Before traveling to Belfast a few months ago, I’ll confess I knew very little about Northern Ireland and its history. I had this vague notion – like I think a lot of people – that there had been some fighting in the past, but that it was all over now, everyone had moved on, and things were more or less back to normal. So I was surprised to learn that in many ways, that was very much not the case. Many people I met still had vivid memories of what it was like to live through the era known as “the Troubles,” which for them was far from ancient history.
For those of you unaware of the history like I was, here’s a quick recap: At the root of the conflict was the question of whether Northern Ireland should reunite with the rest of Ireland or whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom. Most Catholics were nationalists — meaning they wanted to govern themselves as part of a united Ireland. Meanwhile, most Protestants were loyalists — also called unionists — who felt a stronger allegiance to the British crown.
Over a series of decades beginning in the late 1960s, paramilitaries on both sides had carried out kidnappings, bombings, and assassinations. Thousands of people had died. The signing of the peace accord in 1998 aimed to end that sectarian violence. Leaders on both sides hoped it would mark the beginning of a new era.
More than twenty years later, the political situation is certainly much better than it was in the past, but it’s hard to say that friendship and reconciliation are the norm. Northern Ireland remains divided. In some cases, quite literally.
To this day, Belfast and several other cities in Northern Ireland contain dozens of walls physically separating Protestant neighborhoods from Catholic ones. There are short ones and tall ones. Some are more like fences that you can see through, while others are made of bricks and steel. Many have clearly been reinforced over time: a cinder block wall topped with corrugated iron, then topped with razor wire, stretching up towards the sky. They cut across communities, like monuments to the conflict, etched into the physical landscape. And removing them isn’t going to be easy.
“If you had said to me as an 18-year-old that the conflict would still be going on another 20 years, I’d have laughed at you,” one Belfast resident told me. “I don’t think anybody thought that [the walls] would become a permanent feature. Everybody assumed that this was a temporary measure, a stopgap — for want of a better word — to help calm situations down until level heads began talking to each other. But sadly, that wasn’t the case.”
On the latest episode of Far From Home, produced in collaboration with my colleagues at the excellent podcast 99% Invisible, I look back at the history of how the walls got built in the first place, why they remain standing decades after the fighting has officially ended, and the slow and complicated process to finally bring some of them down.
Visit 99pi’s website for much more historical information about this story, and check out their latest episode (#367 beginning around 27:00 in) for a bonus conversation between me and host Roman Mars, where I discuss the connection between Brexit and the peace walls, the ongoing divisions between Catholics and Protestants, and a very funny television show that’s helping to bring the two groups together:
I owe an enormous debt of gratitude this week to the entire 99% Invisible team for their help with this show, especially my editors Joe Rosenberg and Delaney Hall. Editorial guidance was given by Emmett FitzGerald and Vivian Le, mix and tech production by Sharif Youssef, and original scoring by Sean Real. Thanks also to Don Duncan and Marcus Hunter-Neill for production assistance and to Monina O'Prey at the International Fund for Ireland.
Until next time, thanks for listening!