Northern Ireland

Mark Simpson in Belfast: Alexandra Park's peace gate

Belfast has the dubious distinction of having the only public park in Western Europe divided by a huge security fence.

Alexandra Park in north Belfast, has two children's playgrounds; one on each side of the 3m-high structure.

In effect, it has a Protestant set of swings and roundabouts, and a Catholic set.

However, in a landmark move, a small gate has been built within the security fence to allow some limited interaction between the two communities.

It is being seen as a sign of progress; the breaking down of a barrier.

Yet the truth is that it is only one small step on the road to community harmony.

The steel fence - or peace wall as it is called - is not being demolished. The gate will only open between 09:00 and 15:00 BST on weekdays. It will be closed every night and at weekends.

Also, it is only a three-month trial. If the open gate leads to more sectarian clashes, it will be closed.

Already the pilot scheme has its sceptics.

"It won't last three weeks, never mind three months," shouted one middle-aged man as workers put the finishing touches to the new gate.

"This will turn the clock back to the bad old days," said his friend.

'Split in two'

It is one of 49 peace walls in Belfast. In Northern Ireland, there are 59 in total.

They started being built in the late 1960s as violence erupted, but in spite of the peace process, there is no sign of them coming down soon.

The wall which straddles Alexandra Park was put up in 1994 to try to stop nightly sectarian clashes.

It is a bizarre sight. A park is supposed to be for everyone, but this one is firmly split into two. Even the river is divided.

Alexandra Park has a Protestant and Catholic set of swings
Alexandra Park has Protestant and Catholic swings

In the early days, some teenagers dug holes under the wall in order to attack rival gangs on the other side but soon they gave up. The fighting switched to neighbouring streets, rather than the parkland.

Alexandra Park opened in 1881 and used to be one of the poshest parts of Belfast. However, at times during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s it became a sectarian battleground.

Some may ask whether it is worth spending thousands of pounds on a "peace gate" which is only going to open 30 hours a week.

Northern Ireland's Justice Minister David Ford, of the cross-community Alliance Party, believes it is a good investment.

He said: "The opening of the gate at Alexandra Park is an important day for the people of Northern Ireland - it challenges the belief that these structures must be a permanent feature."

In other words, this is a social experiment. If it works in north Belfast, it could be tried in other divided parts of the city.

The environmental organisation behind the scheme, Groundwork NI, carried out door-to-door surveys with local residents before proposing the opening of the gate for a trial period.

Of those questioned, 92% were in favour.

The park has been improved in recent months, with new pathways, seating and picnic tables. A fund of more than £200,000 has been raised for the Alexandra Park project, with help from Belfast City Council and the European Union.

The only question, now that the gate has opened, is whether people will use it.

It is likely that many will want to go to the other side of the park, simply out of curiosity.

In particular, they may be keen to find out which side has the better set of swings and roundabouts.