Last year, I saw a famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But that was in Palestine. Last week, I saw another famous wall – one I’d never heard of before, one I knew nothing about. But it was in Northern Ireland. Shame on me.
At the end of last year, there were 99 barriers dividing nationalist and loyalist communities in Belfast. They take various shapes and sizes: 35 are metal fencing; 23 are a mix of solid wall and metal above; 14 involve fencing and vegetation; 12 are where roads are closed to vehicles and allow pedestrian access only; 8 are wall walls; and 7 are roads with gates that are closed at times. Some like the one pictured above (Cupar Way) are now famous. Built it 1969, this 4.5 m concrete wall is topped by 3 m of metal sheeting and 6 m of mesh fence and runs for about 800 m. It separates loyalist Shankhill Road from the nationalist Springfield area. The walls started to go up in the late 1960s when the Troubles kicked off. This, in a weird, unpalatable way, is understandable. In separating the Catholic and Protestant factions, they offered something in the way of security. But more have gone up since the 1994 Good Friday Agreement and some are still being added to today, despite talks of bringing them down. Since 2008, three new ones have gone up, two more have been fortified, and three have come down. And yes, people are keeping track.
The majority are owned by the Department of Justice (58). Some are owned by the NI Housing Executive (18). Some are even thought to be privately owned (6) with three belonging to the Department for Regional Development. Six go unclaimed and other organisations own one or two. When I read this, I was surprised. I’d never before given much thought to who owns these types of barriers, or thought of them in terms of maintenance.
Though many of the walls now have gates that open during the day, I can see where ‘going the long way around’ takes on a whole new meaning in the city. Mind you, given what the walls separate, perhaps no one really wants to get to the other side in a hurry. The Observer ran a piece in 2012 that is worth a read.
Names like Dali Lama and Bill Clinton feature, too, alongside their various words of wisdom. People are encouraged to add their messages and some of the Black Cabs carry markers in case you’re not packing your own. Yet even here the message is mixed. And perhaps this same mixed message exists when it comes to discussions about whether or not these walls should come down. When you live with what’s known locally as a Belfast conservatory, the thoughts of leaving your backyard open to whatever every might be flung over from the other side would probably be enough to vote to keep them in place.
At the bottom of the Falls Road, there’s another wall – an International Peace Wall. This series of murals speaks to conflicts in other parts of the world and at home, too. It was here, that just last month, a newly painted mural depicting Gerry Adams as a ‘peacemaker, a leader, and a visionary’ was paint bombed and subsequently replaced by one ‘supporting a campaign for an independent review into the killing of 11 civilians by the Parachute Regiment in the Ballymurphy area of west Belfast in 1971’.
It’s said that at one stage in Belfast there were more Israeli and Palestinian flags flying than there were Union Jacks and Tricolors (read nothing into the parallel order here as I’m undecided as to which side would support which, but given the welcome I received in Palestine, I’d harbor a guess at it being right). It seems that divides across the world gravitate towards each other in some sort of global solidarity.
The more I saw, the more I wondered whether people living locally actually see these walls any more? Or is their attention focused on them by the band of black cabs that pull up alongside disgorging camera-toting tourists eager to digitalise what for many might well be seen as a type of romanticised violence. As one of the aforementioned CTTs, I opted to stay in the cab and listen to what my cabbie had to say (more on that later).
I’m often chastened but never surprised by how little I know. Or perhaps I did know at one stage but have chosen to forget. Yet as our cabbie explained the murals, I felt a tad ashamed of my ignorance. Particularly as Michael Stone has been in the news lately, too. His one-man attack on an IRA funeral killing four and leaving 50 others injured made the world news in 1988 as it was captured live on video. He was released as part of the Good Friday agreement in 2000, but a second attempt on the lives of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in 2006 sent him back inside.
There is so much about Northern Ireland that I don’t understand. So much history that I think had to be lived through to be really understood. Although things might have gotten better in recent years, the divide is still there, still visible. And while some might hold out hope that terrorism might be replaced by tourism, I wonder.