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Can Architecture Resolve Conflict?: The Legacy of Northern Ireland's Peace Walls

A key element within architecture that can create a beautiful sense of enclosure or an intimidating space, are walls. In Northern Ireland the wall symbolises a history of conflict and separation, associated with the violent events of The Troubles. The conflict was territorial, not religious, between Irish Nationalist (mostly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and Unionist (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). The start of the conflict came from the status of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Between 1968 and 1998, over 3,600 people in total were killed and almost 50,000 more were injured or maimed. Parts of architecture associated with this period are called "Peace" Walls.

Map of Peace Lines, Northern Ireland

Built as a temporary structure that was originally only to last six months, the Peace Walls were mostly built in Belfast as a division between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods. What started off as only a few in number, today reaches an estimated eighty, stretching over twenty-one miles (thirty-four kilometres) and up to 7.5 metres in height. One such wall is even built through the playground of a primary school in north Belfast! Some have gates that are open during the day, closed at night, and are usually staffed by police. Constructed of iron, brick and/or steel, the walls cast a vast shadow over the residences on either side of them.

Peace Wall shadowing on residence, Northern Ireland

Eventhough The Troubles officially ended due to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, it is difficult to recognise political progress with the enduring relics of division that the Walls still create. In comparison, the Peace Walls are much bigger than the Berlin Wall ever was and yet they fell twenty-one years ago.

So why are they still standing? First of all, a study released in 2012 revealed that 69% of residents believe that political violence is still occurring today and that the Walls help with protection on either side. Therefore the shadow of a simple architectural element has created a sense of enclosure and protection for the people caught within this divide. Additionally, Belfast has a vast political history and the relics of these Walls help to boost tourism for the city.

On the other hand, the division between the Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods is still evident in modern society. Hence the removal of the vast walls would be an attempt for reconnection. Only in 2008 did public discussions start as to how and when the Peace Walls could be removed. Through long discussions, government has come up with a ten-year plan to tear down the Peace Walls.

The architectural intervention of the wall has established protection for many communities, while casting a historical shadow of remembrance on the past. Can the use of architecture prevent or even stop conflict entirely?

Credits: Images by James Foskett and linked to source. Data linked to sources.