US bid to bring down ‘peace lines’

A key American behind-the-scenes player in the Irish peace process visited Belfast in recent days in a bid to encourage what once were warring communities to come together.

Trina Vargo, a former senior aide to Senator Ted Kennedy and now the president of the US-Ireland Alliance, is on a mission to bring down the walls that divide Catholic and Protestant areas.

There are currently 18 “peace lines” in Belfast - huge walls often topped with barbed wire - which split the city along sectarian lines.

Campaigners are determined to bring these menacing structures down to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement next April.

Vargo and the US-Ireland Alliance are keen supporters of this plan.

Last week, Vargo spoke to people living on either side of the sectarian divide about efforts to bring down the walls and restore normality to Belfast, which is still a divided city.

“It is no coincidence that the walls are in the most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods of Belfast, and it is these neighborhoods that have so much to gain by their removal,” Vargo, whose views on the walls and the problems they represent were outlined by her in an op-ed article in this paper last week, said.

“It is worth considering how much the walls prevent problems and how much they are an invitation to confrontation. A fundamental shift in thinking about neighbors previously not known, feared and hated is required. It won’t happen overnight, but there are some hopeful signs,” she told the Echo.

Vargo said the decision on whether peace-lines come down ultimately rests with the people that they divide.

“We are simply providing a date on the horizon with the hope that it might spur conversation and consideration.

“From the outpouring of feedback we’ve received, we know that much is happening. The meetings I’m holding in Belfast are to determine which parts of the city might be most ready to entertain the possibility,” she said.

“It depends how you define an ‘interface’ but, at a minimum, there are eighteen such places in Belfast.”

With the conflict having lasted for almost 30 years, Ms Vargo accepts that there are places in Belfast where it is still too early for the walls to come down.

“Some of those places are in no way ready to consider this,” she said.

“We understand that and are not trying to force the issue, as our first rule is to do no harm. Once we have a clearer understanding of which interfaces show some promise, we will have a professional survey taken of people living at those interfaces in order to learn what the people most directly affected think.

“When will peace truly come to Northern Ireland? When walls fall. There nothing is more evocative of Northern Ireland’s divided past, and nothing more indicative of a shared future than their removal,” she said.

* Key architects of the Good Friday Agreement are to take part in a major event next year to mark its 10th anniversary. The conference will bring together figures who helped forge the 1998 power-sharing accord and take stock 10 years on.

Organised by Queen’s University, the event has been named after Senator George Mitchell, who chaired the talks that led to the agreement. The US statesman said the lasting legacy of the Irish peace process could be to show the way to possible solutions in other conflicts.

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