Author Vicky Cosstick interviewed in Cross Rhythms


Vicky Cosstick, author of Belfast: Toward a City Without Walls, was interviewed recently by Cross Rhythms (UK).

Article originally published here.


Heather Bellamy spoke with author Vicky Cosstick, about the history and effect of Belfast’s 100 sectarian walls and interfaces.

During the years of conflict in Northern Ireland, there were 3,600 deaths and 40,000 injured. As a response to the troubles, walls were erected to keep the warring communities apart.

In Belfast: Toward A City Without Walls, Vicky Cosstick tells the story of Belfast’s 100 sectarian walls and interfaces. These are now the last in Europe and remain over 15 years after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.

Heather Bellamy spent time with her, to discover the effect the walls had on the people of Belfast and what their effect continues to be today.

Heather: Why were these walls built?

Vicky: They started going up in 1969, as soon as the trouble started in Northern Ireland. They were designed to keep Protestants and Catholics apart. They were to be one of the means of stopping the fighting in Northern Ireland during the troubles. They went on being built after the 1998 Peace Agreement for the same reason. They have now became the manifestation of the conflict after the Peace Agreement and after the decommissioning of weapons.

Heather: Were they effective?

Vicky: They were effective in keeping communities apart. There is a debate about whether or not they have been effective at reducing levels of violence. I argue in the book that to some degree the walls actually attract violence. There are some statistics to show that most of the low level violence that happens today, is likely to happen around the walls and interfaces.

Belfast: Toward A City Without Walls
Heather: What did young people experience growing up there, with the violence and hostility?

Vicky: There has been huge levels of trauma in Northern Ireland. There is an estimate that almost a third of the population in Northern Ireland has been affected by the trauma of the troubles. Young people have inherited the effects of that conflict and that trauma.

There are also large areas of working class Belfast with very high levels of unemployment and alienation of young people. This is particularly amongst young Protestants and young Protestant men. The educational attainment levels are the lowest in the UK.

Heather: Since the Good Friday Agreement, is there still division and suspicion between different groups of people? Are the walls causing that to continue?

Vicky: They have exacerbated the levels of suspicion amongst communities. Before 1969 when there were no walls, although Protestants and Catholics to some extent lived divided lives, many of the areas were mixed and many people grew up in mixed communities. The walls have increasingly separated people. It’s even more likely now, that a young Protestant or Catholic working class child in Belfast, will grow up without having met somebody from the other side until they go to third level education. Third level education is mixed. Secondary education is to a large degree segregated.

Belfast: Toward A City Without Walls
Heather: So what has changed in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday agreement?

Vicky: Everybody would say that it’s a massively changed place since the troubles. There are hugely reduced levels of violence. The country, or the region, is generally at peace.
Heather Bellamy spoke with author Vicky Cosstick, about the history and effect of Belfast’s 100 sectarian walls and interfaces.
We have had another Peace Agreement last year, called ‘Fresh Start’, which doesn’t sort out all the remaining issues from the conflict, but it’s certainly another very important step in that direction.

It’s important that people understand that Northern Ireland is still a post conflict society. Even though there have been a series of Peace Agreements, not everything is resolved. It takes decades for real peace to take hold in a place like Northern Ireland.

Heather: Why are these walls still there?

Vicky: The simple answer is that it’s more expensive to take them down, than it was to put them up. It was very easy to put them up. They were put up by the army. Then after that they were put up by the Northern Irish office, until around 2010 when there was devolution of justice to Northern Ireland. The current Minster of Justice, David Ford, is very committed to not putting up any further walls. However taking them down, as the book tries to illustrate, is a hugely complex process. It involves communities, a whole range of Government departments and it’s hugely expensive. It also involves policing arrangements, so bringing them down is extraordinarily complex and difficult.

Heather: Do you think the community are ready for them to be taken down?

Vicky: There is evidence that in some places the communities are ready for them to come down. There are stories of how a community might want a particular gate, interface, or barrier to come down. The problem is that then a particular Government department, say roads, stalls on finding the money to make the changes.

Belfast: Toward A City Without Walls
Heather: Do the Government plan to bring them down?

Vicky: They are committed to. In fact the book was inspired, partly by the announcement in 2013, that the Northern Irish Assembly executive had made this commitment to bring them down by 2023.

They plan to bring them down and to some extent they have the organisation in place to do that. The big question is whether or not it’s effective. Perhaps the biggest question is, ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’, because so far Westminster has said that Northern Ireland have to find the money to take the walls down.

Heather: What are the main signs of hope that you found in Belfast, while researching and writing this book?

Vicky: I found hugely committed people. People in Belfast are extraordinary, with the number of people who have devoted their lives to ongoing work for peace. I say that people are Belfast’s greatest resource. Many people, professional community workers of all-sorts, have stayed in Belfast and continued to work for peace. I think that’s the biggest sign of hope.
Heather: And what are your main concerns for Belfast at this time?

Vicky: At this time, I suppose there are elements at work in Northern Ireland that hold up progress and one of them is cynicism. There’s quite a lot of cynicism around and people are very tired of how long it is taking for real peace to happen. People are tired of the continuing sectarianism and segregation. I suppose the other thing is the levels of political will and leadership, whether people have a larger vision for Northern Ireland than just the interests of their own particular community.

Heather: What’s your background? What’s made you interested in this topic and caused you to write a book on it?
Vicky: I have a very mixed background. I have a background as a journalist and as a writer. I also have background as a Change Consultant. I have a master’s degree in ‘How Change Happens’. That was what made me hugely interested in how these walls could come down and whether they would. I have background as an academic as well, so it was a very interesting subject to research.

I’ve been visiting Ireland regularly and have had a home there for 40 years. I have a great love of Ireland. I have written a number of articles about the troubles over the years and when I learned about the extent of these walls, I realised that there was no real book out there that would explain the situation. There was also no book showing that the situation around the walls is really a microcosm of the whole peace process in Northern Ireland; it’s a very concrete manifestation of the way that the conflict has continued, but also the efforts to change that and work for a better Northern Ireland. The whole situation really fascinated me.

Heather: If somebody was to buy the book, what can they expect?

Vicky: What the book tries to do, is to tell the story of the walls and to tell the stories of people around the walls. I interviewed over 100 people for the book. I was very aware that I was an outsider in the situation. That was an advantage, because it gave me the opportunity to ask people questions about what was going on now. It’s a book about what’s happening now and I hope it’s a portrait of an ongoing peace process.

People who have read the book don’t see it as being written by an outsider as such. They see it as a hopeful book and I hope a helpful book. I hope that anybody who reads it will find it enjoyable, interesting and also, I hope, intelligent and well researched.

Heather: What has the response to it been?

Belfast: Toward A City Without Walls
Vicky: I’ve had excellent reviews in the Irish Times and English papers. If anybody likes Twitter, then I’m on Twitter and you can see a lot of material about the book on there. There’s also a Facebook page, which has all the reviews. I think the response has been very good. I’ve been very pleased with it.

Heather: How can people buy it?

Vicky: You should be able to order it through any English bookshop. You can also get it online from the normal sources and from the Publisher, Colourpoint.


Belfast: Towards a City Without Walls is available from Casemate IPM in the US, and everywhere fine books are sold.

About Heather Bellamy
Heather BellamyHeather Bellamy leads Cross Rhythms with her husband Jonathan. They are part of the Church of the Nations family of churches and live in Stoke-on-Trent.


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