City fathers let the paramilitary sleeping dogs lie while swabbing out our dreams
Peace in the North is an uneasy stasis, not the real thing
“Teenage dreams so hard to beat.” The words from the Undertones’ joyous hymn to young love have been swabbed out by the overzealous authorities. Photograph: Pacemaker
Living in the North, you learn to value the small things that make you feel normal, the things that make you feel connected to a wider, more multi-dimensional world.
That’s why there was such an outcry when the Department for Social Development erased an east Belfast mural celebrating the 1978 Undertones song Teenage Kicks.
The song’s opening words, “teenage dreams so hard to beat”, had been spray-painted under a motorway flyover nine years ago, after the death of the DJ John Peel, who loved it so much it reduced him to tears every time he heard it (the words are now on his gravestone). But last week, the mural disappeared under a thick coat of paint, as part of a £300,000 public realm improvement scheme.
Dearth of gaiety
The Northern authorities still cling to the gimcrack idea of retail-led regeneration, a post-conflict strategy which now appears to mean pouring thousands of pounds into fake shop-fronts for derelict stores, as embarrassingly showcased during the recent G8 summit in Fermanagh.
But the spirit of municipal joylessness which led to the erasure of the Teenage Kicks mural has been around for a long time. The writer Brian Moore identified it accurately as a “dearth of gaiety . . . [A] surfeit of order”. Chaining up the swings on Sundays was the old version; these days, it manifests itself in absurdly restrictive licensing laws and a weird obsession with improperly deposited dog faeces.
Of course, Belfast – and the North in general – has always expressed its most deeply felt and lurid preoccupations through graffiti and murals.
It’s notorious for it. While graffiti elsewhere often has a playfully anarchic quality, in Northern Ireland it operates as a primitive form of advertising, or even just a barked directive.
When I was growing up, the mysterious slogan “Don’t march, MOBIZE!” appeared on a gable end in my home town, following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, to the mingled amusement and disquiet of residents. And it’s still the case that a stretch of wall never stays blank for long.
Even the slopes of Black Mountain, rising up behind the city, are regularly used as a giant noticeboard; most recently they bore the topical legend “G8 war criminals”, spelled out in white bed-sheets.
The reason the removal of the Teenage Kicks mural generated so much anger – a campaign is already under way for its reinstatement – is that it didn’t conform to type.
True, it was hardly a Banksy, but people in Belfast liked it because it was non-political and spontaneous: neither an aggressive marker of territory nor a twee, publicly funded depiction of cross-community harmony and ethnic integration. (The Northern Ireland Arts Council offers grants of up to £50,000 to groups wishing “to promote tolerance and understanding while using the arts to express who they are”.) People saw it in the mornings while driving into work and felt a little better for it.
Yet while the Undertones’ exuberant lyrics were swabbed out without a thought, the massive gable-end paramilitary mural around the corner, installed in 2011 – a wonky, monochrome trompe l’oeil featuring a pair of masked loyalist gunmen lurking behind a wall – remained intact. (It was intended as a riposte, apparently, to a recent west Belfast mural showing an IRA firing party at the 1981 funeral of Bobby Sands.)
You see, the Stormont government may be assiduous in its drive to polish up Northern Ireland, and make it look all shiny and safe, but it’s also highly selective in where it chooses to intervene.
Sleeping dogs, particularly of the volatile, slavering, muscle-bound variety, are consistently permitted to lie, even if the place they have chosen is awkward and inconvenient for everyone else.
This is the reality of peace in the North. In this uneasy stasis, all the normal people are still expected to tiptoe around the ideologues, of whatever shade.
In April, hundreds of purple UVF flags were erected all over east Belfast for a centenary parade, amid assurances that they would be removed once the celebration was over.
Months later, they’re still fluttering everywhere, and no one dares take them down. A friend of mine, who was trying to sell his house, thought a paramilitary flag on the lamp-post outside his front door might deter prospective buyers. So in the dead of night, he climbed a ladder, removed it and rushed back into the house with it. Why didn’t he just put it in the bin?
Because he was worried someone would see it, and that could mean trouble. So at the moment he’s using the flag as a large, not especially absorbent tea-towel.
It sounds more than a little absurd, but like the selective erasure of the Teenage Kicks mural, it evokes a bigger picture. Caution, fear and mistrust remain our watchwords. We are still a long way from normality.