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Still Divided Northern Ireland's Uneasy Peace

  Police prevented a man from advancing in North Belfast on June 20 after the annual Tour of the North parade by the Orange Order. (Globe Staff Photo / Barry Chin)
More photos

Despite accord, walls remain

Five years after the 'Good Friday' agreement, Belfast finds unity elusive

By Charles M. Sennott, Globe Staff, 7/6/2003

First in a series


Five years after accord, Belfast finds unity elusive

Next few months seen as decisive in peace process

British government accused in lawyer's slaying

To move on, a call for 'total truth'



Theresa McNeill with her sons on the Catholic side of the peace wall.
Pictures from Belfast


Patrick Finucane's widow Geraldine with her son, John.
The Patrick Finucane case


Visitors to the peace wall along Cupar Way in Belfast.
Looking to the future

(Globe Staff Photos / Barry Chin)


A look at the major Catholic and Protestant groups


Policing Northern Ireland


Questions for Gerry Adams and David Trimble
The Globe's Charles Sennott sat down with the Sinn Fein president and the Ulster Unionist Party leader. Read excerpts from the interviews.


Belfast accord hailed as a 'new beginning'
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff

The long, bloody path to Irish peace
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff

A resounding vote for Irish peace
By Kevin Cullen and Elizabeth Neuffer, Globe Staff

In an Ulster town, hate still thrives
By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff


IRA statement on Northern Ireland peace process


Text of Good Friday agreement

Northern Ireland census
Recent census information is available from the Northern Ireland Statistics & Research Agency at

Police Service of Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Executive

Bloody Sunday Enquiry

Stevens Enquiry
Report on the latest Patrick Finucane investigation, released April 17.

(PDF file requires Adobe Acrobat)

British-Irish Rights Watch
Report on the Finucane case from an independent human rights group.

Pat Finucane Centre
Links to reports and news articles on the Finucane case.

ELFAST -- It was an article of faith that the Good Friday agreement would tear down the walls dividing Catholic and Protestant Northern Ireland.

But five years after the historic accord, the walls have grown higher in many places.

The real walls, the ones made of corrugated steel and barbed wire that separate the Catholic and Protestant enclaves, have been reinforced in time for the summer marching season, when Protestant parades cut through Catholic neighborhoods, regularly touching off serious rioting.

The other walls that divide people, the ones that were to be dismantled under the 1998 accord's formula for two bitter enemies to learn to share power, also remain. Community activists say that, although life is undeniably better than before, the institutions that sprung from the accord have failed to bridge Northern Ireland's deep sectarian divide.

With yet another political crisis effectively suspending the political institutions forged out of the agreement, many here feel that all sides need to go beyond politics if this divided society is to knit itself together. For now, even the real walls, with their new 15-foot extensions of wire mesh, can do little to stop the rocks and Molotov cocktails and slurs from coming over the divide with regularity.

The most imposing of these barriers -- referred to here with Orwellian irony as ''peace walls'' -- stretches for 2 miles along Springfield Road, dividing West Belfast's Falls Road neighborhood from Shankill Road. Falls Road is a predominantly Catholic community; Shankill Road is mostly Protestant.

Tommy Gorman and Noel Large come from opposite sides of that divide. Gorman, born Catholic, supports the Irish nationalist pledge to force the British out of the six northern counties and unite the island as one republic. Large, born Protestant, is a British loyalist who thinks the province should remain under the crown.

Once mortal enemies in the 30-year sectarian conflict that has claimed 3,352 lives, Gorman and Large now work together to try to defuse the threat of summer violence. They successfully handled their first challenge last weekend in the Protestant Orange Order's Whiterock parade, which cuts along the Catholic side of the Springfield Road.

That was a huge improvement over last summer, when the Whiterock parade sparked some of the worst rioting in recent years. Last year, nationalists were furious that loyalist marchers were permitted to enter the Catholic neighborhood along Springfield Road. Violence broke out, and police moved in with water cannons and rubber bullets. Twenty-six police officers and 50 civilians were injured.

The story of how Gorman and Large have worked together to make sure such violence does not recur this summer indicates just how far Northern Ireland has come since 1998 and how much farther it has to go if the two sides are to achieve a lasting peace.

Even in the shadows of the walls, people would agree with Gorman and Large that things are better now than they were before the peace deal.

Far fewer funeral corteges for ''martyrs'' wind through Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. There are signs of an improving economy. Important reforms of the police force are underway. Several inquiries are unearthing injustices of the past. Hundreds of prisoners on both sides have been released.

The pace of life is no longer dictated by street violence and bombings. That means more freedom of movement, especially for young people. As the threat of sectarian hatred fades, Belfast's once boarded-up city center is bustling with life. The huge plate-glass windows in a recently completed waterfront development reflect public confidence that the Irish Republican Army's bombing campaign is over.

Still, few would call this a real peace.

Fundamental differences between the two communities have not changed: Protestant unionists and loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom; Catholic nationalists and republicans want the province to be part of a united Ireland free of British rule. Segregation in housing, schools, and the workplace remains the order of the day.

The British military presence, though less visible, still pervades the city. Loyalist paramilitaries cling to their guns and their creed: ''No surrender.'' The IRA has not fully decommissioned its stockpiles of weapons and has not convinced the British government that a vaguely worded statement in April represented a genuine end to its armed uprising.

The Good Friday accord defined a sweeping new set of power-sharing relationships among the British and Irish governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland. The framework was accepted in a referendum in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998. The first elections of the new Northern Ireland Assembly were held one month later, restoring local government after 26 years of direct rule from London.

But this spring, the British government acted against what it called the failure of the IRA to live up to the peace deal, canceling the assembly elections that were to have taken place May 29 and reimposing direct rule. Power-sharing institutions such as the North-South Council, established under the 1998 accord to enhance cross-border cooperation, are all effectively on hold.

The political turmoil has created a vacuum. In Northern Ireland, such vacuums have too often been filled with violence. So leaders on all sides fear a return to sectarian clashes during the season of rival political marches. They worry that if such clashes reignite a cycle of violence, the Good Friday process could be at stake.

The marching season is most explosive along the ''interface areas,'' where Catholics and Protestants live cheek by jowl, separated in most places only by the peace walls.

Activists Gorman and Large first met in the early 1980s in the storied Crumlin Road Jail. Gorman, now 58, was interned without trial for allegedly taking part in the building of a bomb for the IRA in a foiled plot to target a British military barracks. Large, 45, was an assassin for one of the more murderous Protestant loyalist paramilitary groups and was convicted of gunning down four republicans.

They both admit to taking lives in the conflict, and they both express regret for the militancy of their past. But neither wants to dwell on remorse. They would rather put their energy into working together to make their community better.

''It may get rough again this summer,'' Large said. ''But if it does, the main thing is, we will have people there to pick up the pieces and put it all back together again. The marching season always leaves us with something broken.''

The marching season refers to a series of summer parades led by Protestant fraternal organizations such as the Orange Order, celebrating the 17th-century battles that brought British dominance and Protestant hegemony. Especially when they cut through Catholic neighborhoods, the marches often erupt in violence.

''We're hoping it will be quiet because a lot of work has been done here,'' said Large, who has loyalist prison tattoos laced around his forearms.

Gorman, who became an IRA volunteer in 1969 and still characterizes himself as ''a true republican,'' reflected on his past, saying, ''I thought I was doing the right thing back then by dismantling the state, and rebuilding it.''

He added, ''In some ways I feel I am doing the same thing now, but very differently and without violence. Our job now is to tear down the barriers between people.''

''It isn't easy,'' said Gorman, walking along the green corrugated steel wall that runs parallel to the Springfield Road. ''You'd be surprised how many people like these walls.''

Gorman and Large said they no longer carry guns in their work. They both reached into their coat pockets and pulled out their latest weapons, mobile phones.

Large and Gorman are two of the organizers of the Springfield Inter-Community Development Project's ''mobile phone network,'' in which 24 activists, so-called phone holders, on both sides of the divide try to put out the fire of wild rumors before they ignite full-scale rioting. Their network -- and many months of planning sessions involving police, nationalists, and unionists -- succeeded last weekend in keeping the Orange Order's Whiterock parade peaceful.

''It was powerful. It was by far the most successful day we have had on the Springfield Road,'' said Roisin McGlone, director of the Springfield project, which is funded by the European Union through the Good Friday agreement.

The community faces a tougher task next weekend, when the marching season reaches its peak during the Protestant celebrations of the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, in which the Protestant King William defeated the Catholic King James II.

''We've worked hard, so we are keeping out fingers crossed,'' McGlone said. ''But what we are all realizing is that those walls will not come down through a political process. It is only through talking to each other and marshaling our own communities on the street that we will put an end to the violence. It's going to have to come from the ground up.''

The task of her organization is to help people see beyond the walls.

''The walls allow people to see what they want to see on the other side, the image of their enemy,'' she said.

''When a rock comes over the wall in a loyalist neighborhood, they see 200 IRA men with balaclavas. When a rock comes into a republican neighborhood, they see a loyalist paramilitary force with machine guns. The truth is it's usually just 11- and 12-year-old boys throwing stones.

''So what we are trying to do with the phones is to communicate and get rid of the wall mentally, even if just about everyone in these neighborhoods believes they should be kept there physically.''

That faith in the walls often seems unshakable.

On a recent afternoon, Sally Gaston, 58, was watering her flower garden outside her home on the Protestant side. The towering structure loomed over her yard, casting a shadow on her roses in the late afternoon. Her windows have been outfitted with an extra layer of clear, shatterproof plastic to protect from the rocks that she says regularly rain down, even with a new, 15-foot wire mesh extension that was still being added to parts of the wall in her neighborhood recently.

When asked about the peace process, Gaston said: ''What peace? There will never be peace, and that wall will never come down. We want those walls there.''

Behind the flash of anger is a bitter history. Gaston's husband, Thomas Boyd, was gunned down in their home while she sat next to him on Aug. 27, 1972. She says her husband, a 27-year-old barman when he died, was not politically involved. Although his murder remains unsolved, she believes the IRA was responsible for leaving her a widow caring for five children.

On the Catholic side of the same stretch of wall, Theresa McNeill, 41, was hanging her wash in the web of shadows created by the steel mesh cage that extends from the peace wall to her roof to enclose the back alley of her home. She said stones ''come over the wall and crash down on the roof all the time, at least once a week. And in the summer, just about every day.''

When asked whether the wall should come down, she said: ''Never. There's still the hatred.''

Her brother, Tony Lewis, was a 16-year-old volunteer in the IRA in 1972 and was killed when explosives used in bomb making were accidentally detonated in a warehouse. She remembers attending his funeral as a young girl. She asked, ''What have we got out of the peace process? What has really changed?'' Only with reluctance does she acknowledge her life has changed. ''My littlest ones wouldn't know a soldier,'' she said. ''They aren't coming up with the violence the way we did. I guess that is true.''

Similarly, Gaston conceded: ''Things are a lot less tense. There's not the fear. I would have to say that.'' And after a longer conversation, she confided that her son has married a Catholic woman and that the two families have grown close in a way that had allowed her to shed a lot of her inherited mistrust of the other side.

The year their loved ones were killed, 1972, was the worst year of three decades of the Troubles, accounting for 470 deaths. In 1998, there were only 55 deaths. And by 2002, the number had dropped to six. So far this year, there have been seven.

The women's skepticism about the benefits of peace also reflects a reality for people from their poor neighborhood.

Northern Ireland's economy has had a steady 2 percent growth rate for several years and should hit 2.5 percent this year, according to British government data. Unemployment is down from about 8 percent in 1998 to just under 6 percent for 2002. But the measurable gains from the Good Friday agreement -- the redevelopment of Belfast's downtown, the economic confidence, and the increase in tourism that has come with a lessening of violence -- largely benefits the middle and upper classes.

There have been very few peace dividends in the poorer interface areas like Springfield Road, where unemployment remains 40 percent. The Catholic and Protestant enclaves dotted along Springfield Road carry the highest indicators of poverty in Northern Ireland. On the predominantly Catholic Falls Road, 88 percent of children live under the poverty line. On the predominantly Protestant Crumlin Road, the figure is 77 percent. And Catholics are still more than twice as likely to be unemployed as Protestants.

McGlone said the promises to the Springfield Road community to construct a satellite campus of the University of Ulster have not been fulfilled. And despite the promise of job creation, the factories in North and West Belfast are steadily disappearing.

There may indeed be a new spirit of confidence reflected in the glass windows of the Belfast waterfront development or the smart new theme bars such as The Apartment, where young professionals -- Catholic and Protestant alike -- drink cocktails. But young people from the Falls or from the Shankill don't gather in such places; they could hardly afford the price of a pint.

For most residents, an effective segregation still cuts across society in Northern Ireland. Overwhelmingly, the two sides attend separate schools and live in neighborhoods that are religiously and politically homogenous. This reality has been barely altered by the Good Friday agreement, political leaders on both sides say.

Some analysts have suggested that the Good Friday agreement's veneer of success for the middle and upper classes is hiding a deepening sectarianism, one that only reveals itself in the violence of the interface areas.

Cecelia Clegg, codirector of a project called Moving Beyond Sectarianism funded by Trinity College's Irish School of Ecumenics, said: ''It seems all the strain of the unresolved aspects of our communities are playing out on the interfaces. What we are seeing is that the Good Friday agreement dealt with the wider, structural cooperation between the two communities. But there has not been enough planning on how to help the two communities come together to live in peace.''

Although Springfield Road has been plagued by sporadic outbreaks of violence over the years, the community work there done by the likes of Gorman and Large has had some important success. Clegg and political leaders on both sides see the work on Springfield Road as a model for efforts at conflict resolution in Belfast's other pockets of violence, such as Short Strand and Tiger's Bay.

''The intensification of sectarianism is about a failure of political leadership,'' McGlone said. ''There hasn't been enough acceptance by both sides that they are both equally responsible for the violence. We have to make people accountable to each other; that is what we are trying to do here along this wall. And that is the missing piece of the Good Friday agreement, or as we around here call it, `the missing peace.' ''

[ Part 2 ]  

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/6/2003.
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