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In Belfast, fences are still best neighbors

Peace walls are growing in size, number

Alison Quinn and son Cein, 7, who are Catholic, live in a development that backs onto a peace wall. Alison Quinn and son Cein, 7, who are Catholic, live in a development that backs onto a peace wall. (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Shawn Pogatchnik
Associated Press / May 4, 2008

BELFAST - Lee Young, 8, and Cein Quinn, 7, live barely 200 yards apart, but they have never met, and maybe never will.

Lee is Protestant, Cein a Catholic - and their communities in Belfast's west inner city are separated by a wall called a peace line. It's nearly 40 years old and 40 feet high.

Ten years after peace was declared in Northern Ireland, one might have expected that Belfast's barriers would be torn down by now. But reality, as usual, is far messier. Not one has been dismantled. Instead they've grown in size and number.

The past decade of peacemaking has brought political elites of both sides together in a Catholic-Protestant government in hopes that their example would trickle down. Their experiment in cooperation, highlighted by the power-sharing government's first anniversary Thursday, has encouraged thriving employment, tourism, and nightlife.

But it has not delivered meaningful reconciliation. Instead, for dozens of front-line communities of Belfast, fences still make the best neighbors.

"The Troubles" began at these sectarian flashpoints in the late 1960s, and survive today in a legacy of mutual fear and loathing. The rate of sectarian killings has fallen to virtually zero thanks to cease-fires underpinned by IRA disarmament, and the feeling on both sides is that the barriers help keep that peace.

"No. No way does that peace line come down," said Cein's mother, Allison Quinn, 32, sitting on her living room sofa on the Catholic side of the fence alongside her sister and a cousin.

Despite its height, every so often a particularly strong-armed Protestant manages to hurl a brick over the top - enough to rattle any backyard barbecue.

"It's definitely not safe to take it down, and I don't think it ever will be. There's bitter loyalists over there," Quinn said, using a term for anti-Catholic militants. "They're out drinking in the street at night. If you take it down, they'd have easy access here and come over starting fights. You'd just be asking for trouble."

The wall 30 paces from her front door was born in 1969 as coils of barbed wire laid by British troops, shipped in following riots that forced hundreds of families, mostly Catholics, from their homes.

At the time, the senior British army commander, Lieutenant General Ian Freeland, stated: "The peace line will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city."

But those barbed-wire coils became miles-long brick walls separating Catholic from Protestant in west Belfast. Even higher walls shield a Catholic enclave in Protestant east Belfast, while the north side is carved up by dozens of smaller barriers.

In this city of 650,000, roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, only the university district and upper-class streets, chiefly on the south side, bear no clear-cut tribal identity.

The newest peace line, erected earlier this year, runs past one of Belfast's few "integrated" elementary schools - a place where Catholic and Protestant students are deliberately brought together. Less than 3 percent of Northern Ireland youths attend such schools.

Quinn, an unemployed single mother, loves her newly built town house, complete with oak floors and modern kitchen, its rent subsidized by the British government Housing Executive. That it's right by the barricade doesn't bother her at all.

"I would never move. It's so handy. And it's lovely," Quinn said emphatically.

Just then Cein comes in. Asked if he has ever gone next door to see the Protestants, Cein says no. Would he like to meet his neighbors and play in their playground?

"No way," he says with a smile. Why not? " 'Cuz they're ugly."

His mother shrugs. "I'd like him to mix with Protestant kids, but it's just not safe," she said.

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