New 'peace fence' at St Matthew's Church in east Belfast

The new 'peace fence' will go up in the grounds of St Matthew's Church

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A new "peace fence" is to be built in east Belfast.

It will be erected inside St Mathew's Catholic Church grounds. It will be made of wire netting designed to be retractable when not needed.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) has requisitioned church land on the Newtownards Road for the fence.

The aim is to stop missiles being thrown between the mainly unionist Newtownards Road and two streets in the predominantly nationalist Short Strand.

Justice Minister David Ford said the fence had been agreed with residents in the Short Strand and was a "proportionate and innovative measure".

"I believe this will assist in stopping attacks from either direction across the interface adjacent to St Matthew's Church and reassure residents who are concerned about the safety of themselves and their property," he said.

"The default position will be that it will remain open and indeed I envisage that this will be the case for the majority of the year. When closed, it will act as a barrier to projectiles thrown from either side of the interface."

Several other "peace walls" already exist in the immediate area. Parish worker Willie Ward from St Matthew's said the new fence would be welcomed on both sides of the interface separating the mainly nationalist and loyalist areas.

"Definitely, the people who live in Strand Walk and St Matthew's Court on our side have asked for it, and the people on the other side of the road say it's because stone throwing is coming from St Matthew's Court, that they want some sort of fence. The only place for it to go is in the church grounds.

"I think it will go a long way towards helping solve the problem," he said.

"It is unfortunate there are ongoing attacks on the people in Strand Walk and St Matthew's Court and they are the driving force behind this happening. They are pensioners. They live locally and we have to work with them. It will help people on both sides have some sort of peace."

The interface at the Short Strand-lower Newtownards Road has been a flashpoint for opposing factions in Northern Ireland for many years. It was the scene of rioting in July.

"The fence can be made smaller or higher depending on what the need is at the time," said Mr Ward.

'Practical solution'

Ulster Unionist Michael Copeland said both sides of the community wanted the fence.

"It's a practical solution to a practical problem," he said.

"The truth is, it's regrettable that so far into the peace process and so long after the Belfast Agreement and St Andrew's, we're still finding it necessary to build walls or fences to protect one side of our community from the other.

"The people who are important in this are the people who live in the shadow of these walls, who look to these walls for their protection, no matter what section of the community they come from.

"High ground moralising and political posturing on the (Stormont) hill should not take precedence over their fears, their needs and their hopes and aspirations."

The DoJ, which is responsible for "peace walls" and interface fences, said it would work with the police and residents over when it would be deployed, in order "to minimise the impact on the community".

Mr Ford said the best way to keep people safe was to build connections between communities, rather than barriers.

He said reducing the number of interfaces "remains a priority".

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