Peace walls: ‘a temporary measure’

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2009), Troubles in Northern Ireland, Volume 17

1Residential and territorial segregation have been accepted realities for many Catholic and Protestant working-class communities in Belfast since the seventeenth century. It wasn’t until the summer of 1935, however, that the first physical barrier was built to provide social distancing and separation. The British Army, in response to increased sectarian rioting, constructed a temporary barrier in the Sailortown area of the city. In the late 1960s the next chapter of history was revealed through the development of permanent physical lines of community demarcation within Belfast.
In response to an increase in communal tensions, violence and rioting, both loyalist and nationalist communities established their own mechanisms to provide safety and security within their respective neighbourhoods. These for the most part consisted of local community and vigilante groups, along with the construction of barricades that formed the basis of the ‘no go’ areas. These barricades usually consisted of burnt-out cars and furniture and rubble from derelict houses; they were a particular irritation and visible reminder to the Stormont government that they had no control as regards law and order within significant parts of the city. They were also a challenge to the authority of the British Army and illustrated the limited control of territory they had within Belfast.
In August 1969 the British Army, after taking control of security, indicated that they would replace the existing community barricades with their own types of security architecture, which became known as ‘peace’ walls. The most infamous was constructed along Cupar Way, separating the loyalist Shankill from the nationalist Falls Road. At the time, a British Army representative stated that ‘this was a temporary measure, and that we did not want another Berlin Wall type situation’. Ironically, 2009 will be the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, yet this peace wall has been increased and strengthened on numerous occasions.
The peace walls were seen as a short-term response to the increase in sectarian tensions and incidents of inter-community rioting. Initially, they consisted of barbed wire and corrugated fencing placed between derelict houses that separated loyalist and nationalist neighbourhoods. They were designed to be easily and quickly removed upon the ending of hostilities between the two communities. As the years passed, however, and ethnic and religious differences became entrenched within both communities, the peace walls gained a more permanent status. Increasingly they were upgraded with durability in mind, and this was reflected in the use of brick, concrete, iron railings and open wire mesh. They have also been constructed to blend into the environment and in effect become part of the local topography.
There are approximately 80 peace walls and security barriers within the city today. These permanent lines of community demarcation have facilitated the increased residential division, with 98% of social housing within Belfast segregated along religious lines.

Jonathon Byrne is a Ph.D researcher in history at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown.1

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