Belfast, the city of border-walls between neighbors

by Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou

Here, the rosy brick houses are separated by clusters of concrete, with railings and sheet steel. The neighbors do not cross paths, or infrequently. Sometimes, projectiles fly over the fences and land in gardens. To remind the residents of Belfast of the existence of dormant barriers, ready to flare up at any given moment. As if they lived in the schisms made by of a(n) (inter)national conflict, transposed to the scale of the Northern Ireland city. Particularly violent at the end of the 1960s, this political, territorial, social, ethnic and denominational conflict brought into conflict the Catholic communities rejecting the British presence in Ulster (Northern Ireland), and those Protestants claiming their solidarity with the United Kingdom. Almost 50 years after the construction of the first “Peace Walls,” the length of Cupar Way, between the communities of Shankill and of Falls Road, the walls have continued to be mounted everywhere, in a disorganized manner. Segregation has been normalized, and Belfast has rapidly stopped knowing how to function without its walls.

The history of these peace lines is not recent, and has been written in a political context that has been both brutal and conflicting for many centuries. Resting on the question of the division/inclusion of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdom, the dispute brought into conflict the republicans and the nationalists, favorable to the reunification of Ireland, with the unionists and loyalists, who wish to remain attached to the United Kingdom. In addition, the first group are predominantly Catholics, and the second are predominantly Protestant. These different religious denominations, identities, and political beliefs have fed a mutual hatred, notably in the zones of interaction between the two communities.

Bomb threats, checkpoints, shootings, murders… the conflict took a lethal turn in the summer of 1969, on the premises of the Troubles. That year in particular, paramilitary groups erected walls in the city of Belfast. Riots broke out in many cities. In the face of these uprisings, which one could qualify either as “guerilla,” or as a “civil war,” the British Army was deployed, and the first wall was built at the beginning of September under the command of Officer Ian Freeland. At the urging of the military, public or private, the barricades of the Troubles were transformed into border walls which could reach up to six meters in height.

The official justification for these walls: Separate the neighborhoods of the two communities, in this way quickly limit the urban violence. Except that the constructions that were supposed to temporarily serve in maintaining the order were never destroyed. The barriers stayed, were heightened, and were even multiplied, most notably after the signing of the Good Friday Peace Accord in 1998. If one could count little over a dozen in the 90s, nowadays almost 100 walls have disfigured the city, according to the Belfast Interface Project. Segmented and disparate, depending on the area, these walls mounted in Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Portadown and Lurgan, have become a tool that is almost systematic to order the conflict. And this, in spite of their relative efficiency: The violence did not stop after their construction, and almost 3,500 people have died from the Troubles between 1969 and 1998.

Today, Belfast remains a city fractured and fenced off, marked by a strong segregation of space, community and economy. Its violent urban planning has perpetuated the tensions between the communities, feeding dogmatism notably amongst the young generations. And while barriers continue to be more profoundly entrenched between neighbors, the inhabitants of Belfast still have difficulty looking ahead to 2023, the date in which the government of Northern Ireland has made a commitment to bring down all the peace walls.

Peace lines, walls of hate

by Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou

Every year, Belfast catches fire throughout the night of the 11th to the 12th of July. One can see from the heights of the city the columns of flame and smoke rising from about forty hot spots. The odor of burning rubber stings the throat. In a sort of festive frenzy, the Protestant communities gather around the bonfires, towers of Babel constituted of wooden pallets and tires, to commemorate the victory of Guillaume III of Orange against the Catholic King Jacques II in 1690. In the fires, some place Irish flags, Catholic symbols, posters showing political representatives, or known republican and nationalist figures. A party for some, a demonstration of hatred for others, these bonfires show the extreme polarization of the Northern Ireland society. And while the government is engaged in destroying the walls which divide the Protestant and Catholic districts before 2023, a resistance to dialogue continues in the interactions where the communities the least represented fear for their safety, and share only the sentiment of losing out.

Today, integrated in the urban landscape, the walls of Belfast confer a feeling of stability and security in the neighborhoods that have been historically violent, in spite of the peace that is relatively well established. But the challenge of the walls is equally economic and demographic. Dividing the communities that are poor and underrepresented, the walls have prevented a mixing of social classes, and have perpetuated a form of religious stability, for which notably, the declining Protestant population pays the price.

The walls, nevertheless, are not just the work of one generation. The youth of Belfast have been particularly marked by the conflict that first traumatized their parents and grandparents at the end of the 1960s. The younger ones, born in the years 2000, have only known a city that is fractured, and where one does not mix. Those having grown up in the interfaces have even often developed a strong community and residential identity. What is more, the almost exclusively denominational education system (only 6 % of the Northern-Ireland pupils attend a mixed school) reproduces a feeling of belonging to its community, and rejection of that of their neighbor.

Many scenes of violence led by the interaction of scholastic establishments have legitimized the building of strengthened surrounding walls, and produced narratives that justify the historic separation. This was the case in 2001, when the Catholic school for girls of the Holy Cross situated in the district of Ardoyne was the object of repeated attacks. The images from this time show the families assaulted, escorted by riot control police. Rocked by these experiences, the youth of Belfast have internalized their familial and communal fears, to the extent that they do not know any longer how to do otherwise but build walls in the hope of peace.

In 2013, fifteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, the government of Northern-Ireland made a pledge to destroy all the community’s walls before 2023. In spite of this, whether or not most of the political parties are in favor of the peace process, this commitment is far from achieving unanimity within the barricaded districts. According to a study of the University of Ulster completed in 2015, near a third of the Northern-Irish who have a peace wall near them would like things to stay as they are. If given the choice to decide whether the wall of their district should be destroyed immediately (approved by 49 % of people asked) or at some point in the future, their certainty decreases at the approach of the term of 2023 (it was indeed 59 % who wanted this in 2012). This form of resistance to change expresses strongly that the collective impression is that the movement of demolition of walls is now imposed from the exterior. That the peace lines have been normalized, and maintained the Northern-Ireland conflicts. At the least, they have physically marked the end of the dialogue between the communities, and concretized a binary vision of “Us” against “them.”

This does not stop many organizations from mobilizing themselves for the calming of tensions between communities. Notably, the Belfast Interface Project has been at work since 1995 to reinforce the ties amongst the Northern-Irish, their actions targeting particularly the youth who are taking part in communal and transgenerational rivalries. Other initiatives search to build peace in urban spaces by opening peace gates, doors permitting others to cross the enclosed neighborhoods. This has been the case since 2011 at the Alexandra municipal park, divided in two since the cease-fire of 1994. Symbols of openness and transition, these peace gates, open for a few hours each day, partially re-establish the freedom to move through the neighborhoods, witness to a process of peace that is fragile, but encouraging.

In Belfast, the cars full of tourists stop more and more regularly alongside the murals and frescoes that tell the moving past of the city. The memorial places of the Troubles, the peace lines are in any case not just a tourist attraction. Far from being obsolete, they continue to separate physically the Protestant and Catholic communities of North Ireland. Should a political or associative movement make a commitment to bring them down, it would be necessary first to demolish the psychological barriers which normalize this division, and hinder the process of transition towards peace.


Zoé Barry and Josselyn Guillarmou are two young researchers associated with the research team for Studies on Borders and Migrations of the Raoul Dandurand Chair of Strategic and Diplomatic Studies (UQÀM). Within the framework of their research, they notably went at the American-Mexican border, as well as in the Migrant Service Centers in France. They have been working on the border walls with Professor Elisabeth Vallet, and are in collaboration with large international media channels (The Washington Post, The Economist, Nouveau Projet, Radio-Canada…).