Sectarian attacks continue to rumble on in the north of Ireland, despite or maybe because of the peace process.
There have been 1500 attacks in each of the past two years, an average of four a day. Last year, some 560 of the incidents were in Belfast.
In May, a Catholic Kevin McDaid was killed by Loyalists. In July, there were attacks on five Catholic Churches in Balymena.
While there have been some attacks by Catholics, the vast majority have been by Loyalists on Catholics. Not something immediately apparent from reporting in British media which continues to portray the north as a place of feuding religious tribes with any resultant violence being committed on a tit for tat basis by one community against the other.
In June, there were also attacks by Loyalists on Roma in Belfast. These were so ferocious that they forced the Roma to leave the country.
At face value, it seems that the society is becoming ever more divided in the wake of the peace process.
A physical sign of this growing division is the fourfold increase over the past decade in the number of peace walls in the north.
A recent photographic exhibition mounted at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith showed just how divisive the walls have become.
There were around 27 peace walls at the time that the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998. This number has now risen to over 80.
When the Troubles first began back in 1969, the Catholics started putting up barriers to stop the assaults of Loyalist mobs. The walls grew as dividers of the society, many in the early days were made up of barbed wire. Today the structures are far more permanent in construction. The recently completed wall at Somersdale Gardens, dividing Glencairn and Ardoyne, is a massive structure made of brick. Others are more like fences. Most are built high to stop those from the other communities throwing things over. “Some of the walls are up to a mile in length, some are up to 30 feet in height – the one unmistakable thing is that they mark the separation of communities,” said Louise Jefferson, the photojournalist who with writer Stephen Martin put together the exhibition at the Irish Cultural Centre.
Jim O’Hara, a Belfast born lecturer in Irish history, believes the walls reflect an insecurity among the people, a concern that they would be attacked by the other community. “People feel safe behind the walls. Most people want the walls down but don’t feel safe without them being there,” said Mr O’Hara.
The worry must be that the proliferation of sectarian attacks and growth in walls underline the insecurities in the community and just how potentially brittle the peace process is.
On the face of it there seems to be a growing dislocation between the political class running the country and what is going on at street level. While the political parties appear to be reconciling and learning to slowly work together, on the streets the divisions are growing more stark as people pull back into their own communities adopting a siege mentality.
The pressure points become obvious as walls go up and sectarian violence breaks out where tensions are highest.
It can be argued that these developments were inevitable. By its very nature the GFA tended to inbed the divisions between the communities in the north, rather than offer a blueprint for unity. There are ofcourse many other elements to the GFA like the cross border bodies but the divisions in the north remain institutionalised.
There is also the fact that many of those causing the trouble are on the extremes of both communities. The Loyalist groups don’t feel represented in the political discourse while the dissident republicans, represented by the likes of the Real and Continuity IRAs, have totally rejected the peace process and vowed to continue on with the war. These are the people who feel most alienated from the political process and so have least to lose.
It is in bridging the gaps and bringing the communities together that the next challenge for the peace process lies. The politicians need to be bold and not simply collude in the proliferation of peace walls and structures of division as a way to make quick political capital. There no doubt needs to be funding provided to pay for integration between the communities. Active steps need to be taken.
It would certainly be wrong to sit back and think that the violence and walls are a passing phase, a residual of the Troubles, something that will burn itself out with time. Adopting such an attitude would only invite disaster with the divisions in the community, if left alone, likely to grow deeper and wider. In the end it could well result in the Troubles re-igniting in more virulent form. Now is the time for active intervention to heal the breaches and build a real and lasting peace.