Justice Minister David Ford says interface structures are hard to define but acknowledges his Department is responsible for 52 of them across Londonderry, Belfast, Portadown and Lurgan, which are all targeted for removal by 2023 under current Executive policy.
Mr Ford, however, says an improved security situation over the past twenty years hasn’t been backed up by a removal of peace walls, which now act as cultural boundaries and sectarian borders as much as physical defences.
“No definition of what constitutes an interface structure was contained within the Together: Building a United Community strategy, nor am I aware of an agreed definition,” said Mr Ford.
“That in itself makes it difficult to authoritatively say how many structures there are and who owns them.
“What I am clear on is the number of structures that my Department is responsible for: currently 52 across Belfast, Portadown/Lurgan and Derry.
“The Northern Ireland Housing Executive also has structures that mark divisions between communities at 21 locations. These are the structures that the interface programme is focusing on.”
He says the peace dividend has only gone so far.
“Historically the interface structures developed within the context of a specific and visible security threat. However, the reduction in security threat as a result of the peace and political processes has not seen significant numbers removed. They have therefore taken on new and complex meanings as cultural boundaries, permanent residential and territorial defences and as a preventative measure against the future recurrence of violence.
“The removal of barriers erected for security reasons therefore now engages issues of community safety, health and wellbeing, community development, economic and social development, planning and cultural issues in a series of unique circumstances. The fact that my Department has retained responsibility for leading on issues related to interface structures, as a result of its origins in security and ongoing safety issues, must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the debate about removal will necessarily engage issues which are the direct responsibility of other Departments. “Engagement with communities about removal will depend on appropriate responses to complex community challenges. No policy aimed at removal can succeed without the active, sustained and planned engagement of those Departments.
“Furthermore, as the specific responsibilities and challenges for each Department will vary with each site, and potentially also in different ways across the community, this will require a proactive, flexible and embedded inter-Departmental delivery mechanism.”
The Minister says an inter-Departmental meeting will discuss the interface problem this month.
“As a result, I have agreed to establish a cross Departmental Interface Programme Board to deliver the headline action outlined under the Together: Building a United Community Strategy and the current Programme for Government commitment. I have asked Ministerial colleagues to nominate representatives to the Board and anticipate that it will have its first meeting in early February.”