Belfast peace walls – A paradox of leadership

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Dr Jonny Byrne

At a seminar hosted by the Institute for Research in Social Sciences and the Inter-Institute Peace and Conflict Cluster, Dr Jonny Byrne of the University of Ulster presented his findings of three years of research in regards to public policy on peace walls (interface barriers) in Belfast. His presentation drew upon his 100,000 word PhD thesis and 40 interviews:

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In response to intercommunity violence, formal interface barriers were first erected in 1969. There are now 99 identified barriers in Belfast. Dr Byrne noted how since local politicians and community representatives have gotten involved in the process since 1995, the number of new barriers erected significantly increased. Also, since 2010 primary responsibility for policy in this regard lies with the Northern Ireland Executive.

Back in 1971, an official Working Group on Peace Walls expressed its concern at the erection of interface barriers, that if they remained then the “abnormal becomes the normal”.

Yet the barriers were not going to come down, and policy changed to one of pragmaticism, namely how best to create and manage them. Dr Bryne remarked that current policy, 40 years later, uses the same language.

His main thesis is that these physical barriers are not going to disappear on their own, so policy will need to be created and decisions made to bring them down.

This, of course, depends upon whether you deem peace walls as a problem, or a condition to be endured.

He said that there is a danger of the establishment of a hierarchy of segregation, as Loyalist and Republican communities are influenced by different factors in the discussion of how to progress this issue. To simplify, both start with a desire to improve community safety. But Loyalists express a concern of encroachment, with Republicans demanding more physical space to accommodate and expanding population:

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One can see how this contrasting perspective reflects wider Unionist-Nationalist political dynamics — one community hesitant to give what they would see as too much too soon to another community that is ever more confident with their agenda and demands.

And this was inferred in Dr Byrne’s statement, “Segregation is more than the peace walls.”

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One slide showed the variety of agencies involved in peace wall policy (sic). Dr Byrne described the paradox of the roles of the Northern Ireland Executive and local communities, whereby local projects improve community relations and add to good practice, but local participants and community leaders look to the Northern Ireland Executive to provide a framework and guidance/leadership for further progress. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Executive’s current position is that further progress will be determined by the local communities, not as targeted or seen to be driven by the Executive itself.

Dr Byrne concluded that the way away was for a concurrent top-down and bottom-up approach. For Belfast, his specific recommendation was that Belfast City Council be the primary agent to coordinate the rest. This elicited a response later from David Robinson (Good Relations Officer, Belfast City Council), who explained that its Good Relations Committee unanimously endorsed its municipal investment strategy that sets out a vision with codified aim of removing all interface barriers in Belfast.

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Dr Byrne suggested that having dealt with interface barriers for over 40 years, Belfast is in a good position to work with other cities/areas that have them, some only joining this club relatively recently. In the subsequent Q&A session, I described my organisation’s work for the Forum for Cities in Transition, which includes Nicosia, one of the cities listed on his slide.

I was intrigued by the paradox of roles that Dr Byrne described, and by a previous questioner who talked about diminishing returns of community based projects.

I suggested that Nicosia’s — who’s had its wall for just five years less than our first — may be useful. There, in the 1980s, the respective mayors of the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot sections of the city came together to deal with practical matters, namely cross-border water treatement. Success here led to other, ever more ambitious projects. Sufficient trust was established and a Nicosia Master Plan was created, which has as its aim the unification of the city. The mayors knew this plan would take decades to realise, but it is the plan that is being implemented today.

I am encouraged by Belfast City Council’s vision and Good Relations work, mainly because the structural composition of its Good Relations Committee is the right one — a combination of elected councillors and representatives from the voluntary, community, and minority ethnic group sectors.

This should be replicated at the Northern Ireland Assembly, with non-MLAs incorporated into a committee’s work (or if that’s not allowed, into an ad hoc working group).

I recall this approach during the discussions of establishing what became the Strategic Investment Board, when an Assembly committee recommended the inclusion of the voluntary and community sectors, on a basis that these sectors would be the delivery agents for aspects of its decisions. In the subsequent suspension of the Assembly, direct rule Minister Ian Pearson swiftly quashed this thought (in a direct response to me in a June 2003 meeting!).

This multi-agent approach is growing in popularity in community development work (e.g. Scotland; UU course on Civic Leadership and Community Development (declaration of interest!)). Whereas many (if not most) organisations treat Government Department consultation exercises with cyncism, projects that include various sectoral interests encourage trust. Whether this develops to a greater, Nicosia-style master plan is another matter.

Indeed, even Nicosia isn’t immune to wider Cypriot politics, especially vis-a-vis Turkey and the European Union. Nicosia’s municipal politicians know they aren’t going to solve the Cyprus Question. Yet they all work in preparation for those higher developments.

So, the paradox remains between the local and the national. But at least leadership at the municipal level, at a cross-sectoral basis, demonstrates a best practice model for progress.

Q&A audio:

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