Stretching Out the Conflict

For five years I was minister to a congregation on the longest peaceline in Northern Ireland, snaking for 3 miles from near the centre of Belfast to half-way up the Springfield Road, keeping the Catholic/Republican community of the Falls Road and greater west Belfast separated from the Protestant/Loyalist community of the Shankill/Woodvale, and in the process it divided the premises belonging to Springfield Road Methodist in two... leaving their front door on the Catholic side of the wall and most of their members on the other!

The ironic thing is that the wall only became a permanent structure AFTER the paramilitary ceasefires, and specifically, because of President Bill Clinton's visit to the area in 1997. The old corrugated iron fence was taken down and it was replaced by a much prettier, but infinitely more permanent brink wall... And since that time the wall has been extended with a 30 foot wire mesh fence on top, to prevent stone-throwing and petrol bombing...

At the recent conversation of the Theology and Practice of Reconciliation, Duncan Morrow suggested that the conflict here in Northern Ireland has never been resolved, merely attenuated. Historically the peacelines have been the perfect physical manifestations of that... Barriers erected to supposedly keep the peace, that just kept getting longer and higher, and replicating themselves all across Belfast... Leaving North Belfast in particular like some kind of giant maze. Not all of them are as attractive as the Springfield Road wall, but then US Presidents are never going to see most of them, and local residents really don't matter. The irony of them being called peacelines is that they have continued to be faultlines of unresolved conflict, exploding into episodes of stone-throwing and petrol bombing at times of community tension. And so long as the walls actually remain, the possibilities for proper resolution will be limited, and can limit the effectiveness of programmes specifically focused on improving community relations, including the Forthspring project that operates out of the Springfield Road Methodist premises. It was again ironic that the most recent addition to our maze of peacelines actually runs through the premises of an integrated primary school.

But now the trend is shifting from intensional physical barriers at these interface areas towards more subtle forms of social engineering, fuelled by economic investment. For example, a few months ago the go-ahead was given for a new apartment complex on one of the key peacelines in North Belfast... But this is just a new spin on an old strategy... the only novelty is that in the context of proven "peace" we can look for private investment rather than public money. In the seventies and eighties we "erased" interfaces through roads programmes such as the West Link and Woodstock Link (which ironically served to sever age-old links as well as fossilize equally age-old tensions across those particular interfaces). And other investment programmes in housing, leisure services (building Catholic and Protestant leisure centres so that our housing, education AND leisure time could be kept unintegrated), and the recent economic-initiation of thousands of tiny single identity community programmes have all been examples of ill-thought out economic investment which has helped to distract us from our problems rather than help us to resolve them. But, as Duncan Morrow pointed out, it has worked. Thanks to the economic investment of the government and others Northern Ireland did not become another Bosnia... However, I would prefer a higher marker of success than that!

I fear that the current Assembly budget and Programme for Government, which offers us a shared-out future rather than a truly shared future, will actually fuel division and foster a different form of interface. In my latter years of working in in my previous station my time was taken up, not so much by the peace line on the Springfield Road, which people had grown to accept as a fact of life, but rioting, racism and general discontent at the other end of my patch, in Sandy Row, a 110% Protestant, Loyalist, post-working class housing estate. All interfaces with Catholic areas had been effectively erased by the developments of the 1970s and 80s, but a more subtle interface had developed with the so-called "Golden Mile" - Great Victoria Street, Shaftesbury Square and Bradbury Place, where the students and well-to-do of Belfast and beyond came to party... going to restaurants, night-clubs, cinemas and the theatre. The contrast could not have been starker. The young people of Sandy Row felt that this world was denied them and were looking for someone... anyone to blame...

This phenomenon is not unusual. In many other cities that have looked to economic investment as the magic bullet for their social problems they have seen the rich get richer while the poor get slightly less poor, but feel poorer (See my previous blog on the situation in Manchester).

We need not only an investment in economic capital, but social capital... Strengthening the social infrastructure not only within deprived areas, but also strengthening links across sectarian, racial and economic divides.

The sectarian conflict here wasn't resolved... we have learned to live with is through adaptive learning. And the danger is that we may learn to live with economic inqualities too... But as Christians we are called not to adapt or conform, but to be transformed and to transform by the renewing of our minds.

I originally drafted this in the wake of the Consultation on Theology and Practice of Reconciliation and never got around to posting it with my pre-easter malaise. I now float it in the run up to yet another pow-wow on the relationship between reconciliation and poverty, again addressed by Duncan Morrow, in the Forthspring centre that I mention in the blog. It is also to include input from "His Excellency Mr. Pierre Nkurunziza, President of the Republic of Burundi."


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