If you’ve been following international news recently, you should have heard about the rioting in Northern Ireland. Buses are being burned, petrol bombs (AKA “Molotov cocktails” in some places) are being thrown at police officers, and bricks are being lobbed over the “Peace Wall” in Belfast.
Two years ago, Janine, her mom Carla, and I visited the Peace Wall. It’s complicated trying to understand the purpose and history of these barriers throughout Northern Ireland – and piecing it all together with what’s happening today – but here’s a couple hundred years consolidated into a quick read:
1801: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed.
1921/1922: Having sought autonomy since the 1870s, Irish nationalists reached a truce with the British, ending the War of Independence. Northern Ireland was formed and remained part of the United Kingdom. The rest of the island became the Irish Free State (the same area we recognize as Ireland today) and was granted the right to self-govern as a “dominion” (or colony) under the British Empire.
1949: Ireland sought full autonomy from the British by declaring itself a republic. Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K.
1960s: In Northern Ireland, Irish nationalists (traditionally Catholics) began protesting housing, voting, and job discrimination carried out by the unionists / U.K. loyalists (traditionally Protestants) in power. This was the start of the era known as “The Troubles.”
1972: Bombings and shootings in Northern Ireland by the Irish Republican Army (“IRA” / Ireland nationalists) and Ulster Defence Association (“UDA” / U.K. loyalists) peaked. During January in Derry/Londonderry, “Bloody Sunday” (as in the U2 classic “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and songs by many other artists) saw 26 civilians shot (13 died that day) by British soldiers during a protest against internment-without-trial of people suspected to be involved with the IRA. During July in Belfast, the IRA set off at least 20 bombs across the city within 80 minutes, killing 9 people. 1998: The “Good Friday Agreement” was signed, finally ending most of the violence. In part, the accord increased cooperation between Ireland and the U.K. and decommissioned weapons held by the paramilitary groups (detailed reading here).
2021: The ever-complicated matter of Brexit created an issue of trade borders, since Northern Ireland (still part of the U.K.) and Ireland (an E.U. country) occupy the same island, of course. How do you check goods being transported between an EU and non-EU country? A lot of people don’t want customs posts and fences lining the border. The last time strict borders separated these countries, during The Troubles, over 3,600 people were killed, and some bombings were at the border crossings. As a Brexit “backstop,” in case a deal between the E.U. and U.K. couldn’t be worked out in a given time, the entire island could become a hard customs border, leaving a lot of unionists angry that Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.
As Britannica says, “The complexity of those political markers is captured in a graffito once scrawled on Belfast walls that read ‘If you are not confused you don’t understand the situation.’”
Although much of the violence in Northern Ireland subsided after the 1998 deal, an uneasy stillness remained during our visit in 2019. Along the way to Londonderry/Derry, we saw a road sign with the “London” part spray painted over. At the pub nearest our B&B, the bartender briefly told us about his time as a soldier in the 1990s, during which he watched a man blow himself up with a car bomb. I wanted to find out and understand more but, knowing soldiers with PTSD, I took only the stories he volunteered.
In the daylight hours of the early evening, most of the restaurants and shops had already closed. In the middle of town, a free-standing wall famous for a message painted on one side reads: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY. This marks what was a self-declared autonomous zone, controlled by Irish nationalists, from 1969-1972. Nearby, large paintings recalling the strife and destruction adorn the ends of three-story buildings.
In Londonderry, there’s a beautiful, modern “Peace Bridge” and a “Peace Flame” burning nearby. It’s almost as if peace was hammered enough into everyones’ psyche that it was willed to be.
Onto to Belfast, we crammed a lot into our short stay, and part of that included a long walk to the aforementioned Peace Wall. In Londonderry, where peace had the feeling of a forced concept, it’s physically manifested in Belfast by an 18 ft. (5.5m) high wall separating the U.K.-loyalist/Protestant and Ireland-nationalist/Catholic neighborhoods. When is a barrier more than just a barrier? When it becomes a giant panel for street art. All kinds of concepts line the way, and covering such a long span, it’s hard to tell where it starts and where it ends.
We tried relating to some of the messages, we took photos, then we started to head back. The metal gate we had walked through 20 minutes before, which didn’t seem as imposing then, was now closed and padlocked. There we stood, on a quiet street lined on both sides with tall security fences, with no clue how – or if – we could get out. The Peace Wall suddenly felt like an art exhibit inside a prison.
Following the road, the giant wall finally gave way to shorter, spike-topped iron fencing. Eventually, we found a series of gates that hadn’t been closed and locked for the night. Those led us back to where we needed to be.
Over the years, politicians have debated if the Peace Wall is still necessary. Given the new anxieties provoked by Brexit, tourists should still be able to find themselves stuck within these fortifications for years to come.
“Fear at the Peace Wall in Belfast” Written by Justin Kilmer, Edited by Janine Kilmer Any purchase from our Fine Art America portfolio helps support future travels and writings.
A portion of the images depicted are available for stock media licensing at: https://www.pond5.com/artist/kilmermedia
Unless otherwise noted, all media and text on this page are copyrighted © by Justin Kilmer. Artwork depicted is subject to copyright by their respective creators.
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