Belfast’s barriers are still there, but good neighbours can make the glass look half-full
The tired story of ‘communities riven by hatred’ now requires some qualification
Residents chose to open the gates on the cusp of the volatile summer marching season. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
On a rain-soaked day in Belfast, a year ago this week, something quietly extraordinary happened. A door, which had been cut into the inch-thick reinforced steel security wall marking one of north Belfast’s most contested interfaces, slowly swung open. Thirty metres away, across a cleared stretch of no-man’s-land, the bolts and padlocks were removed from a door in another steel wall. And so, for the first time in 30 years, people from the nationalist and unionist communities on both sides could walk through freely.
The temporary opening of the Flax Street / Crumlin Road interface – situated close to the flashpoint at Ardoyne shops, the scene of serious disorder following loyalist parades in recent years – was part of an art project called Ambulatorio Belfast, created by the renowned Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz. Glazed aerial maps of north Belfast were laid out like paving stones to create a glassy corridor between the two opened doors, so that residents would feel as though they were traversing their own home ground, transformed into a city without barriers.
It was the culmination of a long, sensitive collaboration between the two communities, sustained by the kind of trust, patience and good humour that can only come from years of close personal relationships.
Demonstration of confidence
It wasn’t a coincidence that residents chose to throw open the interface gates in this most febrile part of the city, at the most volatile time of the year, right on the cusp of the Twelfth; it was a demonstration of mutual confidence and hope. And the gamble paid off: the doors stood open every day for the three-week long duration of the exhibition with no trouble at all. What was striking was how quickly the situation became part of everyday normality, with people nipping through as a short-cut to catch a bus or get into town. There was genuine regret when the doors closed and the interface once more became a grim, impenetrable barrier.
Exactly one year on, the participants of Ambulatorio Belfast gathered in Ardoyne library to discuss the impact of the project, and how similar ideas could be used to “draw down the walls” in other parts of the city. Outside in the street, members of the Greater Ardoyne Residents Collective, a hardline republican group, held a protest in opposition to the imminent Orange Order march on the Twelfth.
Later, on the same day, the Parades Commission announced its ruling that there would be no return parade past the contentious Ardoyne shop fronts, following the breakdown of last-minute talks between the Orange Order and moderate nationalist residents. The decision prompted a furious reaction from unionists, with DUP representatives describing it as “illogical and inconsistent”, and warning that it could cause “massive damage” to community relations.