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Page last updated at 15:01 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 16:01 UK

Divide and Rule

By Declan Lawn
BBC Panorama

Metal fence
Panorama: Divide and Rule on BBC One 8.30pm on Monday 7 April 2008.
In making most Panorama programmes, you find yourself in unfamiliar places.

For this one, to look at Northern Ireland ten years on from the Good Friday Agreement, I found myself on home ground.

We decided that I should go back to the two places where I spent my youth - Derry (Londonderry), a home town I share with Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, and Ballymena, the heartland of outgoing First Minister Ian Paisley, where I spent my teenage years.

Sectarian division

The idea was to talk to people outside the realm of politics about what life was really like now in these two very different places, one a stronghold of Catholic Nationalism, the other a bastion of Protestant Unionism.

There are two bus stops about 100 metres apart. They're for the same buses, on the same route - but one is used by Catholics, the other by Protestants.
Because I have friends and family in both places, I'm still familiar with them, and my only worry was whether people in either town would have a great deal to say.

After all, with Northern Ireland on the slow but inexorable path to normality, might I not just return with tapes full of..well...normality?

But Northern Ireland has a habit of throwing up surprises.

What we found in various parts of Derry, Ballymena, and Belfast was a society in which sectarian division continues to manifest itself in a range of ways, from the banal to the deeply disturbing.

Declan Lawn
Declan Lawn returned to his childhood roots in Northern Ireland
In North Belfast, for example, there are two bus stops about 100 metres apart. They're for the same buses, on the same route - but one is used by Catholics, the other by Protestants.

The official line is that the stops were not designed for this purpose, but on the ground, everybody knows where they stand.

Petrol bomb

In Derry we found a more sinister aspect to sectarianism.

The Fountain estate is a small Protestant enclave surrounded by Catholic Nationalist areas.

In the ten years since the Good Friday Agreement there have been regular sectarian clashes around the Fountain, for which both sides share responsibility.

In the last two years things have become quieter, but not so quiet that potentially lethal incidents have stopped entirely.

One Fountain resident showed us the remains of a missile that had been thrown over the security fences just a few days previously.

It landed just beside the home of a family with two children; the missile was a petrol bomb filled with nails.

A laptop
The Internet gives a 21st century twist to a centuries-old division.
In Ballymena there are no physical barriers between opposing factions - but the ones in their heads are all that's needed.

When I lived there Ballymena was more renowned for shopping than sectarianism.

But in the last few years, something's changed.

The town is still a bustling commercial centre, but these days some young Catholics and Protestants have divided up the town centre along invisible tribal lines.

Neither side seems very interested in talking to the other - unless it's on social networking forums, which over the last few years in Ballymena have developed into hotbeds of sectarian tension.

Representatives of even attended a public meeting in Ballymena in 2006 with an aim to quelling the sectarian tension not on the streets, but online - a 21st century twist to a centuries-old division.

Peace walls

So how come, ten years after the Good Friday Agreement, that in some parts of Northern Ireland the sectarian mindsets seem as strong as ever?

It is a sobering reality that there are more physical barriers, or so-called peace walls, between communities today than there were ten years ago.

Some are now blaming the very political settlement that brought an end to violence.

They see the Stormont assembly as a sectarian carve up that doesn't lessen sectarian divisions so much as it consolidates sectarian divisions.

If that analysis is correct, it may be a long time yet before the walls come down.

Panorama: Divide and Rule on BBC One 8.30pm on Monday 7 April 2008.

If you miss Panorama you can catch up online with the BBC's iPlayer where the programme will be available for seven days after transmission. BBC iPlayer.

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