Peace Lines

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Archive Tape (Good Friday Agreement):
“Good evening. A historic day at Stormont after two years of talks and after a generation of bloodshed and decades of division and acrimony, a new era of peace.”

Roman Mars:
In 1998 political leaders in Northern Ireland, signed a peace agreement. They hoped it would end the sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants who’d been fighting each other for decades.

Scott Gurian:
At the root of the conflict was the question, of whether Northern Ireland should reunite with the rest of Ireland, or whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom.

Roman Mars:
That’s Scott Gurian. He’s the creator of the “Far From Home” podcast.

Scott Gurian:
Most Catholics were nationalists, meaning they wanted to govern themselves as part of the United Ireland. Most Protestants were loyalists, also called Unionists, who felt a stronger allegiance to the British crown. Paramilitaries on both sides had carried out kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations. More than 3,000 people had died.

Roman Mars:
But the peace accord aimed to end that violence.

Archive Tape Continues (Good Friday Agreement):
“Well, I look forward equally to a new way or a friendship and reconciliation between unionists and nationalists, in which each tradition can learn truly, the value of the other.”

Roman Mars:
That was more than 20 years ago, and while the political situation in Northern Ireland is certainly better today, it’s hard to say that friendship and reconciliation are the norm. Northern Ireland remains divided, in some cases quite literally.

Ian McLaughlin:
“So on your left, you can see the wall.”

Scott Gurian:
“The big brick wall. Yeah.”

Ian McLaughlin:
“Yes. Here we have a physical interface that separates two communities. Okay?”

Scott Gurian:
This is Ian McLaughlin. He’s part of the Lower Shankill Community Association, which works to improve conditions in his neighborhood. He took me on a tour of Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital city, where he lives and works.

Ian McLaughlin:
“The wall we are at now Scott, it’s called the million brick wall, because there’s exactly a million bricks in it. You have a Protestant community on your left and you have a Catholic community on your right.”

Scott Gurian:
There are so many walls like this in Belfast, which physically separate Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones. Ian showed me short walls and tall walls. Some are more like fences that you could see through, while others are made of bricks and steel. Many have clearly been reinforced over time. A cinder block wall topped with corrugated iron topped with razor wires stretching up towards the sky.

Ian McLaughlin:
“Here, we have the Protestant community on the left, hidden behind a security wall with metal fence.”

Scott Gurian:
There’s even a wall right near Ian’s house.

Ian McLaughlin:
“So I live here.”

Scott Gurian:
“Is this where you grew up?”

Ian McLaughlin:
“Yeah.”

Scott Gurian:
“Could we perhaps get out here a moment? Is that okay?”

Scott Gurian:
It’s a tidy neighborhood of modest brick homes. Two blocks away, the street dead-ends at a combination wall and fence that’s 30 feet tall. Ian explains it’s been there ever since 1972 when he was 11 years old.

Scott Gurian:
“So do you remember when this wall went up? Like do you have clear memories of when they were building it?”

Ian McLaughlin:
“Oh yeah, yeah.”

Scott Gurian:
“What do you remember?”

Ian McLaughlin:
“Well, I remember that you had almost a 24 hour, constant, military or police presence in these streets. Because at that time, the opportunity to engage in physical violence, presented itself every day and every night, because there was no physical barrier between people. So that’s why the things were created in the first instance. It was designed to prevent physical interaction.”

Roman Mars:
In Northern Ireland, there seems to be a euphemism for everything. The walls are called peace lines. The neighborhoods they cut through are called “interface areas” and the period when many of the walls went up was a violent time in the 1970s and 80s that everybody just calls, “The Troubles”.

Scott Gurian:
Decades later, you’d think the walls would have come down, but they haven’t. Almost all of the walls remain. They cut across communities like monuments to the conflict, etched into the physical landscape. And removing them isn’t going to be easy.

Ian McLaughlin:
“It could be that perhaps at one of these barriers or structures you lost a loved one. You lost a husband or a partner, a brother, and you have never had closure for that. So that event, that happened 40 or 42 years ago, it may as well have happened four years ago for some people, because they live yesterday, every day, every day, every day, every day.”

Roman Mars:
The Irish conflict goes back hundreds of years, and it can be tough to pinpoint exactly when it began.

Scott Gurian:
But for our purposes, let’s begin this history lesson in 1922. That’s when after decades of demands for self-governance and a bloody guerrilla war, Ireland gained its independence from the UK, with its capital in Dublin. Around the same time, the Island was partitioned with six counties in the north remaining part of the United Kingdom, forming Northern Ireland.

Roman Mars:
Protestant loyalists were the majority there and they went about creating a social and political framework to make sure they remained in power. A framework, that much of the Catholic population found inherently unfair and even discriminatory.

Jonny Byrne:
You couldn’t vote if you didn’t own your own property or business, but then you couldn’t get access to business and property if you didn’t get access to money. And you couldn’t get access to money if you couldn’t get a job, and you couldn’t get a job necessarily because you were Catholic.

Roman Mars:
Johnny Byrne is a senior lecturer at Ulster University.

Jonny Byrne:
Catholics didn’t have senior positions in the civil service, for example. They didn’t have that access to further education, and they couldn’t change the system because they couldn’t vote in people from the particular background that they came from.

Scott Gurian:
Though the two groups lived close to each other, it was like they were in totally different worlds. Here’s Ian McLaughlin, again.

Ian McLaughlin:
I had sadly, no interaction whatsoever, with kids from a Catholic background. Nope.

Roman Mars:
Protestant families like Ian’s, sent their kids to the state-run schools, while Catholic children, mostly attended schools run by the church. And each group usually lived in separate neighborhoods, with people of their own kind.

Ian McLaughlin:
The communities had their own mini-infrastructures. You had your own shops, you had your own schools to go to.

Scott Gurian:
Which meant that Catholics and Protestants could live their whole lives, without really knowing anyone from the other community. This segregation meant sectarian divides just got deeper and deeper.

Ian McLaughlin:
My grandparents were very, very, militant unionists and anti-Catholic.

Scott Gurian:
Ian still remembers some of the things they used to say.

Ian McLaughlin:
You know, this is what we’re always going to have in a country, these people. We need to drive them into the sea. And I suppose the alarming thing today when I think about it, it was that they actually meant it. They physically meant it. Drive these people into the sea, you know. How can you live here with these people?

Roman Mars:
Those kinds of anti-Catholic attitudes had real and serious effects on people’s lives.

Joe O’Donnell:
Well, I remember the first job application I applied for.

Scott Gurian:
This is Joe O’Donnell. He grew up in a Catholic nationalist household, and he considered himself Irish, not British. And on that first job application he filled out, it asked for his nationality.

Joe O’Donnell:
I wrote down Irish, and my mother was reading over the job application and she says, “You better change that. You’d never get that job”. And she was right, I didn’t.

Roman Mars:
By the late 1960s, the list of Catholic grievances had gotten pretty long. Not only were they discriminated against in employment, they didn’t have equal access to public housing and gerrymandering reduced their political influence. But their demands for change were met with strong and sometimes violent loyalist resistance. So after being frustrated with the slow pace of progress, they began to protest in the streets.

Scott Gurian:
But change wouldn’t come easily to Northern Ireland. The police responded to the marches with arrests and imprisonments, which only made the protests grow larger. (sounds of protests)

Roman Mars:
Eventually, the protests turned into riots, which in turn sparked more riots. Especially in urban areas like Belfast, Catholics and Protestants lived right on top of each other, making the situation even more explosive.

Ian McLaughlin:
I can recall various incidents, as a young child.

Roman Mars:
Ian McLaughlin, remembers going to a shop with his mom.

Ian McLaughlin:
Someone came in and said, ” You have 10 minutes to get out of the shop”. As a kid, I turned around, saw two guys, balaclavas on and one of them had a gun, and the other one set a bomb on a table, and within five minutes that shop just blew up around everybody. So, I mean, killings were happening at a very rapid rate, and it was almost an everyday occurrence.

Archival Tape:
In Belfast, the British army is once again back in the old routine. Men in then in the middle keeping peace between two warring factions, but this time it’s not Aden, Cyprus or some far off colony. It is incredibly in Britain’s own backyard – Northern Ireland.

Scott Gurian:
By 1969, the British military was dispatched to Belfast to maintain order, but many people had already started taking matters into their own hands. Residents in Ian’s neighborhood of Shankill started building makeshift barricades between the two communities. They used burnt-out cars, construction debris, rubble from vacant houses and basically whatever materials they could find to protect themselves from the other side.

Roman Mars:
Finally, after a summer of unrest, Northern Ireland’s Prime Minister had, had enough. On September 9th, 1969 Major James Chichester-Clark went on television and made an announcement.

Major James Chichester-Clark:
“We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and the Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the city hall.”

Scott Gurian:
By “firm peace line” he meant that the army would dismantle the barriers the residents had built and replaced them with a more official-looking, five-foot-tall barbed wire fence. Construction began the following day.

Archival Tape:
“The army moved in to build that peace line on the site of the protestant barricade. Work proceeded smoothly.”

Roman Mars:
The Shankill peace line was meant to be a strictly temporary measure. The thinking was that the barrier would give people on both sides a chance to cool down and stop the violence. One British Army Major predicted that the fence would be gone by Christmas.

Scott Gurian:
But things didn’t go quite according to plan. Instead of being removed, that barbed wire fence was later replaced with corrugated iron sheeting that was twice as high. The army even added observation posts and floodlights.

Roman Mars:
Ten months later, the army put up a second iron wall, between two neighborhoods in North Belfast. Again insisting that it was just a temporary measure. But it turned out things were just getting started. Here is lecturer Jonny Byrne again.

Jonny Byrne:
The whole plan was to get the communities to talk, and then to start taking the walls down. But then what happened was, we normalized the policy. From 1969 onwards, our response to end violence or the threat of violence was physical segregation.

Roman Mars:
Even as the walls went up, the fighting continued. As the fighting continued, the response was to build more walls. They were an imperfect solution but Byrne thinks they probably prevented things from being even worse.

Jonny Byrne:
The reality is, and I don’t support it, but segregation works. If you’ve got two communities who live feet apart, with members of them who are threatening to kill each other, who both feel vulnerable, you both feel fearful. You’re asking the state to do something in response, then a physical wall limits the opportunities for both communities to meet each other and to engage in violence and disorder.

Scott Gurian:
Over the next two decades, the government and private landowners, constructed close to a hundred additional barriers, in communities across Northern Ireland. Ian remembers how they started sprouting up everywhere.

Ian McLaughlin:
The State didn’t publicly advertise for planning permission to erect these structures. They just went and put the structures in place. So you could have quite literally, driven down or walked down a street one day and the following, the day you went back to it, there was a structure across the street preventing you from doing the same thing.

Scott Gurian:
One wall even ran through the center of a city park in Duncairn, a formerly dangerous neighborhood of north Belfast.

Ciaran Shannon:
“As far as I know, it’s the only park certainly in Europe that has a peace fence surrounding it, sort of a segregation barrier.”

Roman Mars:
Ciaran Shannon grew up nearby in a Catholic nationalist home. The wall is made of corrugated steel and covered with graffiti, and it kind of snakes up and down this grass-covered hill.

Ciaran Shannon:
“It basically cuts the park in two. So where we’re standing this would be regarded as the Catholic Nationalist side the other side would be regarded as the Protestant Unionist side. Even though, it’s one park.”

Roman Mars:
Finally, in 1994 it seemed like all the violence and wall building might finally subside. The provisional Irish Republican Army released a statement agreeing to lay down their weapons.

News Reporter:
“A cassette of the statement was also handed over.”

IRA Ceasefire Announcement:
“We are therefore entering into a new situation, in the spirit of determination and confidence…”

Roman Mars:
They promised to shift their tactics to political negotiations. The announcement was met with a mix of skepticism, and celebration. Many people in Northern Ireland felt it was a historic development.

Scott Gurian:
Which is what makes that wall Ciaran showed me in the park, all the more remarkable. Cause there’s one thing I failed to mention.

Scott Gurian:
“You remember when this wall was put here?”

Joe O’Donnell:
“Yeah its an easy day for people to remember cause it was the first of September. 1994 was when work started on it. That date is significant because on the 31st of August 1994, the day before, was the day when the IRA announced their ceasefire.”

Roman Mars:
That’s right this wall was built after the ceasefire.

Scott Gurian:
“I guess people would hear this story and they would think that’s unusual that the ceasefire was signed and then the very next day a new wall is erected. Does that seem strange to you?”

Joe O’Donnell:
“Well, in the context of the time, it wasn’t. The bitterness between the two sides arguing was still there, it was still manifesting itself on the streets.”

Roman Mars:
A few years later in 1998 “The Troubles” officially ended with the signing of the peace agreement. But that didn’t stop even more walls and fences from going up at the interfaces between Catholic and Protestant communities the same old tensions remained. The most recent fence was built in 2013.

Scott Gurian:
Eventually, the government enacted an official policy of wall removal. They even set a target of 2023 but when you talk to people on the ground there seems to be widespread agreement that the target is completely unrealistic. And it’s not even clear if most people want the walls to come down.

Roman Mars:
One of the newer walls sits in the Whitewell neighborhood of North Belfast. It runs right through Joe Hughes’s backyard.

Scott Gurian:
Joe has been surrounded by violence for much of his life. He recalls being a kid and hiding under his bed while gunshots rang out in the streets. His family moved at one point in search of safety but the new neighborhood was even worse so after he and his wife got married they moved yet again to a new house in a new development and it seemed like finally, the situation would improve

Joe Hughes:
There was a lot to look forward to especially you know the area being newly built and being mixed.

Roman Mars:
Mixed meaning a place where people of different backgrounds lived together which was perfect since Joe’s Catholic and his wife is Protestant. Their hope was they could start over with a clean slate in an area that didn’t have the sectarian baggage of other places that they lived in the past. And they were hoping to raise their daughters in a nonpartisan environment

Joe Hughes:
We were all for that, you know, as a way forward to bring them up. We wanted them to be able to go anywhere they wanted and not be held back because of religion and bigotry and stuff which we didn’t like cause when we were brought up like that ourselves.

Scott Gurian:
But after four or five years things got bad again. It was the mid-2000s by now, years after peace had been declared but summertime violence began to flare up once more. First, Joe’s neighbor was attacked and then he says another incident hit even closer to home. It was nearly midnight, totally dark. Joe and his wife were in bed”

Joe Hughes:
Next thing we were woken by the bang and the smash of bottles. Then the brick getting fired at the windows and stuff.

Roman Mars:
Three Molotov cocktails, or petrol bombs as Joe called them, slammed into his back wall. Within minutes his house was engulfed in flames.

Joe Hughes:
That was quite frightening, so it was. People could’ve been killed or burned alive.

Scott Gurian:
Joe began to seriously question whether he and his family should leave. He had always been opposed to peace walls in the past. He says he didn’t understand them and he felt they did more harm than good but now that he had kids, he saw things differently. In the end, it was the construction of a 2 story tall mesh fence that convinced Joe and many of his neighbors that it was safe enough to stay.

Joe Hughes:
This peace wall that we have, it’s not intruding on anyone and its not ugly in any shape or form and what it does is give is peace of mind. It’s important that people do have security

Roman Mars:
Joe says almost all the people on his block supported this wall at the time it was built and the vast majority continue to support it today. Even though Joe says there hasn’t been any more violence in the 12 years since it went up, he thinks that’s precisely why it needs to remain where it is.

Joe Hughes:
The people in the street have sort of said they don’t want it taken down. They can sleep in their bed at night instead of worrying about when the next attacks coming from.

Scott Gurian:
But not everyone thinks more walls are a good idea. Just down the hill from Joe in the Whitewell neighborhood, Geraldine O’Kane is looking for ways to create a community without them. She works for an organization that’s trying to build connections between young people from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds. The whole idea she says is that it’s hard to throw a stone at a friend.

Roman Mars:
But her work has sometimes made her a target. Six years ago someone snuck into the building where she works with the kids and left an explosive device in the courtyard. A bomb disposal team got rid of it.

Geraldine O’Kane:
“Well, if the young ones had have been in on time, that door would have been opened. They’re allowed to come out here and play.”

Scott Gurian:
“Wow.”

Geraldine O’Kane:
“So they would have kicked it not knowing what it was.”

Scott Gurian:
Even as Geraldine drove me around her neighborhood, I could see that tensions from the past were still very much alive.

Geraldine O’Kane:
“On the left-hand side. As you can see, the Union Jacks.”

Scott Gurian:
“Protestant neighborhood.”

Geraldine O’Kane:
“Yeah yeah. We have two bus stops there. We have a Protestant bus stop and a Catholic bus stop.”

Scott Gurian:
“So the people, Protestants and Catholics, they would wait on separate bus stops though they would all get on the same bus, right?”

Geraldine O’Kane:
“Mm-hmm” (affirmative)

Scott Gurian:
“Wow.”

Geraldine O’Kane:
“It’s just crazy.”

Roman Mars:
Geraldine thinks that the walls in her community aren’t doing much to stop violence. After all, every wall has a start and endpoint so people who are determined can simply go around them but she argues that there’s also a larger symbolic reason for why the walls should be taken down. People how lived near peace walls in so-called interface communities actually face a stigma because of it. These communities tend to be the most economically deprived in the region.

Geraldine O’Kane:
“They judge you kind of. They go like ‘oh, you live in the interface?’, you go ‘yeah’. And there’s a difference in the way they chat to you and talk to you as well. If two kids are going for a job in Belfast, and one comes from an interface and one doesn’t, the one who doesn’t will get the job quicker than the one in the interface, even though they’ve got the same skills.”

Roman Mars:
Ultimately she says the decisions about whether the walls should stay or go need to be made by the people who live closest to them and are most directly impacted by the violence. Ian McLaughlin agrees.

Ian McLaughlin:
It can’t be a top-down approach.

Roman Mars:
He knows that in a lot of neighborhoods the idea of moving walls is unpopular but he thinks its possible if people move slowly and carefully.

Ian McLaughlin:
It has to be a process where people can come together and say, you know what guys, maybe the first step isn’t to remove that structure. Maybe the first step is to take away the metal fence.

Scott Gurian:
So in stages.

Ian McLaughlin:
And let’s see how we get along. Then you go back to the community and say “you know what, what might we do next here?” That could involve “okay, if we take off layers and layers of certain brickwork” and then you have someone say “Yeah, but what’s in it for the communities? Is there going to be a play area created for kids? Is there going to be work opportunities for young people to take part in?” All these thoughts have to come into the equation.

Scott Gurian:
Even if it’s slow, Ian wants the walls to come down eventually. He sees it as a moral imperative because there are new generations of kids growing up around these structures and he wonders what ideas they’re absorbing from them.

Ian McLaughlin:
Kids, being the most inquisitive little people, are going to say “daddy, mommy, why is that wall there?” And this community, you may well be told, that wall was put there to stop Catholics from attacking your home. And on the other side of here, a child may be told, “oh, that wall was put there to stop Protestants from attacking your home.” And what are we doing we’re creating a siege of sectarianism in kids for another generation. How it manifests itself in the generation is anybody’s guess.

Scott Gurian:
This point hit hardest for me when I visited a guy named Danny Walsh in a Catholic enclave of East Belfast called Short Strand. We stood in front of his house near a wall topped with spikes painted with grease to prevent people from climbing it. He says it’s always felt a bit gloomy knowing he can’t interact with people on the other side. But it’s the only neighborhood he’s ever known.

Scott Gurian:
“Do you like living here?”

Danny Walsh:
“Yeah. A hundred percent. Like I said I was born on this street and I’ve known nowhere else, so… Good neighbors, friendly community.”

Scott Gurian:
“You have kids, right?”

Danny Walsh:
“I have 2 boys, yeah.”

Scott Gurian:
“How old are they?”

Danny Walsh:
“One is three and one is coming two.”

Scott Gurian:
“Do you have any fears of raising them in this neighborhood?”

Danny Walsh:
“You can hear kids playing football in the background just behind you and there.”

Scott Gurian:
“Hold on, sorry.” (laughing) “And there’s ice cream trucks… like any other neighborhood. There just happens to be a big brick wall with a fence – 30 feet high or whatever that is – across the street from you. But, um, life goes on.”

Danny Walsh:
“That’s it. Yeah.”

Scott Gurian:
I was struck by just how ordinary the whole situation seemed. Until Danny pointed out that this ice cream truck never crosses over the other side of the wall. It’s the Catholic truck. The Protestants have their own.

Danny Walsh:
“Life goes on in two different worlds so they have their own ice cream truck and we have ours simply because he’s known in this area and they have their own on the other side of the wall too. It’s a really strange thing.”

Credits

Production

Reporter Scott Gurian spoke with Ian McLaughlin, Community Development Officer at the Lower Shankill Community Association; Jonny Byrne, Senior Lecturer in Criminology and Social Policy at Ulster University; Joe O’Donnell, Director at the Belfast Interface Project; Ciaran Shannon, Head of Policy and Good Relations at the Duncairn Community Partnership; Joe Hughes, resident of the Whitewell neighborhood; Geraldine O’Kane, Chair of Greater Whitewell Community Surgery; Danny Walsh, lifelong resident of Belfast’s Short Strand neighborhood. This episode was edited by Delaney Hall.

Special thanks to Monina O’Prey at the International Fund for Ireland; and Don Duncan and Marcus Hunter-Neill for production assistance.

Comments (6)

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  1. Scott Petrovits

    Another fascinating episode. Brexit continues to be the worst idea right-wing pensioners ever came up with. Always disappointing how much hatred and strife is caused by people arguing over their imaginary friends.

    1. Mark Robinson

      I am a centralist young adult with a postgrad education and support Brexit. Nice try though making it about the ‘old right’.

  2. Mark Robinson

    This is a very good brief listen to the Belfast problem. Last week I was on an ‘Urban Planning summer scheme’ here in belfast and ‘interfaces’ were our focal point. It was interesting listening to these issue as heard by and outsider and the view on Belfast. These issues though are not belfast centric and widely cover all of the country. The ‘peace lines’ are the physical, but here in Northern Ireland when you go into the rural areas you move into the ‘invisible’ lines. In fermanagh it turns into what village do are you from, where in a town are you from, what school, what doctors, dentists or shops. It truly becomes invisible.
    You stated in the podcast ‘we all look the same’ and to outsiders this is correct. However when you live here and you have a keen eye you can tell roughly what background someone is by the way they look or dress, this again is when it turns invisible. It even goes into dating apps, facebook pages and instagram posts.

  3. Joe Magee

    A fantastic episode, bad this is coming from someone who was born and bred in Northern Ireland only 20 miles from Belfast. This does a great job of explaining the extremely complex situation here. This stuff is taught in almost every school here. I myself was on a “field trip” to the peace walls were each person was allowed to write an open message on the wall.
    Anyways fantastic episode from a fantastic podcast.

  4. Kat

    Very good episode! It was a bit bizarre listening to this while walking home from work in Belfast city centre, looking around and seeing the areas that are being spoken about. Often reporting about Northern Ireland can feel patronising (“why can’t those people get along?!”) and forget or decide to not include the voices from our community, so thank you for including Belfast voices, who represented us proudly, in your piece.

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