Belfast once vied with Dublin for the heart of Ireland. It was there the Titanic was constructed; it was here C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian apologist and novelist of the Chronicles of Narnia came into the world.
After the Troubles started in the 1960s, however, this important port in Northern Ireland took a drastic turn. The already tense situation of British control of a predominantly Irish city burst into violence by terrorist groups of both sides, the IRA and the UVF. Beginning in the early 1970s, the first “peace lines” or intra-city barriers were erected in Belfast.
These walls have increased to more than 40 today, covering over 13 miles and segregating much of this once-thriving city. Alternately built of steel, iron, and brick, these walls stretch up to 25-feet high and prohibit the movement of people from the Irish-Catholic parts of town to the British-Protestant sections. Some are open during the day and closed at night; some are manned by police; all were intended to bring “peace” by segregating sectarian groups. The most famous of these walls runs parallel to Shankill Road, a site of several terrorist attacks. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belfast_Peace_Lines)
Today, some of the tension has lessened since the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement. The walls still stand, though, and they draw thousands of tourists a year. The “peace lines” are still eerie and haunting, stark in the way they divvy up houses and roads, slicing their way through what must have once been a beautiful city. Unlike the walls of houses, and even unlike the colorful propagandist murals peppering the city, these walls stand ominous and dark against the city skyline.
While some may argue the walls saved a few lives over the years by separating the citizenry of Belfast and Northern Ireland, in reality it was always the cooperation of the people that staved off violence and determined such compromises and peace accords such as the Good Friday Agreement. The walls had nothing to do with peace, serving instead to segregate people further, reinforce rifts between families, and replace real negotiations and co-habitation talks with solid, uncompromising walls. It was only when the Irish and the British met without walls and were able to dialogue that any real progress was made in the line of peace.
We in the United States have much to learn from the island of Eire across the Atlantic. For as much as we hope to bring about “peace” and homeland security by erecting a 700-mile border wall on our southern border as per the Secure Fence Act of 2006, it will never be more than a negative peace. This negative peace, defined by Dr. King as an “absence of tension,” is also an absence of progress, a stultifying of cooperative relationships. If we further open up the lines of communication with Canada and Mexico rather than erecting walls and militarizing our borders, perhaps the symptoms of extralegal immigration and terrorism will be able to be mutually solved in the Americas rather than in a bubble between Ottawa and Oaxaca. God forbid that tourists should one day board Black Taxis in Texas, listening as the tour guide speaks about the failed “peace line” of yet another border wall of segregation.