Vicky Cosstick

Belfast:  Toward a City without Walls

During 2013, and following research for two articles for The Tablet (March 2013) on the fifteenth anniversary of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement in Northern Ireland, Vicky Cosstick began research on a book on the 100 peacewalls and interfaces which remain between Protestant and Catholic areas in Belfast.  This  allowed her to fulfill a personal ambition to carry out a major writing project, using both her experience as a journalist and her fascination with and understanding of complex change.


The resulting book, Belfast:  Toward a City without Walls, was published by Colourpoint in June 2015.   It includes 40 black & white photographs taken by Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn, and a Foreword by renowned conflict transformation specialist John Paul Lederach, author of The Moral Imagination:  The Art and Soul of Building Peace (1998). BTCWW gives a readable portrait of post-conflict Belfast, where segregation between Protestant and Catholic is still marked by walls, fences and gates.  It offers a fascinating and relevant insight into the reality behind the current headlines about Northern Ireland.


Many beyond Ireland believe that Ireland is generally at peace.  There is now a glittering and prosperous ‘new Belfast’ – and at the same time, in the still-segregated areas of working class Belfast, the legacy of the conflict remains.  In this book Vicky Cosstick tells the story of the one hundred walls, gates, barriers and other interfaces, one third of them built since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which continue to divide Catholic from Protestant communities, scar the city and block its progress.  In May 2013 First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness promised to bring down the walls by 2023.  Is that possible and how will it happen?  


The author interviewed over 100 people for this book -- community workers, residents, artists and architects, church leaders, business people, civil servants and former paramilitaries, all of them committed to building the peace in the city in their various ways -- to explore that question and pen a readable portrait of post-conflict Belfast.  The book contains 40 new stunning black and white photographs by well-known Belfast photographer Frankie Quinn, and a Foreword by John Paul Lederach, Professor of International Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame, who has been a frequent contributor to the peace process in Northern Ireland.  


“The reality of post-conflict Belfast isn’t what most people think,” explains Cosstick. “Reminders of the conflict surround people every day, symbolised by fences, gates and other structures that are no longer necessary. I was really shocked when I first learned the extent of the interfaces, and became convinced during my research that while residents often believe that the walls protect them, that in fact they do more harm than good, and this book explores the mystery of whether they can ever actually come down. Frankie Quinn’s amazing photographs are very stark – but overall I have tried to offer a hopeful outlook.”


She continues: “The book tells many stories of the artists, architects, church ministers, business people and community workers who are building the peace in post-conflict Belfast.  I also look specifically at some issues which remain unresolved, including the high levels of trauma which remain in Northern Irish society, and the complex role of former paramilitaries, but I ultimately want my book to offer an optimistic portrait of the peace process and a reminder to the reader that this region of the UK is still suffering the legacy of four decades of conflict, with high levels of poverty and deprivation in working class areas.”


Vicky Cosstick has been visiting Ireland North and South for many years but believes it was helpful to be an “outsider”, and indeed that only an outsider could have written this book.  However the book has been very well received both in Northern Ireland and beyond.  Former Secretary of State Peter Hain comments, "Northern Ireland’s conflict was long and brutal.  Vicky Cosstick’s book is a helpful and timely reminder that here in the UK and uniquely in Europe, long after the peace agreement of 1998, physical sectarian barriers remain and have even increased between communities who continue to be divided.  It illustrates the length of time and complexities involved when a society emerges from conflict, and the need for ongoing appropriate policy and resource responses from the UK, Irish and US governments."


Former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, adds, "Depressing in its depiction of the past and exhilarating in its vision of the future, Vicky Cosstick's compelling story of a wounded city maimed by walls is a call to the barricades for all who believe Belfast's future lies in building bridges and tearing down barriers."


Final-Belfast-TCWW-cover (1) Colourpoint