The argument has once again been made in a new book that the so-called “Peace Walls” should come down.
However, I cannot help but think such arguments are, both literally and metaphorically, academic. No Northern Irish people seriously believes “Peace Walls” are a positive thing, any more than Americans believe multiple weekly gun massacres are a positive thing. Yet more of them have gone up than come down since the so-called “Peace Agreement” of 1998.
It is frustrating that so many articles and books come out about the theory of such things, and yet so little effort is made to look at the practice. If “Peace Walls” are so obviously a bad thing (and it does not take a genius to work that out), why are they still up? Indeed, why has there been so little progress in taking them down? And let us be clear, anyone with a real knowledge of Northern Ireland knows there is no chance of their removal by 2023.
The fundamental reason for Peace Walls is, of course, not difficult to assess and does not require a book – there is a genuine fear underlying them. They are seen as direct protection for communities who simply do not trust their neighbours enough to do without them. Whether this fear and distrust is theoretically justified is almost irrelevant – fear and distrust are emotional, not rational.
There is a second fundamental issue here, which I touched on in yesterday’s blog. It is that local politicians follow; they do not lead. Why would they make genuine efforts to build bridges, reduce tensions and remove fear, when they actually thrive on (and get elected on the basis of) the status quo? It is an incredibly obvious point, yet academics and other external observers never address it. (As for the 2023 deadline, neither Mr Robinson nor Mr McGuinness will likely be around the be judged on it; and even if they are, they will play the standard blame game – why do people not get this?!)
There is a constant failing in broad academia to deal with the actual motivations of politicians and other “community leaders”. Such people simply do not read academic articles and think “Hey, I hadn’t thought of that; let’s do that!”
The very basic issue here is that people with little to lose will inevitably cling to a “community”, which gives them at least a sense of belonging and some feeling, at least, of strength in numbers. This is why, for example, immigrant communities spring up in new locations – as social networks designed to maximise the information flow and give members of the community at least some foundation in their surroundings. The standard example is the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” in New York – a means whereby new, Spanish-speaking arrivals in the metropolis could find both community and employment.
The problem is, however, that there comes a time when you have to move beyond that “community”; when in fact that community is limiting you. We are absolutely at that stage on either side of the “Peace Walls” and in other inner-city areas, as noted yesterday. It is understandable – up to a point at least – why people would come together to demand public services, community space and even cultural expression. None of that, however, especially when cast in a single-identity manner, actually moves the community forward. At best, it retains a status quo which suits politicians and other “community leaders” who are elected (or, well, appointed) on the back of it, but does not actually suit the community when looked at even vaguely rationally; at worst, it marginalises the community completely, making its members unable to take any of the opportunities available in the wider (diverse) society beyond the walls. This is exactly the same as the obvious point that there comes a time when a resident of New York aspires to more than speaking only Spanish socially to people dreaming of a distant island while driving taxis to get by; there comes a time when you realise you need to socialise in the main language of the city and to engage in knowledge and cultural exchange with a much wider group of people in order to get a better paid career – and thus, despite its initial value, the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” becomes not a key to pulling you up, but a chain holding you down.
However, even all that is theory. After all, I or anyone else can write all we like about why the Peace Walls are a bad idea. Maybe it even serves to alleviate our Middle Class Guilt. However, actually doing the bridge-building at the interfaces is extraordinarily gruelling and largely thankless work, swimming in most cases against the local political and representative tide. It is not something I could do. I doubt it is something the authors of these wonderful books and academic papers could do either. The one thing we do need to do is to recognise that our external work will make not a jot of difference.
If they are to have any value at all, we need academics and civic actors to do much more than talk about how good an idea something would be; we need them to show us how it can be made to happen. Sadly, I see decreasing evidence of people even being prepared to take on that challenge, far less deliver on it.