Negotiating Differences in Europe: Belfast
Beginning of “the Troubles” and the erection of the “Peace Lines”
Over the course of 1969, domestic tensions in Northern Ireland, which had been growing for decades between the Protestant and Catholic parts of the population, escalated to the point of open violence. In August, various cities experienced several days of civil-war-like unrest. In Belfast, the hostile confessional groups engaged in veritable street battles in which residential districts were attacked and entire streets lined with houses were burned down. Nine people were killed, over 700 civilians and police were injured, and in Belfast alone nearly 400 houses were damaged by arson attacks.
Northern Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom. When the situation came to a head, the prime minister of Northern Ireland called on the central government in London for help. In response, British army units were sent to separate the parties to the conflict and bring the situation back under control. After arriving, the British soldiers began to put up barbed wire fences and checkpoints around the neighbourhoods controlled by the battling groups – first at the hot spot between the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. The idea was to prevent further attacks between Protestants and Catholics. General Sir Ian Freeland, the British troops’ general officer commanding, called these peace lines a “very, very temporary affair”, underscoring his position thus: “We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city”.
Yet over the course of the nearly thirty-year conflict in Northern Ireland, which is often referred to as “the Troubles”, the provisional fences were indeed replaced with permanent barriers: walls of concrete and steel, up to eight meters high and reinforced at the top with fencing, whose various sections ran for a total of 34 kilometres through front yards and residential streets. These so-called “peace lines” or “peace walls” put their stamp on the cityscape of Belfast, as they did in other Northern Irish cities like Derry/Londonderry, Portadown and Lurgan. They became a visible expression of Northern Ireland’s population, divided by civil war.
The Northern Ireland conflict and domestic social division
The historical roots of the Northern Ireland conflict reach back to the confessional struggles of the seventeenth century, when Catholics and Protestants fought for dominance in Europe. Although confessional affiliation also characterized the lines of conflict in the twentieth century, religion was not the prime motivating factor. Rather, the altercations were sparked by fundamental questions about equality of social and political status for the Catholic population. After the bitterly fought Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921), Ireland was divided by the Anglo-Irish Treaty. The majority of the overwhelmingly Catholic island broke with London and declared itself the Irish Free State, while the six north-eastern counties and their majority-Protestant population remained in the union with Great Britain.
Protestants enjoyed privileged status in Northern Irish society, such that Catholics were disadvantaged in all political, social, and economic areas. To oppose this discrimination, a Northern Irish civil rights movement, inspired by the American model, was formed in the 1960s. It demanded fundamental domestic political reforms, expressing its protest inter alia in organized civil rights marches.
On the Protestant side, radical forces saw their own position of dominance imperilled by the civil rights movement. They reacted with open violence, which led, among other things, to the severe clashes of August 1969. The violence further escalated when, on the Catholic side, the paramilitary Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) took shape and engaged in armed conflict. The result was a civil war with numerous murders and bombings. With massive support from the British army, the Protestant-loyalist faction fought to keep Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, whereas the Catholic-republican side sought a unified Ireland.
Only at the beginning of the 1990s did a lasting political solution to the conflict appear on the horizon. In the 1998 “Good Friday Agreement”, the opposing parties agreed to an end to the civil war and the disarming of the paramilitary organizations, thus paving the way for a joint political configuration of Northern Ireland’s future. Between 1969 and 1998, over 3,600 people were killed in the course of “the Troubles”.
The long path to reconciliation
The 1998 “Good Friday Agreement” was a decisive breakthrough for the beginning of a peace process in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, it has not healed the deep divisions within Northern Irish society. This is exemplified by the fact that the so-called “peace lines” in Belfast were not dismantled after the agreement was reached but, on the contrary, were augmented. On both sides, a majority of affected residents argued that they still felt an acute need for security and that the barriers would continue to afford them protection. Conflict researchers pointed to the ambivalent character of the “peace lines”, which on the one hand implied and indeed did provide protection, but on the other perpetuated the very segregation of the populace that needed to be overcome. The spatial division itself, and the resulting inability of the confessional groups to interact with one another, are rightly seen as one of the greatest impediments to reconciliation.
Thus Belfast, like Nicosia on Cyprus, continues to be a European capital divided by walls, where wide social rifts opened up by long-time civil war remain to be overcome, and where the path to reconciliation seems long indeed. The official goal of successively removing all the “peace lines” by 2023 is thus regarded with scepticism by contemporary observers.(translated by Patrick Baker)
Tim Pat Coogan, The Troubles. Ireland’s Ordeal 1966–1996 and the Search for Peace, New York 2002.
Thorsten Gromes, Bernhard Moltmann, Bruno Schoch, Die Überwindung der Gewalt. Demokratisierung von außen in Nachbürgerkriegsgesellschaften, Schwalbach 2016.
Johannes Kandel, Der Nordirland-Konflikt. Von seinen historischen Wurzeln bis zur Gegenwart, Bonn 2005.
Frank Otto, Der Nordirlandkonflikt. Ursprung, Verlauf, Perspektiven, Munich 2014.
 ↑ Statement of general Sir Ian Freelands, 10 September 1969, cited in Emily Ravenscroft, The Meaning of the Peacelines of Belfast, in: Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice 21 (2009) 2, pp. 213–221, 213.
 ↑ Cf. http://www.peacewall-archive.net (03.03.2017).
 ↑ Cf. http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/events/peace/docs/agreement.htm (03.03.2017).
Fabian Klose, Belfast, in: On site, in time. Negotiating differences in Europe, ed. for the Leibniz Institute of European History (IEG) by Joachim Berger, Irene Dingel and Johannes Paulmann, Mainz 2017. URL: http://en.ieg-differences.eu/on-site-in-time/fabian-klose-belfast, URN: urn:nbn:de:0159-2017121141.
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