In December 2015, the BBC published an article stating that there has been a rise in the number of residents who want peace walls in Northern Ireland to remain standing. This is based on a study on the public attitudes to the peace walls carried out by Ulster University, in the context of the Northern Ireland Executive’s ‘Together: Building a United Community’ (TBUC) strategy, published in May 2013, which included a target of removing all peace walls by 2023. The strategy states, “Taking down interface barriers is not something that can be achieved without engagement, consent and support with the people who live there.”
Defining what is meant by the term ‘Peace Wall’ is both challenging and difficult. There is no agreed, official term, and is instead used interchangeably with terms such as “interfaces”, “peace lines”, “defensive/environmental barriers” and “contested spaces”. Furthermore, there is no definitive number of these structures across NI. In the absence of an agreed term, academics responsible for the most survey work in this area indicate that the term peace wall is “used to cover all kinds of physical interface barriers that keep communities apart — including walls, gates and security barriers”.
Since the re-introduction of the devolution of policing and justice in 2008 the Dept of Justice (DOJ) has been responsible for the largest number of interface structures (58) with the NIHE responsible for a further (18). The table below details the number of DOJ interface barriers, as of the 1st March 2016, with the starting numbers in brackets (i.e. documenting any changes in the numbers of interface barriers in these areas).
|North Belfast||14 (15)||3 (5)||17 (20)|
|North West (L’derry)||4||2 (7)||6 (11)|
|South West (P’down/Lurgan)||6||0||6|
|TOTAL||40 (41)||11 (18)||51 (59)|
This is not a complete picture of structures that are considered to be “interface barriers”, as evidenced in research conducted by Belfast Interface Project in 2011, which suggested that there were up to 99 structures with some confusion as to who had responsibility for a small number of them. A study in 2011 also identified 99 recognised “interface barriers” in Northern Ireland. However, the definition of these barriers is wide and includes roads, walls, metal fencing and fencing with vegetation which act as a buffer. The majority (41) were identified as being in Belfast, with the remainder are split between Derry/Londonderry (11) and Portadown/Lurgan (6).
In the specific context of peace walls, a 2015 study found that 30% of those surveyed wanted the walls to remain, while 49% wanted them taken down. 57% of research participants identifying as Catholic want the “peace wall” taken down either now or in the future. Only 34% of research participants identifying as Protestants feel the same. The majority of Protestants (56%) cannot currently envisage a time when there will be no walls. Protestant participants (44%) were almost twice as likely as Catholic participants (23%) to want things ‘left the way they are now’
There has also been an increase in the proportion of respondents saying that they want things left the way they are now (from 22% in 2012 to 30% in 2015) and a decrease in the proportion saying they would like the Peace Wall to come down some time in the future (from 44% in 2012 to 35% in 2015).
A 2008 study by the US-Ireland Alliance reported that 80 per cent of people living in close proximity to an interface barrier were in favour of its removal “when safe to do so”. The 2012 study from Ulster University also found that 58 per cent of interface residents were in favour of the barriers being removed “now or at some point in the future”.
Despite some recent positive action in relation to specific interface barriers, the most recent study (from 2015) in documenting that 49 per cent wanted the barriers taken down, appears to evidence that support for the barriers being removed is actually weakening, and that the climate of community relations, and ultimately the sense of safety, has deteriorated among residents over the previous three years alone.