A new £2 million fund aimed at bringing down Northern Ireland's peace walls by building confidence between divided communities has been announced.
There are almost 90 barriers separating Protestant and Catholic neighbourhoods across the region, the vast majority in Belfast. Ironically, more walls have actually been erected during the peace process.
Acknowledging that the infamous landmarks can only be removed with the support of the people living on each side, the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) project hopes to break down some of the non-physical barriers dividing them first.
The IFI's Peace Walls Programme is designed to be the first stage in a process leading to the removal of the walls.
The money will fund a range of confidence and relationship building initiatives within and between interface communities to help them arrive at a position where residents feel it is safe and appropriate for the walls to come down.
The IFI is an independent, internationally-funded organisation promoting reconciliation between unionists and nationalists throughout all of Ireland.
IFI chairman Dr Denis Rooney said while considerable momentum had built up in recent years for the walls to be removed there was still fear in many communities about them coming down too quickly.
"There are some 88 peace walls/barriers, mainly in Belfast, stretching over 21 kilometres in total," he said.
"Since the 1994 ceasefire, the number of barriers has grown. However, many community groups, some with the support of the Fund, are doing courageous work across interfaces and in the past few years their conversations have moved towards when, rather than if, the barriers will come down.
"The physical removal of these barriers is a matter for the Department of Justice but the Fund believes that its Peace Walls Programme, which is complementary to other initiatives that are under way, will help create dialogue, build trust and confidence and develop greater cross-community cohesion with a view to communities reaching agreement that it is time to start removing the barriers.
"Although there will be clear criteria for funding, this programme will allow applicants to come up with their own solutions and move at their own pace. It will be flexible by recognising that different communities in Belfast and other areas of Northern Ireland are at various stages of both willingness and readiness to move along this path."
While there has been some progress on the peace wall issue in some areas - security gates opened at Alexandra Park in north Belfast last summer - in other districts, such as on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast, barriers have been strengthened due to continued interface violence.
Last year Belfast City Council decided to examine whether some of the 40 or so peace walls in the city could be taken down.
Stormont's Justice minister David Ford has also signalled that a systematic review of the barriers may be undertaken to identify areas where progress can be made.
The Peace Walls Programme has been devised following consultation with all the key stakeholders, including the Department of Justice and the Office of First and Deputy First Minister.
Initially, £2 million has been allocated to the programme but the IFI said this could be increased depending on the number and quality of applications.
The Fund is inviting expressions of interest from community organisations for financial assistance.
Funding will be primarily for confidence and relationship building initiatives. However, the Fund will also consider confidence and relationship building initiatives that include a modest capital dimension, such as providing a shared community space.
Expressions of interest are available on the Fund's website at www.internationalfundforireland.com/media-centre and should be returned to the Fund at PO Box 2000, Belfast, BT4 1WD.
It is hoped that programme activity will start in June.
Ford welcomed the IFI investment.
"A real window of opportunity exists to continue the progress we have made in recent months on interface structures," he said.
"The more resources we can dedicate to building confidence in interface communities, the greater the opportunities for success.
"The commitment and the funding package announced today by the International Fund for Ireland can only help to bring us closer to the removal of more barriers and I am looking forward to discussing this initiative in greater detail with Denis Rooney."
Mr Ford said his department had made a commitment to seek local agreement to reduce the number of peace walls.
"The removal of interface structures is a complex issue but recent successes have proved that the conditions can be created within communities to make it a reality.
"Success must come from the ground up and I want to work with and support interface communities across Northern Ireland to bring down barriers where we can and when the time is right."
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