The recent violence in Northern Ireland does not mark a return to the dark days. But as long as communities remain segregated, there will be troubleby David McKittrick / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Northern Ireland is no longer at war, but it is not yet at peace with itself. The Queen’s visit to the Republic of Ireland on 17th May (and President Barack Obama’s on 23rd May) were supposed to signal a new era: that the Troubles were irrevocably in the past. But a bomb, discovered on a bus in Kildare and made safe just hours before the Queen’s arrival in the country, was a reminder that the old antipathies remain. The Queen was the first monarch to visit since Irish independence in 1922. Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein president, acknowledged her visit was a sign of changed times, although he also called it “premature.”
The Good Friday agreement that Tony Blair brokered in 1998 has been called the greatest achievement of his premiership, and is cited as a model for peace negotiations around the world. But it is not “mission accomplished.” True, the IRA has been dissolved and the once highly-dangerous Protestant paramilitary groups are largely inactive. Yet dissident republican groups killed a Catholic police recruit on 2nd April, and disrupted the run-up to the 5th May elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly with bombs and bomb scares. Their attempted attacks on government and police targets are more frequent. Jonathan Evans, head of MI5, says: “We have seen a persistent rise in terrorist activity and ambition over the last three years.”
Most serious for Northern Ireland’s future, the Protestant and Catholic communities remain segregated, in the schools above all. Meanwhile, Westminster is cutting the stream of subsidies on which the economy has been built. The Troubles may be over, but an untroubled future is hardly in sight.
Today, most of Belfast has the appearance of a modern city. Half an hour spent roaming its backstreets, however, shows that dozens of “peace lines”—walls dividing Catholic and Protestant communities that were erected from the late 1960s onwards to prevent fighting—are still there (see above). In the west and north of the city, the most violent areas during the Troubles, these walls still delineate the toughest neighbourhoods, as in north Belfast where a peace line separates republican Ardoyne from loyalist Shankill. Some soar up to 30 feet high, elaborate constructions of reinforced concrete, steel, heavy-duty mesh and razor-wire. Most of them are ugly, although a few, for example around Ardoyne, have been prettified and artfully camouflaged with shrubs and climbing plants. Sometimes these are sardonically referred to as “designer peace lines.”