Northern Ireland: BREXIT, Borders and Barricades

For this special edition of Just Cities we have invited Robbie Gilmore to write about the spatial segregation and urban division created by walls and physical barriers in his hometown: Northern Ireland. Robbie is a Geographer from the University of Cambridge, UK. He is currently working as a consultant in Transport Strategy and Economics and he is passionate about about understanding how our built environment impacts upon wider society.

“In Belfast we built the walls, we built them big, we built them strong, with metal gates and barbed wire and great shiny sheets of steel. And trust us, you don’t want to build the wall. Trust us, you’ll come to regret it”

Robbie Gilmore

Small places make big noise

Northern Irish people are a rambunctious bunch, and for such a small place the province manages to generate a remarkable amount of political ‘noise’. Belfast is a city of approximately 300,000 people, but at various points has held the political focus of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama. Most recently, BREXIT negotiations have drawn attention to this part of the world again, reminding us that even small places can play a fundamental role in regional and even global stability.  

One of the key sticking points in the BREXIT negotiations has been the Northern Irish border. Winding its way through picture-postcard rural countryside; this border, drawn in 1921 during the partition of Ireland, became increasingly invisible and irrelevant as cross-border collaboration drew communities on opposing sides together. However, BREXIT throws all of this into doubt, as the presence of a ‘land-border’ with the EU has the potential to significantly complicate negotiations. Various solutions to this problem have been batted around in Westminster and Brussels, including the possible reinstatement of physical border posts akin to those last seen on the border in the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Belfast is doing its best to get rid of old divisions, borders and walls.

The Belfast ‘Peace Walls’ are perhaps the most notorious legacy of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Up to 25 feet high, made of bricks, steel and barbed wire, and winding through the city for 21 miles they are pretty hard to miss. These barriers were erected to keep the two sides of Belfast’s community separate from each other during the darkest days of ‘the troubles’: the ethno-religious conflict which has coloured much of 20th century life within Northern Ireland. Many of the walls started as impromptu structures thrown together with old rubble, barbed wire and whatever came to hand, but over the years have developed into increasingly permeant structures. Now there are more miles of wall in Belfast than there were separating East and West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Many of them have gates which close at 6pm to stop movement across them, effectively ‘shutting down’ large portions of the city for the night.

For many years these walls have been Belfast’s open secret; impossible to miss for anyone who visits the city but unmentioned or unmentionable beyond the bounds of the province. Now, in the years of peace which have followed the Good Friday agreement of 1998, discussion about the walls has gradually become more public, including discussions about how to bring them down. As would be imagined, these discussions have not been straightforward. The walls were originally built on the premise that they provided ‘security’ for local residents, and many still believe this to be a valid justification for keeping them. Polling conducted about the removal of the walls has shown that generally people desire their removal ‘in an ideal world’ but only when they are no longer needed for ‘safety’. For instance, in 2008 research by the US-Ireland alliance reported that 80% of people living in close proximity to a wall wanted it to be removed “when safe to do so”. Surveys by the Ulster University in 2012 and 2015 have found that there is generally a desire for the removal of the walls in the future (35% of residents living near Peace Walls would like the Peace Wall to come down some time in the future) but for now there is a broad desire for things to remain as they are (30% of residents living near Peace Walls want things left the way they are now, a majority of all those asked this question).

The question is, when is safe enough?

When will this ‘future’ arrive when the walls can be removed? The research conducted by the Ulster University shows that many people believe this future will never actually materialise; 56% of those living in the Protestant community near Peace Walls said that they could not envisage a time when there would be no walls in their area.

“You see, building walls appeals to that most primal of human emotions: fear; and assuages it with the illusion of security.”

Walls obviously do not help to solve divisions in society, they make them worse, but in the short term they give a ‘quick-fix’. The problem is that once societal divisions have started to heal, the walls remain. And unlike a healing society, the removal of a wall is not something that can happen gradually; you either bring in the wrecking ball or you don’t. In a city where it has taken the best part of a generation for a fragile peace to develop, the idea of swinging a wrecking ball anywhere seems reckless. People are rightfully unwilling to risk the imperfect but stable lives which they have managed to develop around the walls.

Why does any of this matter?

Well, in Belfast the walls were built to keep warring factions from throwing petrol bombs at each other. Some would say that is a pretty good justification for building a wall, but now, the walls have left deep, visible, geographical and sociological scars on the city, long after the petrol bombs have stopped flying.

Meanwhile, around the world there has been increasing political rhetoric about building walls. Many of the proposed walls are for ‘imagined’ boundaries such as those between the UK and the EU, or Mexico and the US; far less ‘real’ issues than people actively throwing petrol bombs at each other.

Instead of bringing down walls, we should focus on never building them up

For once though, the world would do well to listen to Northern Ireland and learn from the mistakes we have made. In Belfast we built the walls, we built them big, we built them strong, with metal gates and barbed wire and great shiny sheets of steel. And trust us, you don’t want to build the wall. Trust us, you’ll come to regret it, long after the bulldozers have gone. Trust us, it is much better to leave those divisions in your imagination, as lines on the map and discussions in the parliament. Imaginations fade, lines can be erased, and discussions are soon forgotten, but walls do not crumble quickly and knocking them back down is far more difficult than building them up. 

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