Republicans and unionists fighting Belfast's deprivation in the shadow of the 'Peace Walls'
Andrew Wilson

Sometimes those closest to the violence of the "Troubles" in Northern Ireland can be found working hardest for reconciliation.

Robert McClenaghan was once an active member of the Youth IRA, a branch of the Irish Republican Army.

He still lives in the same house his family occupied in the 1960s a few hundred meters from the Cupar Way "Peace Wall" – an ugly structure of metal, bricks and wire that divides the Catholic Clonard area of West Belfast from the Protestant Shankill estates on the other side.

It was built in 1969 by the British Army and has now stood for longer than the Berlin Wall.



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The gates between, which are still locked at night but allow traffic during the day, were the focus of the recent rioting where petrol bombs were thrown at the police.

McClenaghan ruefully admits the walls still provide a necessary separation but he wants them down as soon as possible. And he believes replacing the heavy steel of the gates with a see-through structure such as wire would be the first step.

The ultimate goal is for two hostile communities to spend more time with each other.

"It's to keep my children safe," he says. "Safe from the world, safe from being involved in violence they have been involved in, safe from getting criminal records."

He served a 12-year prison sentence for his activities. He learned the Irish language in his cell so the prisoners could communicate without being understood by the guards. Now all the Catholic schools teach their native tongue and he sponsors a local Catholic school.

At the Lanark Gate, the scene of the worst recent rioting, we meet Ian McLaughlin, who greets McClenaghan warmly.

"Robert's a very proud republican I'm a very proud unionist," he says. "And we work quite well together. We might disagree, but we can very often agree. And what we find agreement on are issues primarily impacting on working-class communities."

The two men tell me the roots of the violence lie not in religion anymore but in the widespread deprivation in that area of Belfast. Lack of prospects, they say, makes fertile ground for recruitment into paramilitary activities.

While other parts of Northern Ireland have prospered in the 23 years since the Good Friday Agreement, Clonard and Shankill seem to have been left behind.

And the walls are part of that dynamic.

"The more contact between the women's groups, the resident's groups, but particularly with the youth," says McClenaghan. "We have to give the youth some sort of hope for the future, which means provide them with real jobs, real employment, and a real sense of a stake in their future.

"If Northern Ireland works properly for all of its citizens," says McLaughlin, "irrespective of religion, or race, then I firmly believe that Northern Ireland could be a great place to live."

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