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Belfast puts faith in its 40-year-old 'peace line'

As the power-sharing government marks its first anniversary, the wall gives comfort to Catholics and Protestants alike.

May 18, 2008|Shawn Pogatchnik | Associated Press

BELFAST, NORTHERN IRELAND — Lee Young, 8, and Cein Quinn, 7, live barely 200 yards apart, but they have never met, and maybe never will.

Lee is Protestant, Cein Catholic -- and their communities in Belfast's west inner city are separated by a wall called a peace line. It's nearly 40 years old and 40 feet high.

Ten years after peace was declared in Northern Ireland, one might have expected that Belfast's barriers would be torn down by now. But reality, as usual, is far messier. Not one has been dismantled. Instead they've grown in both size and number.

The past decade of peacemaking has brought political elites of both sides together in a Catholic-Protestant government in hopes that their example would trickle down. Their experiment in cooperation, highlighted by the power-sharing government's first anniversary earlier this month, has encouraged thriving employment, tourism and night life.

But it has not delivered meaningful reconciliation. Instead, for dozens of front-line communities of Belfast, fences still make the best neighbors.

"The Troubles" began at these sectarian flash points in the late 1960s, and survive today in a legacy of mutual fear and loathing. The rate of sectarian killings has fallen to virtually zero thanks to cease-fires underpinned by IRA disarmament, and the feeling on both sides is that the barriers help keep that peace.

"No. No way does that peace line come down," said Cein's mother, Allison Quinn, 32, sitting on her living room sofa on the Catholic side of the fence alongside her sister and a cousin.

Despite its height, every so often a particularly strong-armed Protestant manages to hurl a brick over the top -- enough to rattle any backyard barbecue.

"It's definitely not safe to take it down, and I don't think it ever will be. There's bitter loyalists over there," Quinn said, using a term for anti-Catholic militants. "They're out drinking in the street at night. If you take it down, they'd have easy access here and come over starting fights. You'd just be asking for trouble."

The wall 30 paces from her front door was born in 1969 as makeshift coils of barbed wire laid by British troops, shipped in after riots that forced hundreds of families, mostly Catholic, from their homes.

At the time, the senior British army commander, Lt. Gen. Ian Freeland, predicted: "The peace line will be a very, very temporary affair. We will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city."

But those barbed-wire coils became miles-long brick walls separating Catholic from Protestant in west Belfast. Still higher walls shield a Catholic enclave in Protestant east Belfast, while the north side is carved up by dozens of smaller barriers.

In this city of 650,000, roughly half Catholic and half Protestant, only the university district and upper-class streets, chiefly on the south side, bear no clear-cut tribal identity.

The newest peace line, erected this year, runs past one of Belfast's few "integrated" elementary schools -- where Catholic and Protestant students are deliberately brought together. Fewer than 3% of Northern Ireland children attend such schools.

Quinn, an unemployed single mother, loves her newly built townhouse, complete with oak floors and modern kitchen, its rent subsidized by the British government. That it's right by the barricade doesn't matter.

"I would never move. It's so handy. And it's lovely," Quinn says emphatically.

Just then her boy Cein comes in, rubbing his head after bumping it on a curbstone while playing outside. He's soon immersed in his handheld video game.

Asked if he's ever gone next door to see the Protestants, Cein says no. Would he like to meet his neighbors and play in their playground?

"No way," he says with a smile. Why not? "Cause they're ugly."

His mother shrugs. "I'd like him to mix with Protestant kids, but it's just not safe," she says.

Outside Quinn's cul-de-sac, children's voices float over from beyond the wall. By day, when the peace line is opened for traffic, those kids are a few minutes' walk away. By dusk, when the doors are locked, it might take an hour.

On the Protestant side of the wall is a fenced-in concrete soccer field. Here a stranger is greeted by two boys who let loose with suspicious questions and bigoted quips. Their fathers belong to the UDA, the Ulster Defense Assn., a militant Protestant group that killed more than 300 Catholics from 1971 until its 1994 cease-fire.

"Are youse a taig?" says one burly boy, using an insulting word for an Irish Catholic.

"It's all taigs over there," says another, waving dismissively at the wall. "They're soap-dodgers, so they are."

Soap-dodgers?

"Sure, them ones never take a shower. You can smell 'em from here."

The boys laugh and resume their game.

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