The city of Belfast in Northern Ireland is still divided by some 100 different "peace walls" separating Catholics and Protestants. Recently there have been some tentative steps to try to open up the barriers.
On a freezing cold, blustery spring morning, Alexandra Park in Belfast is all but deserted. A lone swan clings to the shore of a large pond; a woman walking her dog disappears under the trees in the distance. But what really draws your attention is a three-meter high, corrugated steel fence, covered with lurid graffiti, which cuts the park in two.
Alexandra Park sits on a so-called interface line between two neighborhoods: one Protestant, the other Catholic. The park has been divided since September 1, 1994, a day after the IRA (Irish Republican Army) declared its historic ceasefire after a quarter of a century of armed struggle to get the British out of Northern Ireland. Over 3,000 people died in the conflict.
Nearly 20 years later, the two communities are still deeply segregated, but the violence has eased. Last September, for the first time, a "peace gate" was opened in Alexandra Park to allow people from both communities to pass freely through to the other side.
"It's been years since I've been down there. I've been actually afraid to go," said one local resident from the Catholic community. Now, though, she feels safe enough to enter the other side. "I love going down now that it's opened, I really appreciate it being opened and I hope it stays opened."
A symbol of progress
To an outsider, the sight of the wall is pretty forbidding. The gate is still locked every afternoon at 3pm, and only opened again at 9am the following morning. But for community relations workers like Kate Clarke, of the North Belfast Interface Network, even the temporary opening of the gate represents a huge leap forward. She has worked tirelessly with local residents to get the idea off the ground.
"It didn't happen on its own," Clarke said in an interview with DW. "Three years of work and planning went into it … The park was very underused. The trees were being burnt. There was a lot of anti-social [behavior] that was going on. Before that, there was rioting; there was people badly hurt in the park."
Throughout the period of conflict known as "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, the park was a flashpoint for sectarian violence. The barrier made people living nearby feel a lot safer.
The wall in Alexandra Park is by no means unique in Belfast. A recent report listed 99 interface barriers in the city. Many date from the time of the armed conflict, but around a third have been erected or strengthened since the ceasefire in 1994.
David Ford, Northern Ireland's Justice Minister and leader of the liberal Alliance Party, says the opening of the gate in Alexandra Park is part of his party's wider aim to build a shared society, free of sectarian divisions. Ford, who assumed office in 2010, is Northern Ireland's first justice minister for nearly 40 years. In 1972, as a result of growing unrest in Northern Ireland, the British government in Westminster took direct control over security in the region.
"Since I came in as minister, I've tried to put into practice what would be the aim of my party, because the Alliance party is committed to building a shared future for all our people," Ford told DW. "So we've been seeking to remove the barriers or to open barriers, and that's been one of the key aims I've got, which is now part of the program … for the entire executive."
Ford said the opening of the gate in Alexandra Park carries a huge significance: "At one level, it was a very small thing to do. At another level, it was actually hugely symbolic, because until we had devolution of justice, the policy of the Northern Ireland Office, the ministers coming over from London, was in the face of any trouble; they tended to put up a barrier - we're now about removing them."
But, as Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research points out, many local residents feel protected by the walls, and are reluctant to remove them.
"The reason why people want them to remain is because they can probably remember what it was like when the barriers were not there and why the barriers were put up." Jarman explained. "Their houses have been stoned, they may have suffered petrol bomb attacks, there may in some cases have been shots fired in the locality. And this may have been going on for days, weeks, months."
Belfast's 'Berlin Wall'
On the surface, the center of Belfast looks like any other British city, bustling with shoppers and office workers in the lunch hour. But as soon as you enter the residential areas, the divisions are plain to see.
In the largely Protestant east Belfast, the British flag flies high over loyalist housing estates. On street corners, you can see memorials to paramilitary fighters who lost their lives in the conflict.
In the predominantly Catholic west Belfast, many walls are adorned with murals, celebrating the Irish language and Irish heritage. Tourists come here to photograph the most famous peace wall that divides the city's most notorious streets, the Catholic Falls Road and the Protestant Shankill Road. The wall is some 800 meters long and consists of a concrete barrier, topped with metal sheeting and wire mesh. Towering up to a height of over 11 meters (36 feet) and covered in political murals, it resembles the Berlin Wall.
But that's where the similarity ends. The Berlin Wall divided two states with differing ideologies. The wall enclosed the whole of west Berlin, cutting off access to East Germans. In Belfast, there is no single wall, but rather a scattered collection of barriers - and there is always a way around them. For that reason, Justice Minister David Ford doesn't think that the residents of Belfast will ever rise up to tear the barriers down.
"I don't think we will see those dramatic scenes of people banging away with their sledgehammers in a completely disorganized but community-coming-together way. What I do think we will see is the kind of warmth and good will that I saw from both sides of Alexandra Park, and from political representatives. That people were there because they wanted to see change, they wanted to see the gate opened."
Walls in the minds
But removing the barriers may be easier said than done. The walls have become entrenched in the very fabric of the city. The residents have learnt to live with them.
"The barriers are really a manifestation of people's own fears," explained Paul O'Neill, a community development coordinator in North Belfast.
"The problem is very, very profound. It's deep-set, it's historical," O'Neill told DW. "And as it stands now, communities are still segregated, there are still walls, and that's the work at hand: How do we actually challenge this? How do we actually change the mindsets that will allow people to feel that they can live together?"
The vast majority of the walls are in the more economically deprived parts of Belfast, where people have to cope with additional issues like drug addiction, unemployment and poor housing. O'Neill and others are fighting for more investment to lift these communities out of poverty. "The legacy of conflict is extremely difficult to address, particularly if you look at the social and economic conditions in which people live within these areas. There are no peace lines or barriers in upper-class or middle-class areas. They're in working-class areas, where the conflict was fought out."
The open conflict may have largely ended, but rioting still flares up every year during the marching season in July, when the Protestant Orange Order traditionally stages marches which run through Catholic neighborhoods, sparking tension. Neil Jarman says so far there have been few, if any, problems, in the four areas where barriers have been removed in the last six months. But, he warns, the cold weather may play a role in that:
"It's early days and the winter time is the best time for doing that in Northern Ireland, because that's the time when there are fewest incidents. So the test will come as we move into the parade season, the marching season, which is when you would normally expect to have a greater degree of incidents."
Author: Joanna Impey, Belfast
Editor: Gabriel Borrud