The pledge to remove so-called peace walls between unionist and nationalist communities was part of the May 2013 Together Building a United Community (T:BUC) strategy which “reflects the Executive’s commitment to improving community relations and continuing the journey towards a more united and shared society."
T:BUC was agreed in the aftermath of street protests and violence that erupted following the December 2012 decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag over Belfast City Hall. Its publication came a month before a visit by the then US President Barack Obama who told an audience at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall that successfully removing the peacewalls, “more than anything, will shape what Northern Ireland looks like 15 years from now and beyond."
But despite the T:BUC pledge to remove "all interface barriers", experts predict the majority are likely to remain in place beyond 2023, while new data shows 21 structures are not even included in the Stormont target.
The peace walls were erected between communities during the Troubles to reduce violence in areas that suffered sustained conflict with many living in their vicinity fearful of any proposed removal.
Four years after T:BUC, Detail Data asked The Executive Office (TEO) for an update on the interface removal project. A response said: "The exact number of interface barriers is subject to differing views as a result of varying approaches to counting and categorising barriers. Progress has been made but this isn't simply a numbers game, where we take down a wall and move on. Through our Together Building a United Community strategy, we are committed to reduce and remove all interface barriers by 2023.”
When pressed for further information on which structures were being targeted, TEO referred Detail Data to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Housing Executive (NIHE). DOJ said: “In the context of the Executive’s commitment around the removal of interface structures by 2023, a cross departmental programme board was established by the DOJ to take this work forward and that board agreed that these DOJ structures, along with structures which are the responsibility of the NI Housing Executive, would fall under its remit.”
Freedom of Information requests to both DOJ and NIHE confirmed that this relates to some 74 structures. However, a new report by the Belfast Interface Project (BIP), which will be published in the coming days, identifies 116 defensive walls, fences, gates and buffers located in Belfast, Derry-Londonderry, Lurgan and Portadown. Research for the project was conducted by the Institute for Conflict Research (ICR).
In the BIP report the DOJ/NIHE figure of 74 interface structures is said to be made up of 95 individual separate components. This, in part, is due to differences in how structures are identified and catalogued, with some ranging from walls stretching hundreds of metres to large planters and gates, or where barriers are made up of intermittent sections of wall or fence which could be counted as a single peace wall or as multiple structures.
Analysis of the ICR/BIP data confirms that despite the T:BUC pledge to remove "all interface barriers", some 21 structures will remain in place even if the Stormont target is achieved. These outstanding structures are controlled by organisations including Belfast City Council, Invest NI, Belfast HSC Trust, The Department for Infrastructure (DRD), private and unknown owners.
Detail Data asked The Executive Office how the T:BUC commitment to remove all barriers by 2023 could be met, given such omissions. However a response did not address the issue. Despite government assurances that "we are committed to reduce and remove all interface barriers by 2023", Belfast Interface Project (BIP) director Joe O’Donnell does not believe that many of the barriers can or will be removed in such a short timeframe. “I do not see the wall that runs between the Shankill and Falls being removed in six years," he said. “I don’t think it is particularly important if we miss the target date of 2023. I’m not sure now in 2017 that anyone considers that we are going to hit that target.”
According to the Housing Executive’s head of community cohesion Jennifer Hawthorne, although progress is being made, it is unlikely all of the structures that remain part of the 2023 target will be removed. “There is only 1% of the population of the city that live near a peace wall and if you extrapolate that out across Northern Ireland, the percentage of the overall population living beside a peace wall is miniscule – but we expect those communities to take the steps towards peace, to do all the heavy lifting and take all the risks for the benefit of wider society,” she said. “Once people are able to breach a wall with a pedestrian gate and maybe later a vehicle gate as a community becomes more confident then incrementally maybe it could come down. So 2023, yes all walls might not be removed but they could have changed quite a bit.”
To read the full story by Detail Data's Cormac Campbell click here.