“Something There Is That Doesn’t Love a Wall:” The Peace Walls of Northern Ireland
February 9, 2018
Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”—an often anthologized poem and favorite of high school English teachers—famously asks whether “good fences make good neighbors.” Even though I haven’t read the poem in years, those words immediately came to mind while on a Black Taxi tour with my Post-Conflict Drama class last week. The driver took us through West Belfast, a community whose deep sectarian division can be seen in the menacing 18-foot high peace walls topped with barbed wire which physically separate the Catholic Republicans in the Falls Road community from the Protestant Loyalists in the Shankill. As in Frost’s poem, the wall in Belfast marks a generations-old boundary. Dating back to the late 1960s, the peace walls were originally constructed as a safety measure to prevent violence between the two warring communities; gates between the neighborhoods were closed at dusk to prevent nighttime crossover. Now, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement (which marked the end of Northern Ireland’s decades-long Troubles), the peace lines still stand.
More than 10 miles of walls have been added since 1998, the construction of which is central to the action in Shibboleth, a 2015 play I read for class by Belfast native Stacey Gregg. The title derives from the Hebrew word meaning the customs one tribe uses to set itself apart from others, and the play as a whole explores the psychological impact of sectarian segregation. In the afterword, Gregg describes how deeply embedded the walls are in the community’s psyche: “It just is,” she explains. “Running among us, exerting its force, mythically anonymous. For those in the areas most affected by conflict, everything and nothing has changed since peace.”
The media has speculated when the walls—which have stood a whopping 21 years longer than the Berlin Wall—will finally come down. The Northern Irish government promised to remove them by 2023, but that seems unlikely. Even though the majority of people believe the walls will eventually be dismantled, only 13 percent of the city wanted the barriers gone. The walls quickly became an accepted part of preserving peace; indeed, many of the gates between Catholic and Protestant communities still close daily at 6:00 p.m. Many of the North Irish students in my seminar were astonished by the lasting divide; they have experienced peace (albeit an uneasy one) their whole lives, and they said almost universally that they thought the walls should come down.
But the conversation quickly became more complicated. While the peace walls serve as a poignant reminder of the legacy of the Troubles in Belfast, they too (unsurprisingly) have become a major tourist attraction. This creates an interesting quandary for a post-conflict society. The economic impact of so-called “Troubles tourism” has provided employment and sound wages to working-class communities and helped lift the most disadvantaged areas—often those living closest to the walls—out of poverty. But the tour companies doing the hiring effectively sell the history of the Troubles; exploiting the experiences of those who lived through the conflict is part of business. On Black Taxi Tours and others like it, part of the appeal is the bias of your driver. There is no agreed-upon official history of what happened in Northern Ireland, so when you first get into the car, you don’t know what perspective you’ll get. Having compared notes across my class, I call tell you the versions are quite different.
But one must wonder whether this constant repetition of sectarian histories contributes to a stagnant peace. The fact that these walls have continued to expand decades after the ceasefire calls into question whether Belfast will ever fully move past its conflict and heal. How could it, when so much of the city is designed to wall one group in and the other out? The walls are such an imposing physical reminder that there is work yet to be done. To start, I think we must look towards resolving the tension between memory and the arguably amnesiac idea of “moving on.” Only when both sides have reached a balance between commemorating the past and yet being liberated from it do I think that the walls finally stand a chance of coming down.