The Long Drawn-Out Struggle

By Tudor, Antony | New Statesman (1996), June 26, 2000 | Go to article overview

The Long Drawn-Out Struggle

Tudor, Antony, New Statesman (1996)

The walls of Northern Ireland provide a unique visual map to its political and cultural battles. William Cook takes a tour of the murals of Belfast

Last month, a unique event took place at Belfast's Ulster Museum. In a public discussion about the political, cultural and paramilitary murals that define this troubled landscape, a republican muralist was joined by a loyalist muralist. "The War on the Walls" was the first time painters from both traditions had shared a platform, in a vivid demonstration of how the cease fire has created a space for a divided people to discuss their differences and the things they share. It also proved that the peace process has not stopped people painting the walls of this contested province. Instead, it has sent the painting process into several different directions.

People have painted murals in Northern Ireland for almost a century. For most of that time, they were almost entirely unionist. Every year on 12 July, unionists decorated their streets to celebrate the victory of the Protestant William III over the catholic James II in 1690. When new trolley and electricity lines interrupted this annual custom, unionists began to paint "King Billy" on their gable walls instead. For the next 60 years, these portraits were repainted every summer. Then came the Troubles, which inspired republican murals, and dramatically transformed loyalist murals, too.

"King Billy murals faded rapidly," says Dr Bill Rolston of the University of Ulster, the author of several books about these murals. "Loyalism is no longer sure of its roots, its identity, its origins." We're on Belfast's Donegall Pass, driving past a mural of King William of Orange on his white horse. A bit further on, we pass a mural commemorating the soldiers of the 36th Ulster Division, recruited from the original Ulster Volunteer Force, who died at the Somme. It also shows we're in UVF rather than Ulster Defence Association territory. The next loyalist mural, like most since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, is paramilitary. "At best, King Billy murals were just about a community celebrating itself," says Rolston. "Sometimes, they were also a taunt to the other side." But these paramilitary murals, he says, cause offence. "If you're a nationalist, say, whose brother or father has been shot dead by a squad of UVF men, then that image is not a neutral image."

Since the ceasefire, most loyalist murals have become even more militant. "Compromise or Conflict" declares one on the Shankill, but it depicts armed paramilitaries battering down a door. "That's not really eligible for a cross-community grant," Rolston comments wryly. Nearby, some men are repainting another paramilitary design. Rolston thinks the man in the car close behind us may be trying to make a point, but we stop and Rolston swaps a few cordial words with the painters. On the Lower Shankill estate, in an area never painted before, several new paramilitary murals have appeared, with more underway. "For all that they say to this community," says Rolston, "they also say to me 'Stay out, do not come in here, whatever you do'. But I'm a bit deaf, so I'll go in." We go in. "It's a bit scary," says Rolston, but he doubts if murals either encourage or sidetrack violence. "Some of the muralists have been out with guns already, and their gun career is behind them."

Elsewhere on the Shankill are a few historical motifs, depicting the formation of the original Ulster Volunteer Force in 1912 and the Ulster Workers' Council strike of 1974. On one of several murals funded and designed by the Ulster S cots Heritage Council, US President Buchanan declares: "My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage." Unveiled by the US consul general in 1999, it's inscribed in Ulster Scots. Further on, a Red Hand Commando mural bears American eagles and an Irish motto. Contrasting attempts to contest nationalist ownership of language and American emigration? Other loyalist murals have attempted to reposition Irish icons such as St Patrick ("Apostle of Ulster") and Cuchulainn ("Ancient Defender of Ulster"), but most show hooded gunmen. …

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