Is Belfast whitewashing its troubled past?
In an attempt to put more distance between today’s uneasy peace and the Troubles—that 30-year-period of bloody sectarian violence that pitted Catholic Republicans opposed to the British presence in Northern Ireland against Protestant Loyalists—the city has been embarking on a face change. One of its most infamous murals,“You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row,” depicting a balaclava-clad Protestant gunman protecting his turf, is due to be replaced soon. Softening the imagery on such an aggressive mural is considered an important step forward for reconciling the two sides, and comes after five years of tense negotiations between former Loyalist area “gatekeepers”—now known as community representatives—and development workers. Funding the new mural is the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, which is in charge of the Re-imaging Communities Programme that works with artistic and local communities to tackle the signs of sectarianism and racism.
With a $6-million budget to date, the program has shepherded through 150 art projects since 2006. Its first major success was replacing the famous Grim Reaper mural of a paramilitary gunman in a pro-British area of Belfast. “We haven’t moved from the Grim Reaper to Andy Warhol quite yet, but re-imaging Sandy Row is a big step,” notes Nóirín McKinney of the Arts Council. “We came to an agreement on a new painted image of [Loyalist hero] King Billy and a garden.”
Meanwhile, two menacing paramilitary murals were recently replaced with images of First World War soldiers and female munitions workers. “It’s important that the likes of myself are involved with Re-imaging, because I put up the murals in the first place,” says artist David Dee Craig, who is busy this summer replacing aggressive Loyalist murals with celebrations of C.S. Lewis, Flanders Fields, the Titanic and the Battle of the Somme, where Northern Irish soldiers—mostly Protestants—were slaughtered defending the Crown in the First World War.
“But it’s not about whitewashing out the history of the [Protestant] UVF or the UDA or even the [Catholic Provisional] IRA, for that matter. It’s about celebrating all aspects of our history, including the Troubles. We’re just taking the edge off some,” explains Loyalist ex-Red Hand commando Jim Wilson, now a cross-community activist involved in Re-imaging. “I sit down in rooms with guys who were trying to kill me and I was trying to kill them.” But that doesn’t mean that problems don’t remain. “There are still people on both sides who oppose me talking to [Catholic political party] Sinn Fein,” Wilson says. “Make no bones about it; bigotry is still big in Belfast.”
Indeed, in mid-June, two nights of rioting—instigated, police say, by the Loyalist UVF—only served to show how quickly old animosities can bubble to the surface. And given the historic tensions in the region, Re-imaging couldn’t help but become a lightning rod for controversy. The program initially focused on Loyalist areas since the bulk of applications came from there, though McKinney of the Arts Council emphasizes that everyone had the opportunity to take advantage of the funding. But he points out that many Catholic murals had already been re-imaged to reflect the post-conflict reality on the ground.
Still, tensions between Catholics and Protestants bubbled to the surface in May when Republicans unveiled a mural to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the death of hunger striker Bobby Sands. It hearkens back to old-style imagery, featuring masked men firing a volley over his coffin. According to Harry Connolly of Fáilte Feirste Thiar (Welcome to West Belfast), a Republican organization, funding came from city hall—where Sinn Fein is the largest party. “The Re-imaging people would never fund it because it was considered rebellious and oppositional,” says University of Ulster sociology professor Bill Rolston. “Yet [Loyalist] murals celebrating the Protestant King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne [over deposed Catholic James II in 1690] are seen as cultural and historic.”
To Republicans, the Bobby Sands mural was not a sign of renewed aggression. “It’s historic, to us,” says Connolly. “Nobody wants those old days back, but we won’t paint out our heritage.” Complicating the issue is the fact that the political murals draw hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. “We were worried, and the tour operators [who show tourists the murals] were very worried, that a van of decorators would pull up and tell us what to paint over,” says Connolly. “They’d be chased out!”
“If you come back from a trip to Belfast, you don’t want pictures of [soccer legend] George Best,” notes professor Rolston. “You want something more dark. Re-imaging could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.” But, he adds, “nobody should be allowed to say what goes up on people’s walls and nobody should have to live with paramilitary images on their homes just for tourists.”
Still, some residents in staunchly Loyalist areas of Belfast miss the Grim Reaper. “He shouldn’t have come off my wall in the first place. Nobody asked me,” said Lower Shankill resident “Lorna,” who owns a gabled home near the famous Shankill Mona Lisa: a hooded paramilitary member training his gun on the viewer. It’s slated for re-imaging next spring. “At least the Grim Reaper was an authentic reflection of what we feel,” Lorna says. “Re-imaging is a middle-class illusion of peace. We aren’t holding hands just yet.”
In reaction to the new Bobby Sands mural, UVF Loyalists refreshed two of their older paramilitary murals in the Newtownards area. “What, are we going backwards now?” asks cross-community activist/artist Mark Ervine, son of the late Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine. But he is also critical of the re-imaging campaign. “Re-imaging is as political as the images it’s trying to remove. They got [$6 million] to sanitize our walls, and wave the carrot of peace money in poor areas. It feels like they’re trying to kill both our histories with kindness.”
“Re-imaging isn’t perfect, but it’s one step forward. I don’t know if we have a shared vision of the future, but we have a vision of a shared future,” says Joe O’Donnell, strategic director of the Belfast Interface Project. “The conditions for armed conflict no longer exist. What you’re seeing is the endgame, in terms of the political process. Setbacks happen by people who feel left behind by the peace process.”