Why I...believe decommissioning means more than merely handing in weapons in Northern Ireland

December 3, 1999

Peter Shirlow lectures in the school of environmental studies at the

University of Ulster.

Mapping the Spaces of Fear in North Belfast, the first phase of an ESRC research project, was

published this month. It shows how fear affects daily life in two communities One of the major realities of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is the creation and perpetuation of fear. The ceasefires have been in place for five years, yet for those in deprived communities little has changed. In the political game-playing surrounding the decommissioning of arms, the fears that affect people daily are not being addressed.

Our research shows that despite a drop in violence, there has been virtually no change in the links between the two communities we studied in North Belfast: Ardoyne, large, republican and Catholic, and Upper Ardoyne, a small Protestant community. A quarter of all people killed in the Troubles died within a mile of Alliance Avenue, the interface between the two communities.

The Protestant community, which is declining rapidly, feels besieged internally within the Ardoyne community. Ardoyne feels besieged in relation to the rest of Belfast. This produces "chill factors" - Catholics rarely use the bus service when it goes through Protestant areas and Protestants go two to three miles for their shopping rather than 100 metres down the Ardoyne Road.

A quarter of the people in each community were forced out of other areas; 33 per cent had been victims of intimidation at work and around 25 per cent were victims of some form of violence. Catholics were ten times more likely to be physically intimidated at work than Protestants.

The media constantly tells us Belfast has become a more normal society, but people still live as they did during the conflict. About 70 per cent of the population do not work, but those with jobs in mixed workplaces have fallen from 75 to 33 per cent. Sixty-eight per cent of people surveyed in Ardoyne and 37.5 per cent from Upper Ardoyne said looking for work was limited by fear. Only 17 per cent of men and 4 per cent of women would walk through an area dominated by the other religion at night.

Government, policy-makers and politicians have pretty much ignored the issue of a people's fear and its effects. There is very little policy or research on how fear dilutes the potential for economic development, normal patterns of living and the search for work.

Until fear is removed, many will not see the benefits of peace. It is the responsibility of the state, the policy-makers and the politicians to remove fear, to use language that is less oppositional and to stop playing political games over the decommissioning of weapons. Decommissioning is not just about physical weapons. To have a lasting effect, it has to change a mindset.

Interview by Helen Hague

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