Peace Walls in Belfast

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You will forgive me for beginning a post on the peace walls in Belfast with an image of Madiba. But the truth is that being in Belfast provoked much thought about home – the conflicts in both places reached their heights near the same time and within several years of each other had moved towards peace agreements and transition (our first democratic elections and the IRA ceasefire both happening in 1994). One of the sessions I went to at BERA was on how you teach children about their history in societies in (post-conflict) transition, particularly when divisions and discontent are still balanced on the edge of a sword. The researchers spoke about how important it is for educators to begin these hugely difficult (and often painful) discussions of what we did to each other, the importance of conflict resolution, and the role teachers play in beginning these conversations with young people. Such conversations are particularly difficult in a city like Belfast where education is still divided along religious lines, despite the introduction of integrated schools, and so children may not have the opportunity to make friends with ‘the other’. The session made me wonder about how we teach the story of our history in South Africa? What do we teach young people? How do we have these conversations? How do we explain what happened? (For one example of how you can have these conversations by learning from political ex-prisoners, see here; and you can read an evaluation of the programme here.)

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In order to contemplate all these questions I took a morning off from the conference to wander the areas of west Belfast that feature some of the many peace walls that litter the city. I walked down from the Shankill Road (unionist) to the Falls Road (republican), along Cupar Way – the biggest peace wall in Belfast. It is imposing. The wall itself is heightened by a fence on top, making it double or triple the size of a ‘normal’ wall; keeping the neighbourhoods on either sides separate and divided. The wall is covered in murals and graffiti. The neighbourhoods surrounding the wall felt poor and economically depressed. Vast abandoned lots had been let over to wild grasses (sometimes these were the result of forced removals and demolition). Random graffiti was sprayed over the murals. There was none of the new construction and building that was on display in the city centre and docklands. There was hardly anyone about and on several occasions I suddenly wondered if walking along this wall was the best idea (other tourists hopped in and out of taxis). The main Shankill and Falls roads were full of people, walking purposively towards their Thursday morning destination, but the routes between them were eerily silent except for the tourists and occasional magpie.

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The murals on the peace walls themselves are fascinating. There are many signatures of visitors on the artworks (and notices imploring people to only write on the white, blank spaces – all obviously ignored). Some murals were clearly political but others I struggled to understand the meanings of. Along the sides of buildings on the Falls and Shankill roads are paramilitary murals – dedications to those who fought in the conflict or lost their lives in protest.

Shankill Road Murals (and flags outside a shop):

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Falls Road Murals:

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It is fascinating to contemplate living with this visual reminder of history. Does one not notice them after a while? Or does the continued presence of these murals fuel bitter memories? Does it begin conversations? I finished my walk along the International Wall, which features various activists from around the world.

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