Local Symbols, Global Networks: Rereading the Murals of Belfast

By Lisle, Debbie | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-March 2006 | Go to article overview

Local Symbols, Global Networks: Rereading the Murals of Belfast


Lisle, Debbie, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


Traditionally, the political murals of Belfast have been understood as expressions of either loyalist or republican communities, a reading that reduces the complex struggles of Northern Ireland into a simple conflict between two groups. This article rereads the murals through the specific context of the peace process, in which the "two communities" thesis is losing its relevance. It suggests that when the murals are understood through three, wider networks--production, signification, and reception--it is possible to see how they disrupt ongoing debates about public art, make explicit gestures to other international conflicts (such as the hunger strikers in Turkey), and encourage a new form of political tourism. Rereading the murals in this way reveals the multiple global networks that the city of Belfast is linked into, networks that are silenced by a traditional "two communities" framework. KEYWORDS: murals, art, resistance, Belfast, tourism

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Since the cease-fire of 1994 and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the city of Belfast has been regenerated to such an extent that it was a serious contender for the title of 2003 "European City of Culture." (1) A significant aspect of this regeneration has been Belfast's potential as a tourist destination, either for short breaks in the city or as a gateway to the rest of Ireland. But as Bill Rolston has argued, turning Belfast into a tourist destination has been a long and difficult process.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) was unable to "sell a country at war" during the 1980s and 1990s, despite their efforts to foreground images of safety, tranquillity, and simplicity. (2) However, as the peace process takes hold in Northern Ireland, Belfast is routinely mentioned alongside Edinburgh, Manchester, and Newcastle as a desirable UK destination, and its tourist numbers have increased by more than one-quarter since the cease-fire. (3) This article examines the role of political murals in the growing Irish tourism industry.

People have been painting murals and slogans on the walls of Belfast since 1908. The loyalist community began the tradition with murals commemorating World War I casualties, and the republican community adopted this form of cultural expression in the 1980s to commemorate the hunger strikers. (4) Mural painting has continued throughout the peace process, and these images have become the focus of a new kind of political tourism. Typically, the murals have been understood as ideological expressions of either loyalists or republicans, an understanding that entrenches the prevailing two-communities thesis, so-called, and reduces the complex struggles of Northern Ireland to a simple conflict between two groups.

As the murals are increasingly exposed to a clientele of regional, national, and international tourists, it becomes necessary to reposition these images within much wider interpretive networks. By examining the complex history of mural production, the polysemic signs, images, and messages embedded within the murals, and the increasingly important position of the murals within a growing tourist industry, it is possible to show that the political murals of Belfast belong to many more discursive articulations than the two-communities thesis allows. When the murals are understood as ideological expressions of a community, either loyalist or republican, they have two principle functions: they are (1) "pictures of hatred" intended to intimidate and threaten the opposite community, and (2) "pictures of common heritage" intended to mobilize and empower the community from which they arise. In other words, the murals signify two bounded communities and help to encourage the attending political practices of inclusion and exclusion.

This article challenges the notion that the political murals of Belfast simply reinforce those static boundaries. Instead, it argues that the two-communities thesis is depoliticizing, both locally and globally, because it hides, covers over, the complex and competing networks that function throughout the urban landscape of Belfast. …

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