DUBLIN (AP) — Northern Ireland hopes to tear down the so-called "peace lines" of Belfast — dozens of walls of brick, steel and barbed wire that divide Irish Catholic and British Protestant neighborhoods — within a decade, officials said Thursday. But in setting a deadline of 2023, it's a sign of how difficult the task will be.
The government unveiled the goal as part of wider plans to reduce divisions in what remains a profoundly polarized society 15 years after the Good Friday peace accord.
First Minister Peter Robinson, a Protestant, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a Catholic, said 10,000 people aged 16 to 24 who were out of school and unemployed would be offered one-year paid placements involving cross-community work designed to help them build friendships with peers from the other side. They said 100 summer camps would bring together younger children from across the divide.
And Robinson and McGuinness said 10 new neighborhoods would be built that recruit balanced numbers of Protestant and Catholic families, a rarity in a land where nine-tenths of residential areas are overwhelmingly one side or the other.
The headline-grabber was their aim to remove the dozens of security fences that scar the urban landscape of Belfast. The biggest of the barriers date to 1970 after the British territory's sectarian conflict roared to life with major Catholic-Protestant street battles.
The walls have kept growing in number and size during the past two decades of relative peace, and surveys suggest that people living in front-line communities least want to see them disappear because of periodic rioting and a persistent threat of vandalism.
Robinson said no walls would come down until years of patient community work reassured residents on both sides that their homes would be safe from attack. Homes nearest the walls have windows covered with wire grills to prevent them from being shattered by thrown objects.
"Nobody has anything to fear. The bulldozers will not be arriving in the morning to take down any of the peace walls," he said.
Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord did pave the way for major peacemaking achievements, including the creation of a unity government, reform of a mostly Protestant police force, and disarmament of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and other outlawed paramilitary groups. Politically motivated killings that once averaged 100 a year have reduced to virtually zero.
But the persistence, and relative popularity, of peace lines reflect the reality that communities in the most impoverished, embittered pockets of Belfast do have deep-seated reasons to fear each other.
Belfast suffered significant intercommunal clashes in December and January, with mob violence focused on some peace lines, and police fear the same could happen again in July during the territory's annual parades by Protestant hard-liners.