This text was instigated at Paragon Studios in Belfast for the exhibition PALISADE.
(Part of the #Peacewalls50 Series of events)
It will develop over the course the exhibition.
Sealing off access
The word SECRET is stamped on the top middle and bottom middle of the page in red ink. The word appears again, and in the same location, on each subsequent page of this series of four, discoloured A4 pages. The typed script of the document is over-written with the letters GSU and the numbers 47 in two different scripts, in both black and blue coloured inks. On the bottom left hand corner appear the letters © PRONI HA/32/2/55, indicating that the document is a copyrighted asset of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland relating to ‘Home Affairs: Speeches, Statements and Debates on Security’ of the United Kingdom. In this document, a series of eighteen numbered paragraphs lay out the unfolding events in Northern Ireland. The final paragraph of the document relates specifically to a meeting of the Cabinet Security Committee held on the 16th of August, 1969. The final part of the last sentence of this paragraph reads: ‘At a meeting of the Cabinet Security Committee is was agreed that …the possibility of sealing-off access to the Falls from the Shankill to prevent infiltration was also to be investigated’ (1) This is the first mention in any governmental meeting relating to what would become the system of ‘Interface Barriers’ separating Catholic / Nationalist / Republican (CNR) and Protestant / Unionist / Loyalist (PUL) communities in Belfast. (2) And while this passing mention here feels less than significant, it will have an incalculable impact on the urban fabric and social relations of Northern Ireland for decades to come.
On 9th September 1969, the Unionist Prime Minister Chichester Clarke met with his Joint Security Committee at Stormont Castle, including the Ministers of Home Affairs, Education and Development, the Army GOC and Chief of Staff and various RUC, Army and Civil Service figures. The conclusions from the meeting noted that “A peace line was to be established to separate physically the Falls and the Shankill communities. Initially this would take the form of a temporary barbed wire fence which would be manned by the Army and the Police. The actual line of fence would be decided in consultations with the Belfast Corporation. It was agreed that there should be no question of the peace line becoming permanent although it was acknowledge that the barriers might have to be strengthened in some locations.” That opening phrase ‘peace line’ now entered the security lexicon, although ‘peace wall’ was occasionally, if more rarely, used (prior to 1969 the phrase ‘peace line’ was generally just associated with the demarcation line from the end of the Korean War).
That evening, Chichester Clarke made a broadcast that was televised on the news on BBC, UTV and RTE. He stated that: “We have now decided that the army will erect and man a firm peace line to be sited between the Divis Street area and Shankill Road on a line determined by a representative body from the City Hall. In conjunction with this action, barricades will be removed in all areas of Belfast, both Protestant and Catholic.”
From such ‘possibility’ would grow directives instructing the construction of numerous walls, barriers and fences in Belfast and other towns and cities throughout Northern Ireland, most notably the Falls-Shankill ‘Peaceline’ on Cupar Way, which still divides these areas forty-eight years later. Built primarily of concrete and steel, this structure is approximately 1.6km long and up to 14 metres high in places.(1) It is one of many major security barriers or ‘Peace walls’ in Belfast currently in existence. The exact number of these walls, barriers and interfaces is, like so much in Belfast, an item of dispute. In 2012, the Belfast Interface Project published a catalogue of Security Barriers across the city, listing 99 separate structures, grouped into 13 separate clusters.(4) In a 2017 update to this mapping exercise, 97 barriers were catalogued. The metrics chart the glacial pace of wall removal over a five year period.
(1) International Fund for Ireland, Annual Report, 2014.