Kevin — Belfast separation fences divide, but slow violence

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Haaretz September 5, 2003
Belfast separation fences divide, but slow violence
By Sharon Sadeh
BELFAST, Ireland – A group of children and a
bricklayer are standing at the bottom of Glenbryn
Park, a street in Northern Belfast. Some adults
gathered near them throw suspicious glances in all
directions. Everywhere you look, there is neglect.
Abandoned houses lacking walls and windows line
the streets. Some are total lost causes – in these
cases, the only thing left of a house is its
skeletal frame. In the past, these dilapidated
structures were home to Protestant families. But
the families fled the area in the 60s and 70s,
when Northern Ireland’s violent dispute reached
its bloodiest peak. At the time, terror strikes,
assassinations and house burnings were routine.
The children, on summer vacation, energetically
knock down walls and pull bricks out of them,
producing a new item, in a modified mortar and pestle
process known in local slang as “Belfast Bricks.”
Materials from the torn-down houses are modified
and sold for a few pounds to enterprising contractors.
These builders turn up suddenly in pickup trucks, and
vanish asfast as they come.
Suddenly, the kids stop working. One of them
points at this Haaretz writer, after having
seen a camera flash. “Don’t go over there,”
says the worried taxi driver, Jerry Holden, who
accompanied me on my visit to the city. “They
might attack you – they don’t like journalists.”
The cab driver, a Catholic who prefers to ignore
local politics, begs me to get back in the cab.
I do so, and we drive away.
This scene transpired in Belfast’s Ardoyne area,
a notorious battlefield in which Protestants
and Catholics who live side by side fight out
their grievances.
Ardoyne Street typifies the dispute. On the
southern end of the street, which is home to
Catholics who support the expulsion of British
authorities, flags of Ireland proudly fly. On
the other side of the street there is a row of
Protestant houses, some of them decorated by
flags of the Protestant Orangemen, who are
loyal to the British.
Two years ago, this tense, emotion-fraught area
captured worldwide attention when parents from
a local Catholic school, Holy Cross, needed
army and police protection as they walked with
their children along Ardoyne Street. Since
then, tempers have calmed, yet hatred lingers.
Members of both sides, Catholic and Protestant,
found one common enemy – the media. To say that
journalists are not welcome here would be an
Signs of Protestant-Catholic enmity are to be
found everywhere. Iron bars line the fronts of
houses, to protect them from Molotov cocktails
and other projectiles. Some local residents
have sealed up windows on the front of their
homes. Violence can be sparked by the slightest
pretext. “A rumor about how some youth took a
few punches from someone on the other side is
enough,” Holden says. “He brings his friends,
and they bring their friends, and that’s enough
to set the whole area alight.”
This volatile situation forced the British
government to erect a separation fence between
Catholic and Protestant houses in the area. The
origins of such walls, which block off areas of
violent friction in Belfast, are to be found in
the 1970s during the period known as “The
Troubles.” Since then, the fences have become a
poignant symbol of Belfast, past and present.
Good fences make good neighbors
Belfast Lord Mayor, Councillor Martin Morgan,
from the moderate, pro-peace Catholic SDLP
party, explains that the fences were originally
intended as temporary stopgap measures. “Like
many other things,” he says, they became
permanent fixtures.
“All the walls we built were there for a short
period of time,” he says, but “some of them are
now 30 years old, and there is no sign that
they will ever come down.”
Morgan, 36, a social worker by training, was
born and raised in Belfast, and knows the
city’s strife-torn sections like the back of
his hand.
The separation fences, some of which tower 12
meters in height, carry the Orwellian name
“Peace Line.” The British decided that they are
a worthy security item. As years passed by,
most of the walls were raised at such heights
to ensure that young people can’t use them as
platforms to throw Molotov cocktails.
Put together out of bricks and other materials,
the walls have multiplied over the years –
until the early 1990s, there were 18 separation
fences in Belfast, while today there are 40. On
average, each fence is some 500 meters in
length. Security authorities give orders to
close the fences’ gates at night to ensure
people don’t cross from one side to the other;
in emergencies, the gates can be opened to
allow ambulances and other vehicles to pass through.
“The language I always use,” regarding the
walls, is “regrettable, but understandable and
necessary,” says Morgan. The mayor is quick to
admit that the walls are far from a perfect
solution. “First, they [the walls] don’t
guarantee peace, because … a terrorist can
get into a car and drive through the walls, and
they do so. And how high do you build the wall,
to block things from being thrown over?”
Despite these shortcomings, the Belfast mayor
believes the walls have made a significant
contribution toward keeping peace. In Morgan’s
view, the separation walls serve a dual
purpose: they impede terrorists’ movements and
thus stave off attacks, and they also reduce
the city’s manpower load. “Instead of sending
dozens of policemen and army personnel,” Morgan
explains, “we close the gates and have two
policemen patrol the area.” He adds: “The
structure itself is maybe 400-500 meters. It
costs 200,000 pounds, paid by the British
government, and has a gate in the middle, and
it requires only two police officers to open
the gate. It is locked at night, and if there’s
an incident during the day the police come and
lock it. They send two police officers, so
right away they save dozens of police officers
from attending, and so these dozens of police
officers can be redirected to do other
assignments. In terms of human resources, the
fences save a lot of money and resources.”
As Morgan sees it, comparisons can’t be drawn
between Belfast’s walls and the separation
fence which Israel is erecting in the West
Bank. “I’ve seen pictures of the wall which
Israel is building,” he says, “but it’s not the
same situation in Northern Ireland and Belfast.
Most of the walls [here] literally separate
houses; the wall goes into the back garden of
each community – so, quite literally, it
divides Protestants and Catholics.” Hatred runs
so deep on his city’s streets, the Belfast
mayor adds, that there have been cases of
drunks who were beaten almost to death after
having taken a wrong turn on the wrong street.
“The sad fact of life is that we still need
fences in Belfast because sectarianism has
always been rife,” the mayor concludes.
“This wall doesn’t bother us at all. We’ve
gotten used to it,” says Annie Patten, a devout
Protestant who has the word “shalom” written in
Hebrew above her front door. Annie and her
husband Jimmy are both retired, and two years
ago they moved to Kirk Street in Northern
Belfast, after being forced out of their home
at Lower Shankill Estate, an area known as a
stronghold for the extremist Protestant
organization, the UDA (Ulster Defense
Association). The couple visited Jerusalem and
Bethlehem three years ago (“when it was still
safe to visit your country”), and since then
they have a soft spot for Israel. Inside their
house they have framed quotations from the
prophets, and the New Testament.
A 10-foot-high separation fence runs through
their backyard, blocking any view of happenings
on the parallel Catholic street. The couple’s
neighbor, Sam Spence, a former taxi driver who
lost a leg a few months ago due to a disease,
also displays a positive, while at the same
time pessimistic, attitude toward the fence.
“There will never be peace with the Catholics,”
he says. “So at least this wall helps.”
Enclaves of poverty
Spence, 39, views the wall as though it is a
fact of nature, or perhaps a writ sent down by
God. “This wall was standing here when I moved
in to live here four years ago,” he says. “As
far as I’m concerned, this is like the Berlin
Wall: I don’t see or hear the other side, and I
certainly don’t cross on to their street.” As
he sees it, the higher the fence, the better.
And the wall, he predicts, is probably there to stay.
Mulling over this prediction, Spence has second
thoughts. Though, he says, the wall will
probably still be around when he dies, he hopes
to live to see it toppled by a new era of
reconciliation. “In the end, we’ll need to live
together, as one people,” says the retired cab
driver. This sentiment, he explains, is
harbored by 90 percent of Belfast’s residents,
though few will admit to sharing this hope of
The “Good Friday” peace accord, signed in April
1998, did not address the separation walls. But
the agreement helped lower violence levels in
Belfast, and Northern Ireland as a whole.
During 30 years of fighting, 3,352 people were
killed, 302 of which were security personnel.
The bloodshed reached its pinnacle in 1972,
when 470 people were killed. In 1998, the year
the agreement was signed, 55 people were
killed; in 2002 there were only six fatalities.
So far, seven people have been killed in 2003.
As violence has abated, the quality of life has
risen. Official statistics hold that current
annual growth rates in Northern Ireland are 2
percent. Unemployment has fallen from 8 percent
in 1998 to less than 6 percent today.
Particularly noticeable areas of growth are
recreation and tourism; in these areas, the
situation in central Belfast has improved
markedly. Five years ago, you couldn’t get a
cup of espresso in town. Today, Belfast has
flourishing hotels, restaurants and coffee
houses, and offers organized tours to the
separation fences to tourists flocking to the area.
Morgan accounts for his city’s revival: “There
were times in Belfast city center, just
opposite the main city hall, in the main
shopping area, when you were stopped and
physically searched before you entered; and,
literally, there was gridlock. Body-searches
were conducted – people even had to show what
they had in their pockets – to make sure people
were not carrying bombs. No cars were allowed
to the city center, and buses were searched.
Bus searches were routinely done: a security
officer would board the bus, and walked up and
down the aisle, to see whether there was
anything suspicious about it.
“Now we’ve moved away from all that. If you go
to the city center there is no evidence of what
was then.”
But these fruits of peace are felt mainly within
Belfast’s middle and upper classes. The city is
still pockmarked by enclaves of poverty. In
areas such as Lower Shankill Estate, and also
Springfield Road, unemployment rates are as
high as 40 percent.
Walled off, Catholic from Protestant, areas such
as the Ardoyne area have unbearably high
unemployment rates. In such locales, a shocking
88 percent of Catholic children live below the
poverty line. The figure for Protestant
children is an almost-as-dismal 77 percent.
Despite the peace agreement and efforts in
reconciliation and mutual improvement, blatant
disparities between the populations linger.
Twice as many Catholics, for instance, belong
are unemployed.
The poverty shows that no matter how many fences
are put up, there is still much work to be done
to overcome the devastation of years of conflict.