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Writing Is On The Wall For Belfast’s Peace Lines

Irish Times

 

February 5, 2008

 

By Trina Vargo

 

Over the last 15 years, the pessimists have been proved wrong in Northern Ireland. They said that unionists would never share power, that the IRA would never disarm, that the Belfast Agreement would never be reached, and that there would never be peace.

Over the last few months, some of these same people have told me: "No one wants the peace walls to come down." Again they are being proven wrong.

In April, the US-Ireland Alliance is hosting a gathering in Belfast of former senator George Mitchell and others to mark the 10th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement.

With that date in mind, last July, we began to explore the question of whether or not the people who live at interfaces in Belfast might be interested in using this anniversary as an occasion to bring down a part of the peace line.

Wanting to learn what the people most affected thought, we commissioned a poll of more than 1,000 people who live at interfaces in west, east and north Belfast.

Remarkably, this is the first time that the residents of interface areas have been polled about the walls.

The poll result on this particular question is clear. The majority of people polled, 81 per cent, want the walls to come down, but more than half of those aren't ready for it to be taken down today.

The questions, then, are when and what needs to be done so the people's desire to live without walls will be realised.

Two similar but different questions were put to people. When asked: "As things stand today, would you be in favour or opposed to the wall coming down?"

Some 43 per cent said they were opposed, 32 per cent said they were in favour, and 25 per cent said "neither". Those who were opposed said they wouldn't feel safe, they thought it was too soon and that trouble could start again. But they were also asked: "Taking everything into consideration, which one best describes your attitude about the wall coming down?"

Some 21 per cent said they want the walls to come down right now, and the overwhelming majority, 60 per cent of those polled, said they want the walls down, but only when it is safe enough. Some 17 per cent said they don't care if they never come down.

What will it take, then, for the residents to overcome their fear and uncertainty? It is clear from the poll that people are looking for leadership on this issue. Some 61 per cent agreed (and only 10 per cent disagreed) that local politicians should be doing more to create conditions for the walls to come down. And 49 per cent agreed (and only 16 per cent disagreed) that some local politicians use the walls to play on the fears of the community.

Confidence in the police is an issue - 58 per cent said they lack confidence in the ability of the police to preserve peace and maintain order if the walls came down (25 per cent expressed confidence). Interestingly, Protestants had greater concerns about the police in this regard.

There are several hopeful signs. Some 52 per cent feel the two communities are growing in confidence in each other. There is a desire to further develop community relations and twice as many feel that removing the wall would encourage better community relations than don't.

There is an acknowledgement that both sides have been culpable, rather than just blaming the "other side". Only 23 per cent felt that the other community couldn't be trusted. If the safety issue is addressed, more residents said that communities would be better off if the walls come down, with 44 per cent thinking that tourism and investment would increase, while 42 per cent think that the absence of walls would improve prospects for young people.

One important question that I hope will be asked in the days and weeks ahead is why people don't think it is safe to bring down walls now?

Is it because it truly is not safe to do so or is it because there is the perception that it is not safe and that perception is encouraged by at least some politicians? And what exactly will it take to make people feel safe enough?

This is the first major poll of its kind - asking people specifically about the walls. We hope it spurs debate and discussion and is a contribution toward continued forward movement for Northern Ireland.

For our purpose in conducting this poll - to determine if a part of a peace wall can come down in April - I would have to say that I see it as unlikely, simply because there is a large middle ground of uncertainty. But before completely ruling it out, we will await the views of others on this poll. As we've said all along, the walls can only come down with the support of the people who live there and those responsible for their security.

Senator Mitchell wrote that the peace line is "one of the most depressing structures I've ever seen. To call it the peace line is a huge irony . . . I hope and pray that I live to see the day when the peace line goes the way of the Berlin Wall: its destruction will be the symbolic end of an age of conflict. . ."

We agree. While there will be, and should be, a healthy debate about when the walls should come down, there is no doubt that the walls coming down will be the real sign of a truly transformed Northern Ireland. And as the poll shows, it is what the people there desire.

Trina Vargo is president and founder of the US-Ireland Alliance. All the results of the poll may be viewed via www.us-irelandalliance.org

© 2008 The Irish Times