Reportage. Twenty-five years after the Good Friday Agreement, the capital of Northern Ireland struggles to overcome divisions between unionists and republicans. The fall of the walls still seems like a distant dream.

Belfast, a city divided

They call them “peace walls” or “peace lines,” because when they were erected by the British Army after the August 1969 clashes that ushered in the Troubles between pro-British Protestant Unionists and pro-Irish Catholic Republicans, Belfast was a theater of war, and those barriers were supposed to provide protection for communities.

Nowadays there are around a hundred fragmented and scattered walls left, mostly in the northern and western neighborhoods of the city, more than a dozen of which were built in the years after the Good Friday peace accords (April 10, 1998) that marked the official end of the conflict, with both the unionist paramilitary groups – the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and UDA (Ulster Defense Association) – and the nationalist groups – the IRA (Irish Republican Army) – agreeing to lay down their arms.

For those born in Belfast at any time during the past 50 years, there’s nothing remarkable about the peace lines: they are an integral part of the city, features of the urban fabric that still feature gates that open by day and close by night, enormous hinges and scarred masonry, but also pages of a history illustrated with murals, painted in strong, contrasting colors.

An iconic symbol of the city, and now also a tourist attraction, the murals that cover Belfast’s walls on both sides tell opposing stories: on one side, one can see the epic and valiant struggle of the Unionist fighters, brimming with Union Jacks, royalist symbols and portraits; on the other, one sees depicted the struggle for the liberation of a united Ireland from the yoke of British colonialism and its martyrs, including Bobby Sand and other IRA militants, who died together with him after a long hunger strike in Long Kesh Prison, regularly flanked by the faces of Mandela, Che Guevara, Leyla Khaled and other heroes of international resistance.

Regardless of the murals, the city walls serve neither a purely decorative nor a purely propagandistic function, which is why, despite the 10-year plan to dismantle them proposed in 2013 by the Belfast local government, the demolition process has stalled, with little support to accelerate it from residents on both sides of the barricades.

The April 2021 riots, which broke out in Lanark Way, in the Protestant Unionist area of Shankill Road, just months after the Northern Ireland Protocol came into force, reawakened the specter of the Troubles for a week. Brexit and its aftermath – including the aforementioned Protocol, which restored a customs border on the Irish Sea between Ulster and the rest of the United Kingdom, while leaving land transit between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland unimpeded – have contributed to a heightened sense of being under siege among Protestant communities.

Added to this is the fact that the numbers don’t look good for the unionists: for the first time, the 2021 census found the Catholic population outnumbering Protestants (45.7 percent to 43.5 percent), and the 2022 parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland, also for the first time, resulted in Sinn Féin, the historic pro-republican party, becoming the majority party, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) relegated to second place. More recently, the May 2023 municipal elections in the capital in were once again won by Sinn Féin.

However, a purely sectarian reading of the divisions among the communities would fail to explain why nobody thought to build any walls in the affluent, leafy neighborhoods to the south of the city, such as Stranmillis, or in the residential area around Queen’s University, or even in the Titanic Quarter in the northeast, home to the vast and storied Harland & Wolff shipyards, a symbol of Belfast’s activity as a port since 1861. And the same is true of the Old Town, a bustling construction site where the Victorian industrial buildings of the former textile district, the Linen Quarter, the flagship of Britain’s industrial revolution, are being restored.

On the other hand, there’s very little of that energy in the city’s north and west. Here, there’s no shortage of pubs, packed and with a festive atmosphere on weekends, and always strictly divided along sectarian lines – such as the Unionist Rex Bar and the Republican Rock Bar, which date from before the erection of the walls. There are also many local associations that enliven community life, nurture traditions and – some of them, at least – work to foster reconciliation.

In western Belfast, cutting across Cupar Way, a stretch of wall about a kilometer long and nearly 14 meters high separates the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill from the Catholic neighborhood of Falls. It’s striking that in spite of the different religious and political symbols on the two sides, they are in the end so similar.

If that stretch of wall was absent, this would be one large working-class neighborhood, as it was in the past, nowadays scarred by unemployment and economic depression and wounded by the still-living memory of an armed conflict whose quelling has left both camps unsatisfied. Instead, the wall is there and will probably remain standing for quite a while, like the many other immovable trenches shoring up the city, echoing the frozen-in-time status of the Stormont government and Parliament, suspended since 2022 after the DUP’s institutional boycott in protest of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

There is no desire or urgency on either side to get rid of the walls which – in the absence of winners and losers in the conflict – serve as a means to preserve, for the former combatants of the two sides who have been asked to lay down their arms and for the younger generations who are the offspring of the conflict, the memory of the battles, of the fallen and the meaning of their fight.

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