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Northern Ireland: Belfast Peace Wall

Volume 696: debated on Monday 12 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they will reconsider their decision to build a peace wall through the playground of Hazelwood integrated primary school in north Belfast.

My Lords, the decision to erect a security fence at the perimeter of Hazelwood integrated primary school was taken on the basis of a security assessment by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and in consultation with local residents and the school. While we do not propose to reconsider the decision at this time, this security measure will be subject to review, which will include input from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his Answer, disappointing though it is. Is he aware that Hazelwood integrated primary school is a highly successful school, which is oversubscribed? Does he agree that there has been no trouble in that area for at least a year, and that erecting a 25-feet-high fence in the area of the school and dividing it off from half its catchment area is a sign of no confidence in what is going on in Belfast? I urge my noble friend to have the decision reconsidered.

My Lords, my noble friend accepts that it is not a wall. It is at the perimeter of the school; in fact it is at the edge of the staff car park. It is simply designed to stop people entering the school and firebombing the new houses nearby, which is what they were doing. That is why the residents demanded some action. It has taken a while to get to the point that we are at now, and the assessment was that there should be a fence. It is being erected in a way that means that it can be dismantled section by section as the situation improves. It is in one area of the school, and it is certainly not cutting off this very successful school—as my noble friend says—from its catchment area.

My Lords, it has emerged recently that there are 57 peace lines still dividing communities in Belfast—46 walls or fences and 11 gates in north Belfast. Is there not, at this stage of Belfast’s progress, a better way?

My Lords, the figures that the noble Lord just quoted are for Northern Ireland, not Belfast. The figures are 46 walls or fences and 16 gates or barriers in Northern Ireland. I fully accept that the majority are in Belfast, but other parts of Northern Ireland are included in those figures. The police assessment is that all those measures are required and should be retained for now. Obviously, we all hope that the situation will improve. Anyone who visits Belfast in particular will see massive changes, massive development and substantial capital investment. There are areas where, I am sad to say, the barriers separating the communities are still required, and that is the current assessment.

My Lords, one of the antidotes to the sectarianism that bedevils Northern Ireland has been the development of integrated schools. What possessed the Minister, Mr Paul Goggins, to sanction this wall? What signal does it give?

My Lords, the situation is that some nearby houses—which were new, private sector, mixed community houses—were first arson attacked in 2005 and attacked for a second time in 2006. These are the homes of young families. Rightly, the residents said that the school fence was giving easy access to those who were firebombing the houses and that something had to be done. There have been lots of discussions with the school, the head teacher, the board of governors, the police, the residents and the community council. Following the assessment by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Minister decided to take that decision.

My Lords, that assessment was made a long time ago. I am assured that there has been no trouble in the area for a year. Is there not a case for looking at it again? I have the utmost respect for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but if things have settled down in the area, surely there is a case for saying, “Do we really need this?”.

My Lords, in that case, the assessment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland would change. I have to say to my noble friend that it has not changed.