Further debate needed on security fences

It is deeply depressing to note that many of the familiar security fences across Belfast and Derry have now been in place for considerably longer than the Berlin Wall.

Some of our installations were erected more than half a century ago and have significantly outlasted the divisions in Berlin which endured from 1961 to 1989.

The barriers have been maintained for specific reasons, and it cannot be disputed that many residents would still feel hugely vulnerable if they were to be removed.

However, their presence needs to be kept under review and there will be a strong welcome for the announcement that one of the most prominent security structures of all, on Derry’s historic walls, is to be finally dismantled in the coming days.

The large wire fence was initially built close to the Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall, after the serious disturbances which broke out in the area during the early days of The Troubles.

Loyalists insisted on their right to march on a contested route which included a section of the city’s walls, and their regular practice of contemptuously throwing coins into the Bogside area below also caused major tension.

Prolonged confrontations took place in the vicinity, with regular attacks on the Memorial Hall, and public access to part of the walls was restricted.

Decades later, it has been confirmed that the high fencing between Butcher Gate and Royal Bastion, the location of the Walker’s monument plinth, which is all that remains of the 96-foot pillar blown up by the IRA in 1973, is to be taken down.

The statue was a tribute to the Rev. George Walker, co-governor of Derry during the Siege of 1688/89, which had come to symbolise unionist control of the mainly nationalist city.

There is now an opportunity in a more enlightened period for people from all traditions to consider their shared history and extend the hand of friendship to each other.

It will realistically be some time before decisions can be taken on the massive peace walls which still separate some neighbourhoods, particularly in flashpoint districts of Belfast, but it is a debate which needs to follow.

While political agreement may not be in view, and in some respects looks as far away as ever, the aspiration to eventually live in a society without artificial physical barriers in an entirely valid one.