Northern Ireland – attitudes to peace walls

In 2012 a research team based at the University of Ulster successfully applied for research funding to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister for funding to conduct research on Attitudes to Peace Walls. The aim of the research was to explore public awareness of and attitudes towards peace walls so that this information could feed into public debate and policy making.

What are the principles of conflict transformation?

By Dr. Jonny Byrne, Dr. Cathy Gormley-Heenan and Professor Gillian Robinson

Since the first paramilitary ceasefires in 1994, the Northern Ireland peace and political processes have addressed a series of sensitive and contentious issues relating to the conflict such as policing, prisoner releases, decommissioning, and power sharing. While the peace process has also, in part, begun to address issues of segregation and division within Northern Ireland, it has not yet sufficiently addressed the most obvious and physical manifestation of this division – the peace walls.

While first constructed by the British Army in 1969 as a temporary, military response to sectarian violence and disorder, these walls still remain in 2012. In sum, over eighty barriers (Jarman, 2012) and peace lines have been constructed in predominantly urban, working class, loyalist and republican communities. The responsibility for the construction and maintenance of these structures resided with the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) until the devolution of policing and justice powers in 2010. After this point, the Northern Ireland Executive, through the Department of Justice (DoJ) became responsible for all policy-making decisions around peace walls. This development was important because it has been argued that the issue of peace walls existed in a local policy vacuum for over forty years (Byrne, 2011). With the responsibility for peace walls now devolved to the local administration, the opportunity to redress this policy vacuum currently exists. The change in responsibility for these walls, alongside the increasing significance of these walls, suggests that there is a new window of opportunity for policy makers and practitioners to come together to drive the issue of peace walls further onto the policy agenda.

The growing significance of the walls can be framed in fie distinct ways. From a security perspective, the peace walls continue to focus negative attention on the devolved administration’s response to communal violence and disorder. Financially, the peace walls impact on the delivery of services and reduce the potential for communities that have been severely affected by the violence and disorder to attract inward investment. From a good relations perspective, the peace walls continue to emphasise the cultural, political, and religious differences, which exist across our community. In the context of health and social well-being, each of the neighbourhoods with peace walls in Belfast, are in the top 10% of the most socially and economically deprived electoral wards in Northern Ireland. Finally, from an international perspective, events such as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (2009), along with comments from the Mayor Bloomberg of New York (2008) linking potential economic investment to the removal of peace walls continues to keep Northern Ireland in the international spotlight but for reasons that are at odds with the accepted narrative which promotes the success of the Northern Ireland peace process.

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The devolved administration and local government have recently recognized this significance and have incorporated addressing physical division into some of their broader strategies and action plans that are designed to deal with segregation, community safety and urban regeneration. The Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (2011) document published through the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM); the Department of Justice’s Building Safer, Shared, and Confident Communities (2011) document; and the Belfast City Council’s Investment Programme: 2012-2015 consultation document each place an emphasis on the issue of peace walls.

A renewed focus on the policy making process in relation to peace walls is critical not least because of the most recent decisions that have been taken by the Northern Ireland Executive in relation to the regeneration of the Girdwood barracks site in North Belfast (Devenport, 2012). This led to criticism that the decision was one of ‘policymaking on the hoof’ whereby decisions were taken in reaction to a situation without adequate time given to think about the implications of this decision carefully. While the contestation over Girdwood was ostensibly about housing and territory in North Belfast, it immediately raised the wider problem of housing shortages and issues of territory in proximity to peace walls across Belfast.

In order for the devolved administration and local government to begin to respond to these wider problems, access to the public’s attitudes and opinions on peace walls is crucial. Until now, there has been a minimal amount of quantitative research which has attempted to understand perceptions within local communities in closest proximity to peace walls and the wider public. Therefore, to address this knowledge gap and to inform any future policy making process, we have conducted an attitudinal survey on this matter. The primary research took the form of two distinct postal surveys. The first survey was administered to residents situated on, or within a short distance from, a peace wall in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry. The second survey was administered to people that resided across Northern Ireland. Previous qualitative research (Byrne, 2011), which considered the views of community representatives and policy-makers specifically, suggested a difference of opinion in relation to their general perceptions and interpretations of how and why peace walls existed in certain areas; a difference in levels of understanding and knowledge of various peace wall initiatives; a divergence of opinion relating to the impact of the peace walls on day to day life; and a wide range of attitudes relating to the possible transformation, removal and regeneration of peace walls. These themes, therefore, guided the development and structure of the questions to be asked in the postal surveys. The following report sets out the results of the postal surveys under these themes and captures the public’s attitudes and perceptions towards peace walls in 2012.

Dr. Johnny Byrne is a Lecturer in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster. Dr. Cathy Gormley Heenan is Director of the Institute for Research in the Social Sciences (IRISS) and a Senior Lecturer in the School of Criminology, Politics and Social Policy at the University of Ulster. Professor Gillian Robinson is Director of ARK and Professor of Social Research in INCORE (International Conflict Research Institute) at the University of Ulster.

Key findings from the research, entitled ‘Attitudes to Peace Walls’, will be published tomorrow on!


  • Byrne, J. (2011) The Belfast Peace Walls: The problems, politics and policies of the Troubles architecture, Unpublished PhD, University of Ulster
  • Devenport, M. (2012) ‘Girdwood Barracks Development: devil in the detail?’ 22.05.12
  • Jarman, N. (2012) Belfast Interfaces: Security barriers and defensive use of space, Belfast: Belfast Interface Project

What are the principles of conflict transformation?



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