November 16, 2005

N.Ireland murals tell story of changing society

By Anne Cadwallader

BELFAST (Reuters) - Change in Northern Ireland may be so slow it appears imperceptible, but the writing is on the wall for one of the most negative of its cultural traditions -- murals glorifying paramilitary violence.

Often covering entire side walls of buildings, they are a common sight in working class areas of large towns, acting as a territorial marker, badge of victory or mark of sorrow in a country still deeply divided along religious and national lines.

However, with the Irish Republican Army pledging to end its armed campaign against British rule and some paramilitary groups loyal to Britain also committing to end violence, the menacing paintings that for decades symbolized the province's conflict are slowly being replaced.

Where once masked gunmen and shadowy assassins loomed from building walls, pictures of sports stars, authors and landscapes are beginning to spring up -- most recently in pro-British "unionist" or "loyalist" areas where armed groups are starting to stand down.

"At the start, many loyalists were ambivalent about the peace process," said Bill Rolston, professor of sociology at the University of Ulster, who has written three books on the murals.

"Murals were a way of telling their political representatives to hold the line. They were a not-too-subtle reminder that the paramilitaries had not gone away," he added.

"But gradually they began to realize that they could not simply keep on painting the same subjects over and over again, that things had to change."

The political process has been slower to make progress.

Efforts to establish political stability in Northern Ireland following a peace deal in 1998 have been sluggish. A Belfast-based government that shared power between Catholics and Protestants, set up under the Good Friday Agreement, was suspended in 2002 and has been on ice ever since.


But last month flags were taken down and murals painted over ahead of an announcement that one loyalist paramilitary group, the Loyalist Volunteer Force, would stand down.

A portrait of Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, now graces a wall in east Belfast, a pro-British area, as does a painting of George Best, Northern Ireland's favorite soccer-playing son.

In the past, even depictions of apparently harmless cartoon characters had menacing undertones. Popular subjects included Spike, the gruff bulldog in "Tom and Jerry," and Eddie, a sinister, skeletal figure portrayed on Iron Maiden CDs.

"I think it's great that people are moving on. The murals are certainly less political and in-your-face than they were," said Anne Robinson, a supermarket worker from west Belfast.

According to Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research in Belfast, mural painting has been a feature of unionist popular culture since the early 20th century.

"They appeared as part of an assertion of the Protestant people's sense of British identity during an extended period of political crisis," he wrote in an article.

Much of mainly Protestant Northern Ireland resisted calls for Ireland's independence from Britain and was retained as part of the United Kingdom when the rest of the island, which is mostly Catholic, became independent in 1921.

Loyalist Kenny McComb, who served time in prison for paramilitary activities, is involved in replacing a mural in County Down. He said that whereas the drive to change murals previously came from groups such as charities, communities were now starting to press for new pictures to represent them.

The mural he is helping to replace once depicted loyalist gunmen. The new one includes pictures of the Bronte sisters -- authors who lived in the area before moving to northern England -- a local mariner and the town center.

"It's taken away the paramilitary stigma from the estate and encouraged people back into the area. The old murals served their purpose, they sent out a message but it's time to re-build a sense of community pride now. Things have moved on," he said.


For many, the garish murals are the central image of Northern Ireland's three-decade sectarian conflict between Irish nationalists, who want a united Ireland, and those who want the province to remain part of Britain.

"I have lost count of the number of people who tell me the first time Northern Irish politics broke into their consciousness was seeing a journalist report against the backdrop of one of my murals," said Danny Devenney, who paints murals in Irish republican areas of Belfast.