‘It’s alright for them, they don’t live here’

By Ciara Quinn

THERE are currently 42 ‘peace lines’ in Belfast, towering barriers that separate the two main communities. At a recent Belfast City Council meeting, Alliance Councillor Tom Ekin proposed a working strategy aimed at seeing them torn down. The proposal divided the Council chamber, just as those peace lines continue to divide the people of the city.

Sinn Féin Councillor Jim McVeigh told the Andersonstown News that Cllr Ekin’s strategy was “well-intentioned but a bit naïve”.

“What Tom Ekin proposed in Council is first and foremost a worthwhile discussion and it’s one we are prepared to have,” he said.

Speaking at the interface wall in Bombay Street, Cllr McVeigh said that as things stand “there wouldn’t be anybody that lives in this street who would want this wall to come down”.

“I would say that it would be the same for most of those communities who live along the interface fringes. The peace wall here at Bombay Street went up as a temporary affair at the end of 1969, start of 1970 – it’s still a permanent fixture in 2011.

“I don’t think the time is right for those walls to come down,” he said. “However, there are sites along the interface walls that can be worked on. What we are going to say to people like Tom Ekin is, be sensible where you start to work on this – the place to start is to look at those sites along the interface where there is potential for regeneration, for job creation.

“People could be brought together through work and learning. A prime example of that is the former Mackies factory site which runs along the peace line.

“The first step from the Council should be to identify those potential development sites along the interface, along the divide. We want to see investment, that is where Council could take the lead and bring Invest NI onboard to put the money in, give people jobs, get people working together. That is the best place to start.

“It is much easier to advocate a strategy like this when you are not living in the area or have to deal with the consequences if you get it wrong. It’s the people who live in these streets who will face those consequences.

“I understand that a delegation from the Alliance Party have accepted an invitation to come over to Bombay Street to take a tour of the peace wall with Interaction Belfast. Good work is going on across the divide with people working under the radar on issues like housing, youth diversion and economic regeneration.

“This issue is not as simple as physically knocking down those walls. This is Bombay Street, I mean, it’s not folklore here – people’s homes here were burnt to the ground, people’s lives were destroyed. Nobody wants to live with a 50-foot wall at the bottom of their garden, but a lot of work needs to be done and I think it can be done.”

 

Distraction

Community Development worker with Interaction Belfast, Daniel Jack, says the walls are just a symptom of the underlying problems.

“There seems to be a fixation with them and sometimes that can be a distraction,” he added. “They are there for a very real reason and were built for security reasons. The issues of violence and sectarianism are the reasons why they are here – deal with those first.

“The communities that live at interfaces on a day-in-day-out basis are the ones who need to be at the heart of any discussions about whether or not peace walls should be coming down.

“It’s alright for someone that represents an area that doesn’t have an interface to put forward this motion – but they need to come into these areas, the people that live in these areas need to be central.”

Daniel said that it’s also a matter of  confidence and trust.

“The people in these areas just might not have the confidence to see these walls come down yet either. It’s about building up and maintaining that confidence,” he said.

Bombay Street resident Mary Mallon told the Andersonstown News that she believes it is “too early” to take the peace walls down.

“I’ve lived in Bombay Street all my life and I wouldn’t want the wall down. It’s alright for people to suggest it, but they don’t live in this street or area and have not come under attack,” she said.

Neighbour Patsy Canavan said she would like to see the wall built even higher.

“We would still have stones and bottles hurled over the wall at us, and while it mightn’t be the residents on the other side, it still happens regularly. We’ve had cars and windows damaged over the years and living at an interface is a life of uncertainty.”

SDLP Councillor Tim Attwood believes Belfast City Council should take the lead in developing inter-community relationships to the point where removing the walls becomes a real possibility. But for the families affected, that point is some way off, he said.

“When you listen to those individuals whose lives have been affected and who suffered and continue to do suffer at interfaces, it’s clear that those communities are not ready for the walls to come down. But what is important to remember is that ongoing conversations are being facilitated.

“I think it is right and proper that Belfast City Council tries to provide some sort of civic leadership around peace walls. It’s disappointing to hear some of the unionist parties saying because there have been attacks at interfaces it is the wrong time to even speak about bringing them down.

“The Berlin Wall is down – do we want to consign future generations of people to peace walls and lines in Belfast? I don’t think that should be our ambition.

“I think what you do need is for people to show courage and leadership and that is why the Suffolk Lenadoon Interface Group is a perfect example of what is possible when courageous people like Renee Crawford from Lenadoon and June Brown from Suffolk and others in the community say they want change.

“A new retail outlet was created at that interface as well as  joint community offices and an integrated nursery for both communities. The fact that the premises and services that are there now are accessible from both areas is proof of a genuine shared space, a space that was once contested, providing economic and social activity. Their work is a perfect example to those naysayers who turn round and say there is nothing we can do about peace walls.

“The issue of peace walls is challenging, it’s difficult. Is it going to happen tomorrow? I think the answer would be no, but we have a responsibility in Council to at least bring it into focus. The time may not be right, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be trying to talk about it and bring it out into the open.”

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