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Belfast's walls from the Troubles are set to come down, but locals want them to stay

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Twenty-five years after the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland, Belfast still bears the scars of decades of sectarian violence. So-called peace walls are barriers built to keep Catholic and Protestant communities apart. NPR's Fatima Al-Kassab reports from the still-divided city.

GORDON MCDADE: So this is a lower part of the peace wall here. You can see the barbed wire.

FATIMA AL-KASSAB, BYLINE: Gordon McDade is showing me around the garden of a youth center he runs in Belfast. The center straddles the local Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with a peace wall that runs right through the garden.

CARTER GIBSON: So I just live right across the peace wall to the left.

CRYSTAL MCCANN: And then I would live on the right side of the peace wall.

AL-KASSAB: Carter Gibson (ph) and Crystal McCann (ph) grew up around the corner from each other on either side of the wall. Crystal lives on the predominantly Catholic side and Carter on the predominantly Protestant side. The teenagers say they would have never crossed paths if they hadn't joined this youth club. The peace wall still divides their communities.

CARTER: If that wasn't there, we could literally walk to each other's house without a worry.

AL-KASSAB: They come here to make friends with young people from the other side of the wall without having to worry about being judged.

CRYSTAL: I think that people just have this sort of image of, like, Catholics and Protestants, there just being, like, constant fighting between them.

AL-KASSAB: The first walls were constructed by the British army in 1969 as a military response to sectarian violence. More of these barriers have been erected around the city since - official and unofficial ones. Politicians in Northern Ireland set the target date of 2023 - this year - for all the walls to come down. But a quarter century after the Good Friday peace agreement, there are actually now more of them than ever before.

PAUL CRAWFORD: Our streets were the trenches.

AL-KASSAB: Paul Crawford's father was killed in the conflict known as the Troubles. He campaigns for victims' rights, and he lives in the predominantly Catholic west Belfast. He wants the walls to stay put as a sort of war memorial.

CRAWFORD: The soldiers have gone home. There is relative peace. But we still live where we lived.

AL-KASSAB: And in recent years, these walls have even become a tourist destination for people wanting to learn about the city's history. The walls not only shaped the urban landscape, says Garrett Carr from Queen's University, Belfast. They also shape people's mindset.

GARRETT CARR: So it's part of the psyche, really. It takes time to get over that. Once you start taking into account inherited traumas, you probably shouldn't be in too big a hurry to take down people's walls. They may rely on them.

AL-KASSAB: And for many locals, they still provide an important sense of security.

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CREAKING)

AL-KASSAB: Many of Belfast's peace walls have gates within them. Officials from Northern Ireland's Department of Justice lock the gates every night to prevent any clashes.

JACK MCKEE: It's not when the gates are closed that people are locked in; they can't get out anywhere. It's just that they're separated from each other.

AL-KASSAB: Pastor Jack McKee leads the New Life City Church, which sits in a no man's land between two of these gates. He's petitioned for them to stay open later and later into the night - baby steps, he says, towards removing the barriers altogether.

MCKEE: They've shifted it now from 6:30 to 7:30. Now, within a few months time, they've promised they're going to keep them open to 8:30 and then to 9:30. So they're doing it in stages in the hope that no one notices.

AL-KASSAB: Crystal and Carter say it would make their lives easier if the gates didn't close at night. But they understand why some people are hesitant to get rid of them.

CRYSTAL: At the minute, people are just scared because there are still sometimes riots that happen from - like, through the gate. But I also think that having them open would kickstart a really big change in our community.

CARTER: I would love for them to be open, but I also, like, understand why they're there. But, like, if we can do it, if we can come to this club without a problem or anyone else judging us, like, why can't everyone else?

AL-KASSAB: For now, the walls still stand and the gates continue to close...

(SOUNDBITE OF GATE CREAKING)

AL-KASSAB: ...If a little later, every night. Fatima Al-Kassab, NPR News, Belfast.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Fatima Al-Kassab