Materialising the immaterial, via the Belfast peace walls

05 February 2024

Michael Livesey - Doctoral Researcher, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sheffield

During the ‘Troubles’, the British Army and Government built ‘peace walls’ in Northern Irish cities to separate predominantly Catholic/nationalist from predominantly Protestant/unionist neighbourhoods. These walls imprinted ‘immaterial’ ideas about the relationship between social class and violence within ‘material’ structures of city space. This blog is part 4 in the series ‘The political economy of conflict’ by members of SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network.

Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ were post-Napoleonic Europe’s ‘longest war’: causing fully half as many deaths,[1] as a proportion of Northern Ireland’s population, as WWII did for the rest of the UK; and precipitating the longest continuous military deployment in British history. What can the Troubles teach us about the political economy of conflict?

My research explores shifts in the UK’s domestic security paradigm during the Troubles. These include introduction of Britain’s first-ever ‘counter-terrorism’ laws (conferring powers like stop-and-search, or detention without charge for ‘terrorists’); and the construction of Berlin-style security barriers across Northern Irish cities (the euphemistically-named ‘peace walls’). This blog focusses on the latter intervention: considering lessons the peace walls’ conception, design, and targeting can teach us about the political economy of conflict.

What are the peace walls? Built by British Army/Government agents from 1969 onwards, the peace walls are ‘high, ugly’ concrete-and-steel barriers erected between Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist neighbourhoods in cities like Belfast. They were created to physically separate these neighbourhoods: on the understanding that Troubles violence emerged at the interface between immiscible, binary, and mutually-antagonistic identities – and, further, that ending violence required keeping those identities separate.

[1] 3,483 fatalities.

Figure 1 by Michael Livesey

Figure one shows one peace wall, from Hallidays Road in north Belfast. The figure exemplifies the walls’ material impacts: menacing security infrastructures criss-crossing Northern Ireland’s urban landscape, and dividing communities from each other.

My research considers the walls’ effects on structures of Belfast spatiality. I use a method called ‘space syntax’: which involves drawing digital maps of all movement lines across a space, and calculating different spatial interventions’ effects for mobility through it. Figures two and three show space syntax maps of Belfast before and after the peace walls’ construction.

Figure two gives a map of all movement lines across central Belfast, with each route’s level of integration (the likelihood it will be used in journeying between any two points in the global system) shaded according to high and low values. Highly-integrated streets are shown in red. Highly-marginalised streets show in blue. This map depicts a normal distribution for spatial integration, pre-peace walls: with a highly-integrated city centre, and a mosaic of high/low integration as one moves through the suburbs.

Figure three also shows central Belfast, with movement lines coloured according to high and low integration. But this figure shows Belfast after the peace walls’ construction. Comparing the two images can tell us about the walls’ effects for Belfast’s structural geography – the different patterns of spatial integration, before and after the walls’ installation.

Figure 2 by Michael Livesey
Figure 3 by Michael Livesey

One significant feature of this comparison concerns sharp falls in integration for working-class neighbourhoods, as a result of the walls. I’ve circled one such neighbourhood in white, in both figures. This is Tiger’s Bay: a working-class area in north Belfast (where, at the outset of the Troubles, residents were 113% more likely to be employed in manual work and 6% less likely to own a car, vis-à-vis the citywide average).

Comparing my maps, we see that integration fell very sharply for streets in Tiger’s Bay, thanks to the peace walls. Indeed, considering Tiger’s Bay as a whole, the area suffered a 24% drop in integration, pre- to post-walls. This represents a drop in integration four times as rapid as the 6% drop in integration for streets across Belfast more generally.

Working-class communities like Tiger’s Bay suffered greater marginalisation under the peace walls than their citywide peers. This pattern tells us about the ideas informing British security officials’ response to Troubles violence. In conceiving their strategy for this response, military/governmental actors drew on different notions about where the ‘problem’ of Northern Irish violence came from. One such notion concerned an understanding of violence as a class problem – a problem of working-class people’s irrational, hooliganistic tendencies.

One Joint Security Committee report from June 1971, for example, proposed ‘the real problem, as always, was the hooligan element’ amongst working-class Belfasters – assuming violence to be an expression of ‘all the accretions of emotional unreason’, to which working-class people were ‘ready victims’. Such understandings drew on long-standing concepts of class within elite British governmental discourse, which distinguished ‘problematic’ working people from those of ‘intelligent and moderate views’ who suffered no propensity for violence. As one observer put it at the time:

The problem is one of the working-class [sic]. There have been no riots in the prosperous areas of Belmont or the Malone Road in Belfast. Here the well-to-do middle classes settle down in ecumenical harmony…

This account exemplifies British security policy’s guiding principle in Northern Ireland:  the need to insulate peaceful, affluent neighbourhoods from working-class ‘problem areas’. Hence, the peace walls: a physical infrastructure quarantining troubled working people, by literally cutting them out of citywide mobility.

So, what fresh light does a political economy analysis shed on the peace walls? The conclusion I’d like to draw here concerns ways the peace walls tied together ‘immaterial’ discourses around class, and ‘material’ effects – vis-à-vis physical mobility structures, which they imprinted upon Belfast’s spatial network.

This dimension of the peace walls speaks to distinctions in political economy (and other) scholarship: between structuralist accounts of class as a ‘real’ category of experience (a tangible fact, expressed through differential patterns of employment, opportunity, financial/cultural capital); and post-structuralist visions of class as an ‘unreal’ discursive phenomenon (an ‘imagined community’, constructed through ideational/identity cultures). The peace walls reflect on both sides of this coin.

On one hand, the walls are an ideational phenomenon. They emerged from immaterial ways of thinking/speaking about working-class Northern Irelanders (operationalising prejudices/assumptions concerning their susceptibility to ‘irrational’ violence). On the other hand, the walls are real material structures: aimed at ‘canalising and coding’ mobility, by physically closing some paths and opening others.

In this sense, we can conceptualise the political economy of Troubles security as an interaction between immaterial and material ontologies. The peace walls stand at the ‘interface’ between intangible discourses and physical structures: reading immateriality and materiality backwards and forwards, through their conception and effects.

This blog is part 4 in the series ‘The political economy of conflict’ by members of SPERI’s Doctoral Researcher Network. Click here to read part 1, part 2 and part 3

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