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Time to Tear Down These Walls of Division

Note: This article originally appeared in the Irish Times

With things settling down in Northern Ireland, isn't it time to consider taking down the so-called "peace" walls separating communities instead of erecting more, asks Trina Vargo.

Everyone of a certain age distinctly remembers the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The sight of East and West Germans joining in celebration on the wall, and the chipping away of it over the following weeks, demonstrated to the world - in a way that no other act could - that the cold war was truly over. Can the walls come down in Northern Ireland?

Next April, Senator George Mitchell will return to Belfast to participate in an event marking the 10th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. We have also invited Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton to join him and other negotiators of the agreement, as well as the DUP, to consider Northern Ireland's divided past and its shared future.

We hope that the people of Belfast will consider using this occasion to take down at least a part of the "peace" line and send a message to the world, and to themselves.

I recently visited Belfast to begin conversations about this with community leaders, politicians, former paramilitaries, and the police. While some expressed scepticism, a much larger number were eager to begin the conversation. Some were conjecturing, hoping that their interface community might be confident by April. After all, many unexpected and welcome things have happened this year in Northern Ireland.

It would be naive to underestimate concerns about the dismantling of that which has provided physical and psychological protection for many years. And walls coming down won't alone solve Northern Ireland's many problems - disaffected youth, a growing suicide rate, a parochial outlook, high levels of economic inactivity, and an economy overly reliant on the state.

It is also disheartening to see new walls going up in some neighbourhoods at the very time the virtual walls between Ireland and Northern Ireland are coming down. Progress at the political level is slowed by a lack of confidence on the street. The loyalist community, in particular, is still reeling from political developments it didn't see coming.

What is now most necessary for Northern Ireland is economic development. Foreign investment and increasing tourism can play a part in that. While the political developments that have occurred this year are truly incredible, they only briefly and barely registered on the world's consciousness.

It is likely that there is only a small window of opportunity with the business community in the US. Disproportionate attention has been paid to Northern Ireland for more than a decade and there is a sense that it's sorted. Attention will wane.

In 1998, when I was Senator Ted Kennedy's foreign policy adviser, I contacted a Massachusetts company with a call centre in Northern Ireland, thinking the company might like a photo opportunity with Senator Kennedy when he visited Northern Ireland.

That was the last thing they wanted. Many of their clients didn't know where the call centre was located.

They feared they would associate Northern Ireland with disruption and that wouldn't be good for business. Northern Ireland must dispel any remaining doubts that it is bad for business. Nothing will say that like walls coming down.

It is no coincidence that the walls are in the most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods of Belfast and it is these neighbourhoods that have so much to gain by their removal.

It is worth considering how much the walls prevent problems and how much they are an invitation to confrontation.

A fundamental shift in thinking about neighbours previously not known, feared and hated is required. It won't happen overnight. But there are some hopeful signs. There are excellent cross-community projects at several interfaces.

The parades season went off peacefully. And those inciting violence at interfaces are no longer paramilitaries but alcohol-fuelled teenagers.

While such anti-social behaviour by teenagers can be found in most American cities, the danger in Belfast is the potential those otherwise minor incidents have to turn into riots. Many in interface neighbourhoods feel powerless, left behind, and they know that the walls are holding them back, economically as well as psychologically. But the removal of walls is something they do have control over.

This will be for people there to decide. We are simply providing a date on the horizon with the hope that it might spur conversation and consideration.

In order to most accurately assess what the people at interfaces think, we will soon commission a survey of people living at interfaces.

When will peace truly come to Northern Ireland? When walls fall. There is nothing more evocative of Northern Ireland's divided past, and nothing more indicative of a shared future than their removal.

©2007 The Irish Times