Belfast’s peace walls, the Troubles’ physical legacy, are starting to fall

BELFAST — In a city of walls, I found myself looking through a skylight. The day had been gray and rainy, but now light streamed through, illuminating the stairwell and the Irish Rugby poster that proclaimed, “Belief or Nothing.” The window was set into the slanted roof of a building on the north side of the city, an area that saw the worst of the Troubles’ violence. The architecture here acts as a reminder of the city’s bleak history and its remaining tensions, and the sunlight also shone on the grate of metal bars reinforcing the window.

Sean Oliver came up the stairs. We were meeting to talk about peace walls, the barriers that crisscross parts of the city, informally dividing it into patchwork communities defined by their political leanings. To outsiders, that often translates to the religious identities associated with those leanings: nationalists and republicans — Catholics, as most Americans think of them — on one side; unionists and loyalists — Protestants — on the other.
The earliest walls sprang up around the dawn of the Troubles, when riots and fear demanded a quick provision of safety or the sense of it. They appeared throughout the next four decades, cutting through some of the city’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods. Most still loom over the city, the physical legacy of its explosive past.
But in the 2010s, a movement to bridge the gaps between neighboring, once-warring communities has taken hold, leading to changes in the barriers. Projects across the city have made walls smaller, installed gates in them and obscured them with landscaping. Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, Belfast has just reached a point where a few walls have come down entirely.
“They’ve been there so long, people are just used to them,” said Oliver, who works with the North Belfast Interface Network. That group works with others — staffed by organizers and activists from varying political backgrounds — under the banner of Twaddell Ardoyne Shankill Communities in Transition, named for the neighborhoods they focus on. The project grew out of a grassroots effort to quell outbursts that flared up around peace walls even after the armed conflict officially ended: Violence would break out, and an activist on one side might call one on the other and ask if they could try to calm the culprits.
Those mini-conflicts are rarer now, and the work has moved toward bridging communities, but the work is more complex than finding common ground between neighbors who may live just a few yards apart. Unemployment, drug use and lack of healthcare plague many of the communities. The young nationalist population is growing — and in need of housing — as the aging loyalist population decreases, but the idea that nationalists could move into loyalist districts and flip the political balance has stirred anxieties.
“There’s all sorts of dynamics that are kind of unseen,” Oliver said. “There would be political forces that would be happy enough for the walls to stay up.”
And for people who live in the shadows of the walls — most of whom have lived there their whole lives, many of whom remember the most intense periods of conflict — the barriers represent not division but protection.
“This is resident-led,” Oliver said. “Nothing can move faster than what the people who are most affected or who live in closest proximity to the barriers want.”
At the end of our conversation, Oliver offered to drive me through the areas where he works. I rode shotgun through Ardoyne, a neighborhood that houses what’s been referred to as Ireland’s “most notorious interface” barrier, toward the famous Shankill Road and into unionist neighborhoods where murals honored the British military and Royal Family.
He pointed out projects in the works: A wall that activists hope to remove or mollify with landscaping soon, a locked gate hindering public transit access for residents on one side of the wall.
As he drove parallel to the wall in Ardoyne, he told me that as recently as the early 2000s — nearly a decade after the ceasefire that marked the “official” end of the Troubles — any given day on the street could have illustrated the tensions that remained.
“Every night,” he said, “was just a barrage of bottles and petrol bombs.”
His fingers danced off the steering wheel, mimicking the arcs of the weapons as they flew over the wall and crashed toward the other side.

A barrier with a locked gate on Flax Street in north Belfast

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Nobody can seem to agree on how many peace walls actually exist.
They cut through Northern Ireland — particularly Belfast, though a handful exist elsewhere — as brick walls, metal sheets and sharp-topped fences. But they also sometimes take less conventional forms, like gates or “large planters,” that make settling on a definitive number difficult (and that doesn’t include the “conflict related architecture” — roadways, shopping centers and uninhabited landscapes — that sometimes divides these communities).
The Guardian reported last year that the Northern Ireland Executive recognized 50 peace walls (sometimes referred to as “peace lines” or “interface barriers”), and an Executive plan to remove all the walls by 2023 acknowledged 74 barriers. But the nationwide total has been reported to be as high as 116.
The oldest peace walls, a pair of Department of Justice-owned barriers built in conjunction on Cupar Street Upper and Cupar Way in Belfast, date to 1969, typically cited as the second year of the Troubles.
Walls continued to appear, almost entirely in Belfast, throughout the conflict. But they kept going up even after significant political compromises. The construction of peace walls actually increased after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the increase has been particularly prominent in North Belfast, where about half of peace walls with known dates have appeared since ceasefires in 1994.
The first official removal of a wall came in 2016, when a wall on Crumlin Road in Belfast was replaced with a tree-lined path. Since then, a handful of other walls have been demolished.
The movement to remove peace walls — or really, as the activists I talked to told me, to give the interface communities the resources they need to make removal eventually possible — emerged in full force only earlier this decade. In 2012, the International Fund for Ireland launched its Peace Walls Programme, which aimed to bridge relationships between segregated communities and funds a half-dozen organizations around Belfast doing work involving peace walls. Though I took multiple routes to my sources, all the activists I talked to worked with organizations supported by the Fund — with scarce resources and the government in stasis, they’re the only ones who can afford to. The activists who responded to my requests also tended to come from nationalist backgrounds.
In 2013, political leaders in Northern Ireland set their 2023 removal plan in motion. And in 2015, as part of a welfare reform agreement between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British government, the UK pledged £500 million to tackle projects including peace wall removal.
The question of who should lead the charge on peace wall changes is controversial. The government owns many of the barriers, and it presented its 2023 plan as a sign of bipartisan cooperation. As the activists I talked to see it, the government’s timelines move too quickly and too slowly at the same time.
The 2023 deadline would mean a drastic overhaul of the infrastructure in the next five years, a promise — unlikely as it is to come to fruition — activists fear could spook residents who still find comfort in the walls. Sean Oliver said the policy was “useful in intent, but made residents nervous they’d be steamrolled.”
In practice, they’ve seen the government drag its feet when they’ve readied a community for a wall to come down, sometimes to the extent that the neighborhood sentiment has flipped by the time the government approves a project.
“We’re working in what you could nearly call a policy vacuum,” Oliver said.
In a 2015 Ulster University survey of more than 1,000 residents living near peace walls, 49 percent — including 57 percent of Catholics — wanted their walls removed immediately or in the future, and another 13 percent wanted changes in accessibility or appearances of the walls. But 61 percent said they thought the walls kept them safe, and 60 percent said they rarely or never interacted with people on the other side of the nearest wall.
The activists, as well as a representative from the Fund, took issue with the methodology of the survey, which took answers via mail and was funded by the DOJ. The results of their own door-to-door survey were more extreme: Nearly three-quarters of people wanted walls removed or changed; only a quarter had regular contact with people on the other side of their wall. One number was strikingly similar to the Ulster survey’s: Sixty-three percent considered safety and security issues their top concern with regard to the walls.
Sean Brennan, a good relations officer with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, said those safety concerns were why at least some of the walls would likely stand for the foreseeable future. Concentrated violence necessitated their construction in the first place, and between 1996 and 2001, 70 percent of political killings occurred within a half-kilometer of a peace wall.
Brennan cites a figure he’s heard in post-conflict reconstruction circles: “For every three years of conflict, you need 10 years of investments” in social welfare to offset the damage.
But Ireland’s history — stretching back to the Norman invasion and the centuries of English and British colonization and rule that followed — make it impossible to distinguish any clear bookends to conflict.
“The conflict started in 1969,” Brennan said, “or the conflict started in 1601, or the conflict started in 1169.”
In the most generous terms, the conflict in Northern Ireland lasted from 1969 to 1994, 25 years. By his math, the reparations needed to break down Belfast’s walls would take until at least the late 21st century. They could stand, casting shadows over the city, for decades after everyone who lived through the conflict has died.

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In the early 2010s, well before the first peace wall in Belfast came down, the Duncairn Community Partnership looked to be on a roll in drastically changing — though not removing — peace walls in north Belfast.
The DCP has its office on Antrim Road; more than a quarter of the Troubles’s killings, the DCP’s Ciarán Shannon told me, took place within the square mile around the office. Down the street is Alexandra Park, which has been divided by a peace wall since 1994 — construction on it began the day after the IRA announced its ceasefire, a pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s peace process.
In 2011, an EU-funded program for improving public parks led to a discussion about that wall: Residents couldn’t agree to take it down, so they decided to install a gate, which would let people flow freely through the park but could be closed in the event of the kind of violence that had sparked the wall’s construction. It was the first reduction to a wall since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement.
“Every day, we were getting calls from journalists and media from all over the world who wanted to come and look at this gate,” Shannon said.
The Fund developed its Peace Walls Programme soon after. Then the DCP landed on another project that looked to be an early success: Residents along Duncairn Gardens, where a wall had been erected at one of the area’s epicenters of violence, wanted the wall reduced from 26 feet to 10 feet.
Activists expected an improvement of psychological health with the reduction of what they saw as an ugly legacy of the conflict — “It looks horrible from the front and worse from the back,” Shannon said. Then they hit a different wall: approval from the Department of Justice.
They spent 18 months “arguing with the DOJ,” Shannon said — the Department lacks procedures for making changes to peace walls, and several activists I talked to expressed frustrations with long delays and mixed signals.
By the time the government approved the funding, another piece of conflict had cratered the project. The Belfast City Council had voted to reduce the number of days City Hall would fly the Union Flag, sparking loyalist protests that morphed into riots. They unsettled residents on both sides. They wanted the wall to stay tall.
That wall is still one of a dozen on the DCP’s radar, Shannon said. But he emphasizes the organization has seen plenty of incremental success.
There’s the apartment complex with half Catholic residents, half Protestant residents and almost no conflict.
There’s the revitalization of a nearby shopping center, once a battleground for sectarian violence and one of the sites of 66 nights of rioting in the summer of 2008, with an increase in employment from 200 people to 500. A peace wall still runs along its southern edge.
There’s the events the DCP frequently puts on to bring together residents from different communities. A pre-St. Patrick’s Day party in the heavily loyalist Tiger’s Bay neighborhood had nationalists and unionists dancing together.
Still, shadows of the past sometimes fall over the successes. Near Easter of last year, a throng of young revelers filled Alexandra Park. The situation didn’t devolve into the riots of 25 years ago, but the echoes put neighbors on edge.
“When residents look out and see a crowd of young people, they get scared,” Shannon said. “Because they remember.”

A barrier along Duncairn Gardens in north Belfast

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Seamus Corr sat in his office in west Belfast, his mind turning to a recently dead friend. The man had been the only person in his family who knew how to drive, and now his children needed help with transportation.
Corr, who works for the Blackmountain Shared Space Project, knew that family’s problem was endemic of a larger issue in the communities he worked in. He mentioned the Million Brick Wall, the biggest peace wall in Belfast. It runs along nearby Springmartin Road, through the last mixed-religion neighborhood in west Belfast, where Catholic and Protestant families mingled until violence blew them apart in 1971.
On the Catholic side of the wall, Corr said, many residents have trouble even leaving the neighborhood: The walk to the nearest bus stop can be as much as a mile.
It’s symptomatic of the tangle of problems plaguing these neighborhoods, he said. The lack of transportation and lack of jobs and drug use and crime and lack of healthcare all feed each other.
“You become acutely aware of the lack of services for needs of your community,” he said, as he learned growing up in a nationalist family in west Belfast during the troubles. But he didn’t live in the direct shadow of a wall, which he said concentrates the problem: “The impact the wall has on them is completely different.”
The BSSP’s work does include long term projects on walls — they were behind the removal last year of a 30-year-old wall just across the street from the Million Brick Wall. But much of its day-to-day work — which is funded by the International Fund for Ireland, while larger projects require outside funding, including that from the government — involves chipping away at the most fundamental problems.
Traditionally working-class jobs have become harder to obtain for people behind walls, Corr said, due to increased regulation and need for licensing. BSSP pays for driving lessons, for security guard training, for the health and safety licenses workers need to get construction jobs.
“We’ve become the facilitator” between residents and the government, he said.
Still, the organization has a half-dozen projects in the works that would change or remove interfaces. Corr said it’s close to securing funding on a project at a former factory site that covers seven acres. A reinforced steel peace wall borders it. Teenagers rioted there in the late 2000s. The project would remake the vacant space into something usable for both communities.
As in other parts of the city, though, the work here needs a foundation of trust, both between ideologically opposed communities and between those communities and the activists, Corr said. And though he believes the tide has shifted in a favorable direction, he also knows that one explosion could cause all that work to crumble.
“If conflict broke out tomorrow, most of (the walls) would be required again,” he said. “The local people that will be impacted have their own needs. Those needs need to be addressed first.”

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A few years ago, Brennan sat at his neighborhood pub and struck up a conversation with a couple of young Englishwomen. He asked what brought them to Belfast; they responded they were just visiting for the weekend. He nearly spit out his beer.
This was before Belfast’s attempt at reinvention took hold, back when collective consciousness still held the city as war-torn, when nobody ever went there on vacation. Over the past few years, though, it’s rebranded itself as a cosmopolitan center of western Europe.
International businesses have set up shop, drawing young professionals from outside the city and country. The Europa Hotel, a tall building near the city center, used to be known as “the most bombed hotel in Europe;” now, a little more than a year after it got a million-pound renovation, a plaque in its lobby highlights the fact that Bill Clinton once stayed there. One night nearby, as I waited for a late-night pizza, I chatted with a pair of young Norwegians in Belfast as part of an effort to visit all the British Isles, a box to tick off.
“You walk around (the city center) and around the shopping streets and go, ‘Wow,’” Brennan said. “And then you go back to your cruise in the harbor and go, ‘Belfast is a nice city.’”
Those tourists, he said, don’t see the parts of the city that don’t have money pouring in — the parts that haven’t changed in decades.
The whole city used to be a ghost town any time after 6 p.m., he said. He can’t believe how popular the center has become. I thought about this later, when I walked through the area at night, and wondered how spectral it must have once been. Even in pedestrian-focused areas, where psychedelic paintings lined the cobblestones, I rarely passed other walkers.
The biggest crowd I felt there was in a multi-story bar stuffed with Spanish Catholic paintings and red velvet décor. My friends and I drank seven-pound caipirinhas and joked about feeling like characters in a vampire movie while we waited for a table to open up. Joy Division played on the bar’s soundtrack — These pleasures a wayward distraction, this is my one lucky prize: isolation. Nighttime in downtown Belfast has the dreamlike feeling of a place caught between an unsettled past and an unrecognizable future.
Sometime around this point, I realized the full enormity of the walls. The International Fund’s website makes a big point about their literal size: The wall on Cupar Way, for example, stands far taller than the Berlin Wall did or the Israeli West Bank barrier does now. But I had been cautioned early to not think of the walls as symbolic of any one thing, and the vastness of their significance had started to come into view.
The activists had told me that their work — combating an array of social ills, bridging communities, haggling with the government — sometimes felt like plugging one leak only to have another spring. Trying to write about the walls felt like that in miniature. If someone wanted to write a post-conflict history of Belfast, I thought at the end of my week there, they could start with the walls.

A gate in the wall along Duncairn Gardens

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Activists told me the political geography of north Belfast was intricate, with affiliations switching abruptly. They had trained themselves over years to sense the transition from a nationalist neighborhood or block to a loyalist one, or vice versa. I could only pinpoint the divisions where the walls stood.
One stood along Duncairn Gardens, a street that separates two major political strongholds: the loyalist Tiger’s Bay to the north, the nationalist New Lodge to the south. For decades, bullets flew across the street. In 2001, a teenager from Tiger’s Bay died when one exploded in his hand. Nationalists said he was trying to throw it at them. Loyalists said nationalists had thrown it first.
Viewed from the street, the barrier changed along the road. In places, short brick walls stretched between buildings, circular gates carved in their sides. Metal spikes rose skyward, signs tacked to them boasting “anti-climb paint.”
Farther down the street, a short mesh fence ran along the sidewalk, and twenty feet back from it, a green, metal wall two-dozen feet high. Dead grass tangled with plastic bottles in the no-man’s land in between. One blue-rimmed word of graffiti stood out on the largely blank space: “DEAD.”
I walked through Alexandra Park to see the wall and the gate that had broken ground on the interface movement in 2011. I had heard the history of it less than an hour before; had I not, I probably wouldn’t have taken it for a place that once seemed perpetually subject to rioting. Hills undulated through the park, diving toward a creek that burbled through its core. I walked through the nationalist side, past one rainbow-colored playground. Its twin stood in the opposite corner of the park.
In the distance, a couple of men played with a dog. There was nobody else around.
I walked through the gate and then back through it again. On the nationalist side, graffiti covered most of the wall: bubble-lettered tags, cartoon characters, the Rolling Stones lips. The loyalist side was bare save for the half-dead ivy crawling up it.
It took only a few minutes to see the whole park. As I was about to leave, I turned around and saw a woman and child walking parallel to the wall. Parkas obscured their faces. They held hands. Huge graffiti letters framed the child’s body.
I watched them for a minute as they walked down the sidewalk that branched toward the gate. I wondered if they would turn and cross to the other side or keep going straight, staying ever in nationalist territory, but the path took them down the side of a hill and I lost sight. They could have gone either way.

The wall in Alexandra Park