Catholic mural commemorating the Easter Uprising of 1916 (photo by David A. Sánchez)

Troubled Northern Ireland: Talking Walls, Open Wounds

Essays

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, partisan murals litter the landscape of Northern Ireland reminding all of the thirty-year civil war between Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

Time stands still in the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods respectively known as the Falls and Shankill Roads of West Belfast. To this day a “Peace Wall” separates these two epicenters of sectarian, political violence that engulfed West Belfast from 1969-1998. As the rest of Belfast and Northern Ireland have attempted to move on, residents of these two neighborhoods are caught in the malaise of painful recollection facilitated by the rhetorical vestiges of war that is the public art of Northern Ireland. Like festering, perpetual wounds the murals of Northern Ireland perform as painful reminders of that epoch known as the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

In the early 20th century, Protestant (i.e. Loyalists) began publicly expressing their sectarian worldview and history in the days leading to the July 12th commemoration of King William III of Orange’s military victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The victory assured Protestant ascendency on the island of Eire for centuries to come.

Photo by David A. Sánchez

In the early 20th century, Protestant (i.e. Loyalists) began publicly expressing their sectarian worldview and history in the days leading to the July 12th commemoration of King William III of Orange’s military victory over Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The victory assured Protestant ascendency on the island of Eire for centuries to come.

Photo by David A. Sánchez

In the 1960s, just prior to the onset of the Troubles, Catholics began painting their own artistic narratives to counter those memorials found in Protestant neighborhoods. For Catholics, the iconic moment memorialized was the Easter Rising of 1916, the anti-British uprising that proclaimed the establishment of the Irish Republic.

At the onset of the Troubles, these commemorative murals took on a more vitriolic tone. Rather than simply recalling iconic moments in Ireland’s past, they began to depict major players of the Irish Republican Army, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and on the Protestant side, the Ulster Defense Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The murals also began to memorialize Republican and Loyalists martyrs who had lost their lives combatting each other on the streets of West Belfast. Anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant (and by association, anti-British) slogans were also part of the artistic campaigns.

There can be no debate that each neighborhood curated the murals found within. Many were financed by the very paramilitary groups that functioned in those neighborhoods. It was each neighborhoods’ wartime narrative and it told a gruesome story of violent partisan encounters and heroes. Men and women, recognizable in the neighborhoods where they were being honored, brandished automatic weapons. On other occasions, neighborhood defenders were depicted with ski masks and automatic weapons with their paramilitary associations clearly labeled on the mural. Like gang graffiti that claims affiliated territory, so too did the sectarian murals of West Belfast.

Photo by David A. Sánchez

The question that begs to be asked some twenty years into the peace process is what role do and should the murals play today? Even more significantly, what happens when the Peace Walls are finally demolished and opposing sides have free access to view the antagonistic glorification of those from the “other” side? These are poignant questions because almost everyone on the Falls and Shankill Roads has been negatively affected by the violence of the Troubles. Tragic memories of the thirty-year civil war between neighbors do not fade easily. A generation has yet to pass since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Agreement and wounds are fresh on both hearts and walls.

Should the murals be removed? From the perspective of the US, it seems to resonate loudly with the recent debate over Southern war memorials being removed while Northern memorials remain. In Northern Ireland the situation is more complex. Simply removing one side’s murals is not tenable because both the Republican and Loyalist sides technically claim partial victory. The situation is also complicated by the fact that both neighborhoods are economically depressed and the murals bring thousands of international tourists who contribute financially to the Falls and Shankill economies. The unfortunate reality is, along with the Titanic, the murals are one of the largest tourist attractions in Northern Ireland. War and its memorials are a profitable industry. One need look no further than Washington, D.C to make the point.

The government of Northern Ireland has targeted all Peace Walls to come down by 2021. In less combative neighborhoods, the demolition has already begun. I find it hard to imagine a day when the walls that separate the Falls and Shankill will disappear. They are neighborhoods stuck in time because of their proximity and vitriolic wall landscapes. It is probably accurate to suggest that paramilitary groups have not totally disbanded. Rather, they lie dormant until they are called upon to resurrect. For the sake of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland I hope that day never comes.

As for the murals, the United Kingdom grants the right of freedom of expression under European Convention Article 10. It should be noted, however, that there are many exceptions under Article 10 including: breach of peace, speech of any anti-religious nature, incitement to religious hatred and inciting or glorifying terrorism. This last category is uniquely fitting because Loyalist and Republican paramilitary organizations were designated as terrorist organizations at various moments in history by both Great Britain and the United States. Whether or not the murals of West Belfast are protected by Article 10, is unclear. It can be argued that they are not protected under Article 10’s exceptions. Yet they endure.

We should note that both sides of the ideological equation have begun to phase out some of the more combative murals. The mural genre necessitates that murals are not permanent. Community narratives shift over time. But in the Falls and Shankill time stands still, especially when conjoined to economic gain. Nevertheless, under the direction of the Arts Council of Northern Ireland’s Re-Imagining Communities project, controversial images are being replaced by less offensive murals.

Troubled Northern Ireland: Talking Walls, Open Wounds

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday peace agreement, partisan murals litter the landscape of Northern Ireland reminding all of the thirty-year civil war between Catholic and Protestant neighbors.

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