Hours after Barack Obama stood in Belfast last week praising efforts to bring down the city’s 40-foot barricades, a few hundred yards away Jim Callaghan was stamping out a gasoline bomb tossed near his home in western Europe’s last divided city.
“I heard the thud and saw the flames,” said Callaghan, a 49-year-old Catholic from east Belfast, whose house in the Short Strand estate looks out onto a concrete and steel structure known as a peace line. “My granddaughter was playing outside. She was in hysterics. She stank of petrol.”
U.S. President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said Northern Ireland’s hosting of the Group of Eight summit on June 17-18 showed how far the region has come since a 1998 agreement largely ended decades of conflict that claimed 3,500 lives. For people like Callaghan living in communities such as the Short Strand, little has changed.
Cameron pledged this month to provide extra aid to Northern Ireland to help get rid of more than 80 structures that divide Belfast’s Protestant and Catholic areas and remain the most vivid legacy of the conflict. Cameron wants to bolster a peace process being tested by an economic decline and the efforts of dissident republicans to restart violence.
“People don’t know what it’s like to live without walls,” said Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Ulster. “People have lost lives. The walls have protected families. Nothing is impossible, but the vision of what it would look like without the walls needs to be spelt out.”
On the other side of the wall from Callaghan is Kerry Irvine, a 31-year-old Protestant mother-of-one from the Protestant Cluan Place. She has a message for Obama and Cameron: “You don’t live here and you don’t know what it’s like.”
“They should make them higher,” said Irvine, who has a “Proud to be British” poster on her living room window and the Union Jack flag flying from her house. “I’d move if they brought them down. Just the other day I was putting the bin out and a petrol bomb landed at my feet.”
Northern Ireland’s conflict, known locally as the Troubles, stretched from 1969 until the mid-1990s and was fought over whether the region should remain part of the U.K. or unite with the Republic of Ireland. Catholics mainly supported unification, with most Protestants preferring to remain part of Britain.
The British army built the first peace line in the early 1970s as sectarian killings increased amid escalating violence.
While bombings, kneecappings and shootings largely ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, tensions between the two communities persist. In the 12-month period ended March 2012, 1,344 sectarian incidents took place, according to the Police Service of Northern Ireland.
As well as keep the two sides apart, the walls have become a tourist attraction, along with the murals of the conflict dotted around the city.
“The murals and the peace lines are the most popular requests from tourists in Belfast,” said Benn Allen, manager of Allen’s Tours in the city. “The peace lines describe everything they’ve seen on the news for the past 40 years about Belfast. Say Belfast to them and they think bombs and trouble.”
Last month Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, leaders of Northern Ireland’s executive, which was revived in 2007 as part of efforts to unite politicians behind the peace process, said they wanted the peace walls torn down within the next 10 years.
Removing them might help the province’s image as it seeks investment. The economy has never fully recovered from conflict or industrial decline that resulted in the closure in 2000 of shipyards, where the Titanic Liner was built.
In his Belfast speech, Obama said June 17 that the region’s peace process gave hope to conflict zones across the world. He praised the efforts of Sylvia Gordon, a community worker in Belfast, and her colleagues, who helped open up a peace line in a north Belfast park.
“They knew it was going to be hard, but they tried anyway,” Obama said. “And together they all decided to build a gate to open that wall and now people can walk freely through the park.”
Elsewhere in the city, divisions remain. Murals venerating dead fighters adorn walls in Short Strand, a community of about 1,200 people, while the Irish national flag hangs from lampposts and shops using Gaelic, the Irish language, in their signs.
In Cluan Place, where Irvine lives, almost every house has a Union Jack flying outside and posters declaring they are “Proud to be British” on their front windows. At the edge of the street, stockpiles of wooden pallets are stacked in preparation for a bonfire on July 11 to celebrate a 17th-century victory over Catholics.
“I don’t think things will ever change,” Irvine said. “It’s the way it has been for years. I don’t want the walls to come down, I’d be afraid.”
Jim Callaghan, her Catholic neighbor on the other side of the wall, also is pessimistic about the future.
“There’ll be more trouble here over the summer with the marching season,” said Callaghan, adding that it’s lucky his granddaughter survived last week’s petrol bomb attack.
“If the wind had been blowing the other way, she would have been set on fire,” said Callaghan, pointing to the scorch-mark left by the bomb when it landed outside his living room window. “If Cameron is so keen on taking the peace lines down, why doesn’t he come and live here, or why doesn’t he take down his own gates outside Downing Street?”