Bloomberg News

Divided Belfast Keeps Barriers as Economic Malaise Spurs Riots

July 08, 2011

July 8 (Bloomberg) -- Agnes Lendrum has a 30-foot (9-meter) wall of brick and metal looming over her house in north Belfast, and that’s just the way she wants to keep it.

The barriers, or “peace lines” as they are known in Northern Ireland, were first erected when the province’s three- decade-long violent conflict erupted in 1969 to keep warring Protestants and Catholics apart. The numbers are increasing, with locals like Lendrum, 55, thankful for the walls keeping the two sides apart as riots flared over last month.

“I’ve had gunmen fire over the wall, and the peace wall is the only thing that makes me feel safe,” Lendrum said outside her home in the Protestant Tiger’s Bay estate. “I’d chain myself to the fence if they tried to take it down.”

The number of barriers, some twice as high as the Berlin Wall, has risen by 10 percent since the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998. Their lingering existence testifies to the sectarian tension still rife in a region where the economic crisis has bitten as hard as anywhere in the U.K. or Ireland. That in turn is fueling violence among disaffected youths as well as bomb attacks by dissident republicans.

Rioters confronted police in the worst disturbances in almost a decade when Protestants and Catholics clashed in east Belfast last month. Three people were shot in the disturbances. On July 1, rioters in the same area clashed again at the same peace line, throwing rocks and metal bars at each other. Six police were injured.

“I don’t think the peace lines will come down for generations,” Pete Shirlow, a politics lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, said in an interview. “Disadvantaged communities complain about poverty, lack of opportunity and turn it into sectarian violence.”

Unemployment Doubles

Since 2008, unemployment in Northern Ireland has more than doubled. Economic activity per capita in Northern Ireland, as measured by gross value added, is about 20 percent below the U.K. average, according to 2008 figures. The province accounts for about 1.8 million of the U.K.’s 60 million people.

The Republic of Ireland was forced last year to ask for a 85 billion-euro ($121.4 billion) bailout from the European Union and International Monetary Fund, as it grapples with the cost of its bank bailout and rising unemployment. Jobs that were to transfer to Belfast from Dublin following the revival of the U.K. region’s assembly never materialized.

North Belfast, a patchwork of Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, is one of the region’s poorest. Last year Catholics rioted for four days after a Protestant parade passed by a nationalist area, injuring more than 80 police.

Test

The latest test of the peace process comes next week, when Protestant celebrations of a 17th century victory over Catholics in Ireland culminate with hundreds of parades across the U.K. region.

Northern Ireland’s government is headed up by a pro-U.K. First Minister, Peter Robinson, and Irish nationalist Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness, who is deputy first minister. When the assembly was revived in May 2007 it put rebuilding the economy at the top of its agenda, just as the Republic of Ireland, once dubbed Europe’s Celtic Tiger, entered a recession which was amplified by the global financial crisis.

Sabrina Crilly, a Catholic mother-of-three who lives on the opposite side of the barriers from Ledrum, wants the peace line to stay. Her stepfather was shot dead by Protestant terrorists during the conflict, one of about 3,500 people who were killed during the violence known as the Troubles.

“I’d never go into Tiger’s Bay,” Crilly said. “If the peace line came down, we’d move.”

In all, Northern Ireland has 42 peace lines, according to the Justice Ministry. Three-quarters of them are in Belfast.

Berlin Wall

The first 15 feet of the walls are mostly made from concrete, which is then topped by at least 15 foot of corrugated iron or wire mesh. Along some of the peace lines sectarian graffiti is scrawled, threatening to kill people on the other side. The Jerusalem Walls, part of the West Bank barrier, are about 26-feet high while the Berlin Wall was about 13 feet high.

While the government wants the walls torn down, they warn of the need to tread gently.

“If we go in and say we are taking the walls down, that will just cause more trouble,” Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster said in a July 1 interview. “There is a huge piece of work there. It will take time for people to start to trust each other.”

Lendrum on the housing project in north Belfast said she had her windows smashed by youths a few months ago.

“I feel let down by everybody,” Lendrum said. “Things were meant to get better with peace, it is better than it was. But for this area the peace process has past us by.”

--Editors: Rodney Jefferson, Dara Doyle

To contact the reporter on this story: Colm Heatley in Belfast at cheatley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Colin Keatinge in London at Ckeatinge@bloomberg.net


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