Painting over divisions… Paramilitary Street Murals in the North

A good, if all too brief, article in the Guardian G2 section today about the changing role of paramilitary murals in Belfast and the accompanying debate concerning their future role. Owen Boycott notes that:

Erasing traumatic memories is not simple. Transforming the paramilitary murals that loom over many of Northern Ireland’s housing estates into more welcoming images is a slow process. One display likely to be replaced soon is a colourful, Ulster Defence Association composition marking the murder of five Catholics in a betting shop in 1992, which occupies the entire end wall of a low-rise block of flats in Tullycarnet, east Belfast.

Already Tullycarnet hosts a mural of James Magennis, a Catholic serviceman in the Second World War who won the Victoria Cross. That mural in itself was described by a local loyalist as a ‘massive step’ in terms of what it said about the changing nature of murals. It replaced a mural of the ‘Grim Reaper’.
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The traditional function of such imagery is obvious. “They are a message to the other side. They mark out territory. If you are a Catholic or a nationalist, they say, ‘You are not welcome.’ Removing them is difficult. People contact me and say they live in housing estates and are too afraid to ask about having them changed. People need to tell their stories but they don’t need to keep them up on the wall all the time.” says a local community worker.

But replacement does not necessarily mean their abandonment. Already there are calls for their retention from tour guides, and – tellingly – a groundswell of support for those under 25 who never experienced the conflict first hand. So there is a shift in content, as noted above, where the most traditional murals which depicted… are replaced with those which tell a broader story, or even utilise imagery that has no specific local political content at all, or as below utilise cultural referents which simultaneously embody and transcend political signification.

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This process has been more evident in the Republican communities, but that it is spreading throughout the society is also indicative of broader shifts.

On a side note, the profusion of heavy metal band Iron Maiden’s imagery as the basis for loyalist murals is in itself remarkable (hence, perhaps the reference to the “Grim Reaper” in the quote above). The almost cartoon like quality of horror explicit in the Iron Maiden imagery transferred with regrettable ease to a situation of genuine communal conflict and the selection of such signifiers is perhaps a telling insight into the visual material of nation easily available to those who were creating the murals.

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Having said that, it’s also fair to note that Iron Maiden in their music, and in the imagery, often conflated British imagery such as the Union Jack or uniforms from the American War of Independence with skeletal and demonic figures in a way which was visually quite playful and it would be unreasonable to load them with the weight of that appropriation by others.

And more traditional murals remain.

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So is it possible to envisage a time when such murals have almost no contemporary resonance at all, that they become akin to – say – the Berlin Wall which has rapidly diminished into recent history (Of course their signification is not the same as the Berlin Wall, and arguably there are other walls in Belfast which have a more pointed similarity with that particular piece of visual culture)?

In a way I think it is. The speed of change in the North is remarkable. Note the current reports in the Irish Times about the exchanges between First Minister Ian Paisley and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on their first joint public appearance in their roles. On meeting European Commission president José Manuel Barroso Paisley noted that “They [European visitors to Northern Ireland] have also learned that the best food in all the world is cooked in Northern Ireland. Some day when you come back we will give you a feed of fadge – that is bread made of potatoes. I think a Portuguese man would really enjoy that,” he said, adding “What you don’t eat the deputy [McGuinness] will gobble.”

To which McGuinness gave the rather mordant response: “I would caution … against the fadge and the Ulster fry – it is all a big recipe for a heart attack if you are not careful…but every once in a while it will do no harm.”

Putting the politics aside, it’s interesting that the discourse should be anchored in concepts of Ulster revolving around objects with a fairly neutral signification, in this instance food. But in a sense if some sort of shared public space is to be developed it must, of necessity, be grounded in this visual, cultural and societal sense of neutrality. The imagery of the Northern Ireland Assembly is rooted in this neutrality, one which draws upon referents of Northern Ireland, the North and Ulster but avoids the contentious by utilising the everyday. In that instance it selects flax as the symbol which is then treated in a decorative and optimistic style by the designers and applied in rather muted colours.

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Is this too part of what we’re seeing with the paramilitary murals, a shift from the hard edged communal public displays to ones which become effectively jettisoned of traditional political signification? If so this suggests a reworking of a visual culture at a rapid pace.

Ciarán Swan

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