Examining Belfast’s emergent post-conflict architectures
Duncairn Gardens, located in North Belfast, is a residential interface area that sits between New Lodge, a majority Catholic/Nationalist/Republican neighbourhood, and the adjacent Tiger’s Bay, home to mostly Protestant/Unionist/Loyalists. Author’s own photograph, 2020.
‘Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth. One is never separable from the other. You/I: we are always several at once.’
-Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Women, 209
The three decade-long violent conflict in Northern Ireland (N.I.), known colloquially as the Troubles, took the lives of over 3,600 individuals and displaced somewhere between 45 and 65,000 civilian families between the years 1968 and 2001. Centred around ethno-nationalist friction between largely Catholic/Republican/Nationalists and Protestant/Unionist/Loyalists, physical conflict mainly ceased on 10 April 1998, crystallised through an accord called the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Signed between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland governments, the peace agreements stipulated how N.I. should be governed to facilitate a culture where the bifurcated groups could share both space and socio-economic resource. While N.I. has become known as a ‘laboratory of peace work,’to suggest that the region has contemporaneously reached a tangible climate of peace would present a rudimentary reading. For one, and relevant here, the urban landscapes of the capital city Belfast is still permeated by physical palimpsests that operate as visible emblems to distinguish one ‘side’ from the other. Flags always at full-mast mark allegiance to the United Kingdom, murals depict ‘heroes’ of the conflict, and injustices gone unresolved; contested narratives that are still unfolding. Perhaps most overtly, fortification walls, fences and barricades criss-cross between working-class neighbourhoods, left to ensure the still unresolved tensions between communities do not eclipse in further conflict.
Since 1995, these fortifications have been rebranded with the official euphemism ‘peace walls’, and the groups they divide renamed as ‘interface communities.’ As physical signifiers of the conflict, they have become a focal point of funding from the international and domestic communities, as well as the target of policy implementation. The labour required to remove an interface is highly delicate, requiring experienced advocacy groups and practitioners to meet with those from both sides – many still living in fear of a resurgence in violence, with trauma of either their lived or inherited experience of the Troubles – and agree upon their removal. American political theorist Wendy Brown identifies ‘walling’ as a singular architectural phenomenon which, ‘as monuments to unsettled and unsecured sovereignty, [they] institutionalise a condition whose opposite their designers would have them performatively enact.’ This spatially bounded and territorial modality, and at times ontology, of power is demonstrable of an in-between state: the law has prevailed, yet under the shadow of walls peace cannot fully persist.
In 2013, the then First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness set out a policy framework called Together: Building a United Community (T:BUC) which, among other goals, claimed that all interface barriers in N.I. would be removed by the year 2023. This target has been criticised for its impracticality and lack of clarity over how exactly the interfaces may be eliminated. This dissertation thus aims to add to a body of research that critically engages with post-conflict urban landscapes – in particular those where forms of segregation are omnipotent, either subtly or overtly – to highlight the messy, complex and knotty subject interrelations that exist between and over bifurcated communities, frequently taxonimised in an overly-simplified narrative of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. I endeavour to illustrate the multiple actors involved in shaping interface subject formation – such as the state, policy researchers, and grassroots initiatives – demonstrating the varying perspectives on slippery notions of post-conflict terminologies, such as ‘peace,’ ‘reconciliation’ and ‘sharing’.
The T:BUC framework is foregrounded by the notion that ‘civil society and the community and voluntary sector can only play an active role in the Peace Process to the extent they can do so, and the provision of such opportunity lies within governmental hands.’ However, the N.I. government’s power-sharing executive collapsed in January 2017 when the two leading parties – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and nationalist party Sinn Féin – initially split due to conflict regarding the DUP’s management of a ‘green energy’ debate. To push against this ‘trickle down’ approach, that stipulates change may only be enacted if managed from a state-level, I weave a more poetic reading by introducing three distinct interventions developed by grassroots initiatives at and along the interface, illustrating how they produce difference harmoniously through an avoidance of both goal-driven methodologies and a movement towards the multiple. I identify these initiatives as emergent typologies that demonstrate ‘peace as always transitional’, categorising them within the spatialized terms passage, opening and encounter.
To produce such affirmative readings of relations at and along the interface, I have been hugely influenced by feminist philosophy, both from within and outside the discipline of architectural history, namely the work of Judith Butler, Luce Irigaray, bell hooks and Peg Rawes. I also lean on the work of feminist spatial practitioners, and their notion of transformative practice, largely through the work of architectural historian Jane Rendell. For the first time, I bring into contact a close reading of policy that impacts interfaces across Belfast, against poetic initiatives by the communities most affected by them, in combination with feminist approaches to space, thus diverting from a diametrical approach to the politico-sectarian landscape of N.I, articulating how relationality is existent. The dissertation therefore seeks to answer: how could one generate a positive notion of the ‘Other’ in post-conflict contexts? How are the diversity of subjects at friction along the interface managed at varying levels, from state to community? What bottom-up poetic interventions go overlooked through the master narratives that historicise post-conflict zones?
 Niall Gilmartin. ‘Refugees and forced displacement in Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. Institute of Irish Studies. Website. http://184.108.40.206/irish-studies/blog/2018/refugees/. (2 October 2018). [Accessed 13 September 2020].
 James Dingley (2005) Constructive Ambiguity and the Peace Process in Northern Ireland, Low Intensity Conflict & Law Enforcement, 13:1, 1-23, DOI: 10.1080/0966284050022353.
 Wendy Brown. Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. (London: Zone Books, 2017). Orig. pub. 2010. 40.
 Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Together Building a United Community. (2013). Report. 156.
 Jayne McCormack. ‘Stormont: What is it and why did power-sharing collapse in Northern Ireland?’ BBC News. Website. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-politics-50822912. (10 January 2020). [Accessed 15 August 2020]
Copyright of image: © Maria McLintock