was deemed vital and, in turn, more were erected after 1998 than had been present during the Troubles. 

The Belfast Interface Project, an organization aimed at developing and regenerating interface areas, reported that 99 interfaces existed in Belfast alone, with the majority being metal fences or brick walls. These walls were predominantly owned by the UK’s Department of Justice and the Northern Irish Housing Executive. 

Changing Times

Whilst the peace walls were allegedly successful, recently, there has been increasing support to remove them. Although the Troubles have ended, Northern Irish society has remained divided. Mixed communities of Protestants and Catholics are rare, and in most cases, people live in communities separated along sectarian divisions. Representation of community affiliation is often publicly demonstrated through flags and murals, fervently supporting either the UK or Ireland and often condemning the other side. 

Surveys are carried out regularly in Northern Ireland charting the societal response to the peace walls. In 2011, Leonard and McKnight, researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, found that young people tended to view the walls as exclusionary rather than beneficial for Belfast communities. 

In 2017, the International Fund for Ireland carried out surveys assessing the effects of, and attitudes towards the peace walls; 16% reported the walls had no positive impacts, a figure which increased to 25% in 2019. Similarly, in 2017, 66% of respondents felt that keeping the walls would negatively impact community relations, which increased to 70% in 2019. These attitudes have spurred the campaign to remove interfaces. By January 2020, 12 interfaces had been removed (and two reclassified). 

The Fragility of Peace

Whilst removing the peace walls indicates that Northern Ireland’s divisions are disappearing, this is not the full story. Divisions in society have recently been brought into focus with two issues underscoring the fragility of Northern Irish peace. Firstly, the loyalist attitudes to the peace walls and, secondly, the renewed talks of an united Ireland. 

The current desire to remove the peace walls is not unanimous. Attitudes towards the walls are divided by religion. The nationalist community is embracing change quicker and are more in favour of the walls’ removal. In 2017, 33% felt the walls served “no function”, compared to 9% of loyalist respondents. Equally, 43% of nationalist respondents felt the walls had “no positives”. In 2019, only 12% wanted the peace walls to stay indefinitely, a drop from 23% in 2017. It is impossible to say why nationalists are more in favour of the peace walls disappearing. However, there is an enduring narrative with the community that the walls are an obstacle to geographic mobility within the cities and constant reminder of British rule. 

By contrast, in the last decade, loyalist (Protestant) communities have been more hesitant to remove the walls and believe they are still necessary for maintaining peace. This hinges on the community’s belief that the walls offer cultural and literal security. In 2019, 26% wanted to maintain the walls in Northern Ireland. Concurrently, 75% of loyalist respondents felt the most positive aspect of the walls was their provision of safety, in comparison to 68% of nationalist respondents.

This divide now has a new context. On January 23rd 2021, a poll commissioned by The Sunday Times revealed 51% in Northern Ireland want a referendum on an united Ireland within the next five years. The younger generations (under 45s) are more supportive of unification. According to Paul Bew of The Times, reports during the Brexit negotiations (2016-2020) found that the referendum results “increased Catholic support for a united Ireland”. 

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by 55.8% during the Brexit referendum. The handling of Brexit was criticized by many in Northern Ireland as the Brexit talks appeared to ignore the sensitivity and fragility of Northern Ireland’s contemporary peace. The country faced a unique set of Brexit issues. It is the only UK nation physically bordering another EU state and the only nation where the cross-border unity was vital to peace.  

Due to the Good Friday Agreement, an almost invisible border existed between the two nations to encourage cross-border cooperation. This was critical for the nationalist community who wanted (and still hope for) unity on the island of Ireland. Brexit negotiations raised the prospect of a patrolled and physical border (a hard border) between the two nations which would have voided the Good Friday Agreement. The last time a physical border existed between Northern Ireland and Ireland was during the Troubles. The Good Friday Agreement was designed to ensure this would never happen again. Whilst the physical border has been avoided, the resentments and frustrations towards the handling of Brexit in Northern Ireland have caused the resurgent interest in an united Ireland. 

Despite the developments of the last 23 years, Northern Ireland’s fragile cohesion in the cities is maintained by people feeling safe. If a referendum on an united Ireland gains momentum, loyalist communities may rescind their support for the walls’ removal. This could create further divisions within Northern Ireland and stall inter-community developments. If the divisions grow before the walls come down, the target of all peace walls being eliminated by 2023 is unlikely. Moreover, these sectarian divisions could descend Northern Ireland back into the fighting of the Troubles. 

Time Will Tell

The Good Friday Agreement has been heralded globally as the breakthrough for peace in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the Brexit referendum and the political challenges which Northern Ireland faced during negotiations threaten to undo the efforts of the last 23 years. With a rising interest in an united Ireland, an unforeseen consequence of Brexit may be the continued retention of peace walls to maintain civility for the foreseeable future. 

This would be regressive. The communities have been working diligently to overcome differences and to unite in a common goal to protect the peace. If differing attitudes over the future of Northern Ireland fall along sectarian lines again, the peace walls may remain intact for the next 50 years.

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine

Phoebe Williams
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Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.

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