Wed, Jul 09, 2003 - Page 16 News List

Tear down the walls!

The 1998 Good Friday agreement was supposed to have brought Northern Ireland's warring factions together, but the divides remain

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BELFAST

A girl passes a mural of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker who died in prison in 1981, in Belfast's Falls Road area. In Northern Ireland, the past has always haunted the present. But in a host of infamous murder cases, the past is being exhumed as never before. The British government has at least seven inquiries under consideration or underway.

PHOTO: NYT

It was an article of faith that the Good Friday agreement would tear down the walls dividing Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland. But five years after the historic accord, the walls have grown higher in many places.

The real walls, the ones made of corrugated steel and barbed wire that separate the Catholic and Protestant enclaves, have been reinforced in time for the summer marching season, when Protestant parades cut through Catholic neighborhoods, regularly touching off serious rioting.

The other walls that divide people, the ones that were to be dismantled under the 1998 accord's formula for two bitter enemies to learn to share power, also remain. Community activists say that, although life is undeniably better than before, the institutions that sprung from the accord have failed to bridge Northern Ireland's deep sectarian divide.

With yet another political crisis effectively suspending the political institutions forged out of the agreement, many here feel that all sides need to go beyond politics if this divided society is to knit itself together. For now, even the real walls, with their new 3m extensions of wire mesh, can do little to stop the rocks and Molotov cocktails and slurs from coming over the divide with regularity.

The most imposing of these barriers -- referred to here with Orwellian irony as "peace walls" -- stretches for 3km along Springfield Road, dividing West Belfast's Falls Road neighborhood from Shankill Road. Falls Road is a predominantly Catholic community; Shankill Road is mostly Protestant.

Tommy Gorman and Noel Large come from opposite sides of that divide. Gorman, born Catholic, supports the Irish nationalist pledge to force the British out of the six northern counties and unite the island as one republic. Large, born Protestant, is a British loyalist who thinks the province should remain under the crown.

Once mortal enemies in the 30-year sectarian conflict that has claimed 3,352 lives, Gorman and Large now work together to try to defuse the threat of summer violence. They successfully handled their first challenge last weekend in the Protestant Orange Order's Whiterock parade, which cuts along the Catholic side of the Springfield Road.

That was a huge improvement over last summer, when the Whiterock parade sparked some of the worst rioting in recent years. Last year, nationalists were furious that loyalist marchers were permitted to enter the Catholic neighborhood along Springfield Road. Violence broke out, and police moved in with water cannons and rubber bullets. Twenty-six police officers and 50 civilians were injured.

The story of how Gorman and Large have worked together to make sure such violence does not recur this summer indicates just how far Northern Ireland has come since 1998 and how much farther it has to go if the two sides are to achieve a lasting peace.

Even in the shadows of the walls, people would agree with Gorman and Large that things are better now than they were before the peace deal. Far fewer funeral corteges for "martyrs" wind through Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. There are signs of an improving economy. Important reforms of the police force are underway. Several inquiries are unearthing injustices of the past. Hundreds of prisoners on both sides have been released.

The pace of life is no longer dictated by street violence and bombings. That means more freedom of movement, especially for young people. As the threat of sectarian hatred fades, Belfast's once boarded-up city center is bustling with life. The huge plate-glass windows in a recently completed waterfront development reflect public confidence that the Irish Republican Army's bombing campaign is over.

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