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Peace walls and peace work in Belfast

The Troubles of Northern Ireland were to a large extent kept out of the press at the time, being mentioned only when prominent people or the mainland were attacked. Judging by the lack of coverage in the media, we might still be forgiven for thinking that the troubles are over, In many ways the Troubles are over. English Soldiers have been replaced by heavily armed police; Paramilitaries have faded away leaving only violent thugs.

Tales abound about 'dirty tricks' on both sides, Bloody Sunday is still a live issue for some, but the English establishment has closed ranks and attempted to close the discussion with Prime Minister's apology in 2010.

But the hatred, fear and suspicion have not been assuaged by political processes and Belfast is still very much a divided city, physically so. At some point in the 19th Century, rehousing policies placed poor and lower-middle class Protestants and Catholics in separate areas, creating an intense patchwork with borders running along the backs of houses, or the middle of streets. These territories became very important as the conflict heightened with parades, riots and hit & run attacks. Residents remember the injuries and the neighbours who perpetrated them. When those neighbours swagger past on the tail of a parade, holding up, say 2, fingers, that means "We killed two of yours in this street" its easy to see how tempers can flare. That's why the city is carved up by Peace Walls, and no-one is ready to take them down.

These walls are reminiscent of the Zionist invasion of Palestine, but both sides support these walls and feel safer behind them - they literally reduce the friction between the communities by keeping them physically apart. This is exactly how the 'sectarians' want it - they believe the two communities should not mix, and be neither at war nor in peace, but separate. Separate schools, hospitals, businesses. Twice as much infrastructure!

I was lucky to get a glimpse of another ideology, which claims that most people want to live in peace, and it is only the thugs and diehard separatists who are terrorising very often their own communities into not mixing.

Community Relations in Schools works with schools on both sides to partner Protestant and Catholic children in activities and reciprocal visits. It is succeeding not only in getting them while they are young, but in providing a space for parents to safely interact as well. The programme has been running for a few years and many relationships are subsisting. This kind of 'Peace work' is needed after any conflict, but more so in Belfast, where the animosity was so personal and so localised.

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