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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


Belfast: Segregation, Violence and the City
Peter Shirlow and Brendan Murtagh

(Pluto Press, London, 2006) 216 pp, PB, 16.99
ISBN 0-7543-2840-0


The geography of segregation and its important role in the reproduction of politically motivated violence is the theme of this excellent book. Beginning with the Belfast Agreement of 1998, the authors are critical of its failure to challenge ethno-sectarianism and argue that its institutional approach has actually increased the social, political and spatial divide between Northern Ireland?s two communities. The rationale for their criticism is the Agreement?s failure to adequately address the most enduring spatial aspect of division ? segregation and the interface areas. They note that while the cessation of paramilitary violence in Northern Ireland is to be welcomed, hostilities have been replaced by segregation, fuelling ethno-sectarian animosity. Violence and fear is continually reproduced through attempts to monopolise singular narratives of victimhood and exclusion. The heterogeneity displayed in their survey is silenced by political elites in an attempt to reproduce a one-dimensional identity and political belonging.

Interface walls act as much more than a physical border. They are a symbol of social, cultural and political differentiation creating a space between two communities. They act as a constant reminder of both harm done and of possible future threat. Intended to create a safe space, interface areas were in fact the most dangerous places to live. A third of the victims of politically motivated violence were murdered within 250 metres of an interface, and around 70% of deaths occurred within 500 metres of all segregated boundaries (72). The most dangerous place was the home as nearly a third of all those killed were murdered either within their home or within a few metres of their place of residence (74), offering concrete evidence of a clear link between violence and residential segregation. Such attacks were viewed as attacks on the community in general contributing further to the perpetuation of the self/other discourse.

It is clear from the evidence in relation to consumption, leisure and labour that lifestyle activities are to a large extent influenced by ethno-sectarianism. From shopping to education, public transport to housing choices, sectarian attitudes were strongest in the 16-40 age group while pensioners were the most likely to use mixed facilities. The authors found examples of mixing but noted that such mixing was not made public to their own community.

Hopes that an upwardly mobile middle-class might produce a third way or an alternative to the binary politics of Northern Ireland have not been realised. It was hoped that shared class values and lifestyles might cut across the ethno-religious formulation of national identity. The authors found that sectarian animosity exists among all classes and that the tolerance displayed in new mixed suburbs is more a factor of protection of material wealth. The book is tied together with a review of policy measures undertaken and identification of the key gaps that have emerged.

This is a fascinating book full of rich empirical data, which will be of interest to the expert and novice alike. Ultimately the mood of the book is sombre and pessimistic as the authors conclude that despite the cessation of paramilitary hostilities, ethno-sectarian animosity is reproduced through segregation, which explains the failure of inter-community politics to emerge in the wake of the Belfast Agreement.


Josephine Lett, University of Ulster



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