Young people demand more meaningful engagement on peace walls
Jointly sponsored by the School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and the Research and Information Service (RaISe) at the Northern Ireland Assembly, Professor Madeleine Leonard presented the findings of part of a five year research project, Conflict in Cities and the Contested State: Everyday Life and the Possibilities of Transformation in Belfast, Jerusalem and Other Divided Cities (www.conflictincities.org), funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). The aim of this research is to examine everyday life in a variety of divided cities at different stages of conflict or post-conflict, especially in Belfast and Jerusalem, but also in cities like Brussels, Berlin, Mostar, Nicosia, Berlin, Beirut, Tripoli and Kirkuk.
Prof. Leonard’s research is called Young people’s attitudes to ‘peacewalls’ in Belfast, and its aim is to try to understand young people’s experiences of the city, whether they see Belfast as a divided or a shared city, and how young people make, create and cross barriers and boundaries. The particular focus of the research project is also whether everyday micro-geographies of young people differ from those of adults, and if they do, in what way and whether these differences can shed light on the saliency or disruption of wider socio-political processes around territory and boundaries.
Belfast is undeniably a segregated city in terms of housing: over 90% of working class housing estates are populated by a single identity. Education is divided as well, with 96% of young people attending schools on the basis of religious background, according to Prof. Leonard. She used the terms ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ to define the educational system in Northern Ireland, because these terms are the most used by young people.
Prof. Leonard stressed that segregated space impacts more profoundly on young people than adults, as adults can have contact with the other communities at places like their workplace; young people do not have this opportunity because they are still in the school system and do not have the resources to move outside their locality and go, for instance, to the city centre. In short, young people are more trapped and influenced by their local spaces.
One aspect of the research was picture prompts to 125 teenagers from six schools in interface areas. There were shown eleven pictures of Belfast, including two city centre pictures; two parades (St. Patrick’s Day and the 12th of July); two wall murals (a loyalist and a republican one); two youth groups; two dividing walls; and one iconic building (Parliament Buildings).
A curious reaction was when some of the young people said that the picture of Parliament Buildings at Stormont was actually the White House. This reaction to the picture shows that there is still some work to do to make connections with the Northern Ireland political system of government.
The purpose of showing the young people the photos of parades and murals was to see how they talked about how their own community justifies (or not) the celebration of their traditions, and then see whether they are satisfied how the other community justifies the celebration of their traditions.
From the written questions on the photo prompts and the focus groups, Prof. Leonard found that young people’s attitudes to peace walls can be classified in six ways:
- Inclusionary Walls: Many young people were proud of their community, its history and the kinship connections.
- Exclusionary Walls: Tellingly, if a barrier defines a given territory of a group it also excludes the other group (‘They keep the Huns in and the Taigs out’, according to a Catholic boy). This reinforces ethno-national identities and defines safe and unsafe spaces.
- Necessary Walls: For some young people the peace walls were necessary since they were not sure about whether the ‘Troubles’ were over (‘It’s not as bad but it might get worse again’, according to a Protestant boy).
- Ineffective Walls: Yet there also was the perception of ineffectiveness regarding the walls. According to some of the young people, the peace walls do not actually stop both groups from attacking each other, as for example the ‘recreational rioting’ that happened in North Belfast 12th July 2010.
- Temporary Walls: Among the young people from the six interface schools, only 9% felt that they could be removed and 34% said they should never be removed. However, 57% of the young people felt the walls are about to be removed in 2-10 years.
- Invisible Walls: In interface areas, the walls have become a normal, natural, everyday feature. Prof. Leonard puts the example of a school situated right in front of a peace wall, where young people had not noticed that it was indeed a peace wall (according to a Catholic girl, ‘I thought they were just there for people to do graffiti’). Thus, in some cases young people do not pay attention to peace walls and do not show any curiosity on finding out who is living at the other side of the walls.
In conclusion, there is an optimism regarding the willingness of young people to try to bring both communities together. It appears young people do not see the walls as something fixed or natural, so most of them believe they could be removed in the future, as well as seeing themselves as part of the process of peace. However, it is true that many others do not have any curiosity for the other group.
Young people continue to say that they are still not part of public policies towards the resolution of the problems that still exist. Even if there has been some attempt to involve young people in cross-community activities, they are not significant meaningful contacts yet.