Monday 27 January 2020

Peace Walls in the North to be torn down

First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness during a press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast
First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness during a press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast

Deric Henderson and Michael McHugh

WALLS keeping apart Protestant and Catholic communities in parts of Northern Ireland are to come down within the next 10 years, ministers pledged today.

Almost 60 so-called peace lines, the overwhelming majority in Belfast, are to be dismantled as part of a new political initiative to ease sectarian tensions.

Northern Ireland's First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness revealed their strategy at Stormont as police confirmed plans to hold private talks in Cardiff next week involving politicians and community representatives on all sides.

The move follows serious violence in Belfast over Christmas and the New Year after the City Council decision to restrict the flying of the Union flag and amid heightened concerns of further civil unrest linked to disputed parades in flashpoint Catholic and Protestant interfaces.

Mr Robinson said: "This is probably the most ambitious set of proposals that have ever been brought forward in terms of a shared future.

"I believe it really will take us into a new era in terms of how we move forward as a united society."

The peace lines are a mixture of traditional walls, fences and gates.

They have been built in areas of sectarian tension in Belfast, Londonderry and Portadown, as well as through the playground of a primary school in North Belfast.

Some tower up to 18ft high and may be miles long through areas of dense housing. They were intended to be temporary and protect people from violence during the 30-year conflict but remain 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement which ended the Troubles.

Local communities are to be encouraged to come together to produce a phased plan on how to remove the barriers but Mr Robinson promised the bulldozers would not be moving in immediately.

The ministers also announced today the setting up of an all party working group with an independent chairman to discuss flags, parades and how to deal with Northern Ireland's past.

Mr Robinson said the Executive would give encouragement and practical financial help to communities deciding whether to remove the walls.

Other proposals as part of the shared future package included:

:: A programme for 10,000 young people aged between 16 and 24 not in education, employment or training to give them a paid year-long placement. It will include a good relations component, aims to create good citizens and encourage steps into work.

:: 100 cross-community summer schools or camps are to be held across Northern Ireland by 2015 for post-primary school young people.

:: 10 shared school campuses will be commenced within five years.

:: Four large scale urban village regeneration projects will be created to target areas of deprivation.

:: Proposals for 10 new shared neighbourhood developments will be brought forward within the next two months and there will be a cross-community sports programme.

A community relations strategy will be published within a fortnight.

The all-party group will include two nominees from each of the five political parties and two junior ministers from the First and Deputy First Ministers' office and will invite community engagement.

Mr Robinson said: "What we are attempting to do is tackle the blight of sectarianism and racism and other forms of intolerance that we believe is essential in shaping a shared and coherent society that can move forward and collectively face the challenges of a changing world."

Mr McGuinness said: "This is a decisive step change where we can move forward with a comprehensive programme bringing communities together in an inclusive and integrated way.

"We are not prepared to sit back and be paralysed, we are prepared to continue to move forward."

Mr McGuinness added: "The nettle has to be grasped, it is ridiculous that we have become a successful peace process yet those issues have not yet been resolved and yet every year create huge difficulties within the community and disturbs a lot of the good work that goes on within Government."

More than 100 police officers were injured after flag protests turned violent in December and January.

Large numbers were hurt in clashes with dissident republicans in Ardoyne in North Belfast last summer following loyal order parades.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) said they would be meeting with key stakeholders in Cardiff to discuss a range of issues in relation to policing in Belfast.

A statement added: "The attendee list has not yet been finalised.

"As a Police Service, we believe it is important that we listen to the views expressed by our stakeholders and the community.

"We also want to ensure constructive lines of engagement are established and remain open."

Chief Constable Matt Baggott said the offer was made by the University of Ulster to help police facilitate a meeting of local representatives, local politicians and people who were involved in some of the problems over the last year or so.

"The idea was to go away and talk about how we could strengthen those relationships with a view to this summer's parading," he said.

"This is not pitched at those who would be constructing a shared future. This is very much about local relationships. It is something I think we should be doing.

"It is something that was kept relatively confidential because that helped those conversations."

He said it was designed to develop "some degree of consensus and accommodation", adding he would not have a problem with anybody from the loyal orders attending or other community representatives to ensure peace during the marching season.

Mr Robinson said he was not sure why they had to go to Wales but said his party would support it.

"I don't think it is likely to reach agreement but it will start a dialogue which we believe we can use if there are any reasonable conclusions that come through," he added.

Mr McGuinness said California-based Stanford University was also involved and declared it was incumbent on people to have a holistic and inclusive approach.

He added: "There is a massive responsibility on everybody within our society to recognise that all efforts need to be made over the course of the coming months to ensure everything remains peaceful."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said there was real potential to move towards a shared society, adding an economic package from Westminster supporting the devolved government continues to be under review.

A spokesman for the US Administration said: "The US Government welcomes the steps announced by Northern Ireland's First and deputy First Minister affirming their collective efforts to address the region's societal divisions.

"We will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom to support economic, political, and civil society progress that supports a lasting peace and a shared future."

In a further statement, the PSNI said the Cardiff talks would explore current community feelings towards the police in the wake of Union flag protests in Belfast.

"The aim is to build a sustainable platform for engagement between the community and the PSNI, notwithstanding short term challenges to build and maintain relationships with the police on the ground.

"The weekend will also identify actions and understandings to sustain relationships between communities and the police during periods of heightened community tension," said assistant chief constable George Hamilton.

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