Many of the interfaces between segregated working-class neighborhoods are still marked by peace lines- an ironic term for physical barriers built between many Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in order to allow each side a sense of safety or security from their enemies. These peace lines have outlived the Berlin Wall, and one can easily tour them on google maps.
In his book, Belfast Diary, John Conroy shares a narrative on the tricky nature of these borders (I highly recommend this book if you’re interested at all in learning more about the Troubles). He tells the story of the wall that separates Clonard, a Catholic neighborhood, from Shankill, a Protestant neighborhood. Along the peace line on Cupar Street in Shankill was a series of abandoned row houses ( Conroy 112). Every roof had caved in, the windows and doors were filled with cement, and it would have made sense to knock them down, right? The answer was definitely not that simple.
Richmond Stokes, the architect assigned to Shankill, felt that something needed to be done about the empty shells (Conroy 113). He proposed knocking them down and creating an open, green area. Many people, however, feared that a green would just become a shooting or stone-throwing arena offering more opportunities people of both religions to attack each other. Informal barricades would likely probably be put up like before and people would flee from the next row of homes in from the border, and then those houses would deteriorate. Others thought the homes should be bulldozed and replaced with a brick wall. The architect put together a proposal for a 20-ft brick wall topped with a 4-ft fence. This, however, would take a lot of money, work and maintenance, and it additionally would symbolize the failure of the Northern Irish state. These decrepit homes presented quite the conundrum, and it seemed simplest to leave them standing.
Some comments collected by Conroy on the dilemma of a wall:
” ‘One argument against putting up a permanent wall,’ says McDonald [a Department of Environment Official], ‘is that it is far easier to put them up than it is to take them down…. By and large, it looks like we have built a psychological barrier, and it’s the psychological barrier which is hard to take away.’ (Conroy 117)
” ‘The wall is a monument to back bigotry and sectarianism,’ he [David Thompson, Stokes’ co-worker in the redevelopment project] says, ‘And it reinforces the myths, the stereotypes, and powers of bigotry. It is proof to us that civilization is a great veneer. And where that veneer is ripped off, and those powers of destruction surface, you need that bloody wall.’ ” (Conroy 117)
So what did happen to the empty homes on Cupar? I am still trying to figure it out. It seems that they built a large wall, and actually renamed part of Cupar to Cepar. It looks something like this today:
So how could these spaces be used today? Do people still feel safer with the walls? Was McDonald correct in that they are easier to put up than to take down? Or could they be replaced with public space? Would that sort of public space be used or would it become dead space? Are the walls today sort of like those dead shells on Cupar Street- simplest to just let them be?
Also, a news update: This past Saturday, Loyalist paramilitary groups announced historic acts of weapon decommissioning. For more info, see the BBC News: news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8121842.stm
*Conroy, John. Belfast Diary. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987, 1995.