Perched on the side of Black Mountain overlooking West Belfast, Quaker House – a Protestant congregation promoting peace – is more of a sheepfold than a place of spiritual retreat. From the balcony of this local institution, the view of the Northern Irish capital is impressive. In the background, cargo ships from Great Britain entering the port, then the domes of the town hall and, closer, the popular districts of Falls and Shankill, monotonous rows of red brick pavilions. “And there, just below, you can see what in the neighborhood is called the million brick wall [“le mur au million de briques”]. Its construction only started in 1996, two years before the peace treaty”, notes Seamus Corr, head of the Black Mountain Shared Project, pointing to an enormous enclosure (6 meters high, almost 1 kilometer long) separating two residential blocks, Catholic in the West, Protestant in the East. Hosted in the Quaker House, his association has been working for years to bring these two communities closer together.
It is the most massive of Belfast’s aptly named ‘peace walls’, most of which were erected in the early 1970s when the civil war between nationalist Catholics began in favor of reunification of Ireland, and Protestant Unionists or Loyalists, in favor of maintaining Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. Twenty-five years after the signing of the Good Friday peace treaty on April 10, 1998, while Belfast is multiplying the commemorations, these walls are still as numerous (nearly a hundred) in the Northern Irish capital, material proof of a laborious reconciliation. Because, if the weapons have largely fallen silent, mistrust and fear remain.
Covered with frescoes on the outskirts of the city center, these separations have become tourist attractions. But when you move away, to the west towards the Black Mountain, to the north towards the port or to the east towards the old shipyards, the walls still run along the backyards, enclose schools, social centers , legacies of segregations dating back at least a century. Some routes have gates that close after dark. Others are even completely blocked, forcing inconvenient detours.
Instead of million brick wall, before 1996, there was a lower wall, weakened by breaches. Neighborhood residents were concerned, says Seamus Corr, “They were afraid that the community opposite would slip in and intimidate them. The police did not move. A friend of mine, Paul Thomson, was shot dead in the street in 1994.” The murderers entered through a breach in the Catholic quarter, the assassination was claimed by members of the Ulster Defense Association (UDA), a loyalist paramilitary militia. “That’s why the authorities built the million brick wall », adds the social worker, a Catholic from West Belfast. Along the path leading up to the Quaker House, another wall was erected even more recently, in 2014. It blocks access to a vacant lot. “There were gangs of young people causing trouble, people asked for protection”, eexplained Mr. Corr.
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