Urbanism of Conflict
by Andrew Griffin
Distorted Policy- The Penal Laws
To understand Belfast and its urban quandries we have to understand its history and the history of Ireland. During the occupation of Ireland which dated as far back as 1169 by Normans, the English Monarchy and eventually the British Empire, a series of urban and national social policies were developed in order to suppress the Irish Catholics. It is impossible to frame the complexities of this conflic–which lasted over 800 years–in a single article but I will highlight the main realities that affected urban and political policy
The most effective and devastating policy was the Penal Laws. These laws deprived Irish Catholics of basic everyday human rights. These laws diminished Catholics’ rights to own land and prevented them from purchasing land from Protestants. After a Catholic landowner died he was forced to equally distribute his land to all his sons, unless his eldest son converted to Protestantism. This led to the ever decreasing land ownership of Irish families over hundreds of years, as each son had to pass and divide his land onto his sons until the average family had subsistence farms which could not provide enough food to even feed their children.
Aborted Societies- The Plantations
The development of plantations took place at the same time as the Penal Laws in Ireland during the 15th and 16th centuries. These plantations were borne from the confiscation of land and successive implementation by Protestant English landowners or nobility to rule areas once owned by the Irish High Kings. The plantations were designed to limit Irish independence from the British crown forces and supplant Protestant nobility within Gaelic Catholic society. Irish High Kings were trafficked from prosperous farmlands in the north and east to barren lands in the west. This is where the famous saying ‘To hell or to Connaught’ was born.
During the early 1900s the tension in Ireland escalated until an eventual rising in Easter 1916 when groups of Irish separatists rebelled against the British forces in a bid to free Ireland. This event led to the eventual independence of Ireland with the exception of the 6 counties of Ulster in the north which remained under British control. This decision divided the Irish and fuelled the 1920 -1924 Irish civil war.
One important point which few people outside of Ireland understand is that religion is incidental. Irish Republicans tended to evolve from Gaelic Catholics with the remit to free the Irish State from English or British rule. Loyalists or Unionists descended from Protestant landowners who were planted or loyal to the crown wishing to keep Ireland as part of the British Union. People are not fighting over whether they are Catholic or Protestant but whether Northern Ireland should be part of Great Britain or Ireland.
In Belfast, sectarian clashes among civilians marked the start of what would later be deemed “the troubles.” While fighting in the southern Republic of Ireland took place between the Irish Army and British forces, in Belfast the violence started in the dockyards and spread to residential areas around the city with 90% of the 465 deaths being civilians and not military. Religious segregation became a huge problem in Belfast between the 1850s and the early 1920s. Another inconsistency in the public dissemination of the Northern troubles is the fact that the turmoil occurred mainly in working class areas. Here, divided communities exist in tension. In other affluent or wealthy parts of Belfast or Northern Ireland, most communities are integrated between Catholics and Protestants. In 1900s Belfast, these working class areas were predominantly defined by religion, either Protestant or Catholic but with little integration. The industrial jobs in the shipyards and industries throughout the city were generally divided into either Catholic or Protestant work forces. Sports teams, housing estates, jobs and all elements of daily life were all either Catholic or Protestant with few areas naturally being mixed.
Propaganda Urbanism- The Murals
These pockets of urban areas each developed identities whose religious and political allegiances were described largely through the use of large murals. These grassroots artworks were emblazoned on the houses and gables of the estates of working class Belfast and the city became a propaganda machine for each side in the struggle. The images of Republican Belfast generally depict mythological heroes of Ireland or martyrs of the IRA such as Bobby Sands. Both Unionist and Republican areas mainly illustrate their murals with adornments of military regalia such as masked terrorists with weapons. The lack of urban policy to deny the painting of murals in Belfast had huge factors on its development. Like the “broken windows syndrome,” Belfast became an advertisement for civil unrest, a condition exacerbated in the systemic refusal to mitigate the creation of these murals.
Tensions came to a boiling point in 1969 when huge unemployment ravaged both sides with battles between Unionists (Protestants) and Republicans (Catholics) between the Shankill and Falls road. Inner Belfast at this point had developed into a number of urban clusters markedly divided into Catholic or Protestant regions in east and west Belfast. After the escalation of the violence in Northern Ireland and the rioting of Catholic and Protestant forces, the military was compelled to develop an urban strategy to contain the violence.
Urban Segregations- The Peace Lines
Peace lines were erected along Belfast to squash this revolt. Huge walls and fences, some spanning as much as forty feet high, divided Belfast, separating house from house physically and aesthetically. At the time, Lt. Gen Ian Freeland famously noted, “the peace line will be a very very temporary affair, we will not have a Berlin Wall or anything like that in this city.” The lines ran right through parks and housing estates, dividing neighbors, inserted into Belfast like urban scars on the landscape. Oppressive both socially and aesthetically, these “peace lines” did more damage to the integration of Belfast than any other preceding element in the history of the city’s evolution. The peace lines became icons of unrest; and render the urban structure as a never ending impassable Escher maze.
The peace lines became impenetrable lines zigzagging across Catholic and Protestant communities with the borders and control points along them heavily patrolled on each side by civilian terrorist forces. What had started as elements to contain the violence became social barriers used by the terrorists to control the populations they forcedly acted on behalf of. The peace lines also became areas of retaliation. Houses on each side of the line became the most heavily attacked and fuelled more hard line individuals to populate the boundaries of their fiefdoms.
The peace lines remain to this day, scarring Belfast and reminding everyone who travels through (and grows up in modern day Belfast) of the historic sectarian divide.
Modern Belfast- Curative Urbanism
What few fail to see is that underlying the problem is not the religious divide but the systemic urban policy on a city level which maintains that divide. The policies developed by the English occupiers of Ireland are just as toxic as the inability of the current administration’s lack of impetus to remove the so-called peace lines and all the murals, the two elements in the city which exist as the physical and symbolic embodiments of the struggles Belfast can hopefully one day overcome.
Recently, Belfast has begun a campaign of repainting the murals in heavily Unionist and Republican areas from violent images of social isolation to images of Northern Ireland’s success, it’s famous sporting stars and achievements. Instead of images of Republican or Unionist figureheads, now important stars such as George Best frame Belfast’s Urban Art Gallery. By revolving the social icon that perpetuated the fear into something positive is a very important urban agenda. The same subversive move that hounded Belfast, that pushed its working class areas into a deep and bitter divide, that became icons of gangs and thugs, has now been reinvented through an optimistic transformation. This act does not seek to forget the past by whitewashing the murals, but rather extends their tradition in a new way.
What has changed in Belfast is the political atmosphere; there is a huge optimism of change, a wish to let the city come past its years of struggles and strife. What we now need to do is take a comprehensive look at Belfast; to zoom out, and with the same military precision with which these walls and barriers were inserted, find ways for Belfast to become permeable. Belfast needs to create urban forums that encourage people to meet and to collide in a constructive way. It needs a way to turn the peace lines into symbols of integration rather than markers of division. The walls must be programmed to capture the imagination of the city’s youth. If Belfast were merely to create localised stimuli such as sports clubs and recreation centres in the individual Catholic and Protestant areas, it will fail to address the bigger social issue. The walls, like the murals, must now become symbols of change. Like Berlin we can never forget their power, their destruction; they must remain, but in a new and optimistic way.
Modern Belfast is a very different place from what it was in the troubles, it is changing, it is exciting and is urbanising in positive directions, but it needs bigger projects and real movements of change to propel and catalyse it past its years of struggle.
With thanks for the support and guidance of Miriam Delany, Lecturer of Architecture in Queens University, Belfast.
Andrew Griffin is a Director of JDS Architects leading the Copenhagen HQ on a day to day basis. JDS Architects is a multidisciplinary office that focuses on architecture and design, from large scale planning to furniture. Rich with multiple expertise, the office is fuelled by talented designers and experienced architects that jointly develop projects from early sketches to on-site supervision. Born in Ireland, Andrew graduated at the top of his class from the Dublin School of Architecture, DIT with 1st class honours. Before joining JDS Architects he worked for the Office for Metropolitan Architecture/ Rem Koolhaas (OMA) in Rotterdam on the CCTV project in Beijing and was part of the winning team for the White City Masterplan in West London.