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In the shadow of the walls

Teenagers in working class Belfast belie success of integration efforts.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Early on a Sunday evening a group of Catholic teenagers huddle in the corner of an empty construction site getting drunk. Nearby, four amateur pyromaniacs set fire to an old football jersey on a stone that bares the spray-painted message: “COPS NOT WELCOM.”

This is the Catholic neighborhood of Clonard, just off The Falls Road. It is separated from the Protestant neighborhood of Shankill by a 40-foot-high wall, called a “peace line.” There are at least 40 such walls all over Northern Ireland, the most recent of which was built just in 2008 around a school that is religiously integrated. The wall where these youths have gathered is one of the oldest, dating back to the early 1970s.

Most of modern Belfast has moved on from The Troubles — the ethno-political conflict that began in the 1960s. But the working class areas, still divided by peace lines, continue to live with the legacy of violence.

These teenagers have dropped out of school and gone on welfare, leaving their evenings free. Their prospects for the future are virtually non-existent. One of the boys, who proudly claims to have spray-painted “Kill All Brits & Cops” on the wall, says that his father is in jail, but he does not say why.

On the other side of the wall the story is the same. Shankill is a deprived neighborhood where one local youth worker describes “generational unemployment” as an epidemic. Less than 1 percent of students here will go on to university.

During the long summer months these kids will take part in something the locals refer to as “recreational rioting.” Twenty to 30 teenagers will gather on either side of the wall and lob rocks, bricks and petrol bombs at one another.