Taking paramilitaries off the walls


Northern paramilitary murals are gradually being decommissioned, with images such as those of war heroes, the Titanic and a De Lorean car replacing them, writes Susan McKay

'No more gunmen on the walls," says William "Plum" Smith. "That's the message. We have to de-paramilitarise the culture. That's a word I invented, by the way." The gable walls on Belfast's Shankill Road have for years presented a menacing array of painted gunmen in black balaclavas, complete with military insignia and dire warnings in antique script. New UK legislation to outlaw the "glorification of terrorism" wasn't designed for Northern Ireland, but could be applied. However, according to Smith, the writing was already on the wall for the traditional loyalist murals.

A few years ago a youth worker asked a group of young Shankill Road teenagers what they wanted to be when they grew up. Most of the boys replied: "ex-paramilitary prisoner". Smith, who is a former loyalist paramilitary prisoner, sees the danger. "Kids are walking past these in-your-face paramilitary murals every day. They become conditioned," he says. "You can't just take the murals down because then people just put up graffiti. You need to talk to the people who put them up. You've to negotiate."

THE PEOPLE WHO put them up, or who get painters to put them up for them, are, mostly the paramilitaries. The Shankill has been riven by feuds, so many of the murals map the territorial claims of rival factions. When local UDA leader Johnny Adair was ousted, most of his self-aggrandising murals were destroyed. Oddly, one that his followers had painted of Princess Diana was painted out too. "The ones that are memorials will stay," says Smith, as we drive slowly through the narrow redbrick side streets. We pass three memorials in a row, portraits of murdered loyalists. "One of those men was killed by the British army, one by republicans, and one by loyalists during a feud," says Smith.

Murals have a long history in unionist Ulster. "I grew up with pictures of King Billy on his white horse," says Smith. Now there is a return to historical images and the telling of stories. A new mural depicts "30 years of indiscriminate slaughter by so-called non-sectarian Irish freedom fighters." It shows images of IRA bombs on the Shankill from 1971 to the most notorious one in 1993. Another portrays the UVF as the "people's army", from its formation to resist Home Rule in 1912 to the emergence of its political wing in the 1990s. Progressive Unionist Party leader David Ervine, recognisable by his moustache, is shown standing at a crossroads beside a sign pointing towards peace and the UK.

In Tullycarnet in south Belfast, one of loyalism's most aggressive mural images used to face a primary school. This showed a soldier with a skull head and a silhouette of the grim reaper. It has been replaced by one of James Magennis, a Catholic Belfast soldier awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in the British navy during the second World War. Elsewhere, the Ulster Scots Heritage Council has sponsored murals, including one of Davy Crockett in Ballymoney. The British-Irish secretariat is also putting money into murals, and is in the process of commissioning a painting to replace the notorious UDA insignia which overlooks the beleagured Catholic church at Harryville in Ballymena. Generous grants have been made available for getting the gunmen off the walls.

SMITH HAS SPENT time in Los Angeles where mural painting has flourished, and last year invited professional artists from the Californian city to work with local young people on the Shankill. Several striking works were created. One, on the site where a UDA banner-style mural used to be, is a big, brilliantly colourful collection of images including figures from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by Belfast author CS Lewis, the Giant's Causeway, the Titanic and the De Lorean sports car. The big project, towards which Smith and his colleagues are working, is on the peaceline.

"This wall is a major attraction. It is nearly as popular with tourists as the Giant's Causeway," he says, surveying the long, grey curve of the peaceline on Coupar Street, between the Shankill and the Falls. The wall's existence is a bleak comment on the state of community relations in west Belfast, but Smith isn't dwelling on that.

"People want it because it makes them feel safe," he says. "This has been around longer than the Berlin Wall, and it is being made higher all the time." He points up at the new fence that has recently been put on top of the railings which are on top of the original wall. "What we are going to do is turn it into the most major piece of public art in Northern Ireland. There are going to be non-sectarian, non-paramilitary murals."

The tourists are brought into west Belfast by bus, black taxi and on foot. The Northern Ireland tourist board offers contact details for about 20 operators, including the republican ex-prisoners group, Coiste. "You have people doing tours who know nothing about this area and they are bullshitting people," says Caoimhín MacGiolla Mhín, co-ordinator of Coiste's tourism project. "I heard one unionist taxi driver showing some Americans the mural of Tom Williams in Bombay Street and he told them it wasn't Tom Williams who shot that policeman in 1942, it was Cathal Daly! We lived through the conflict. We want to compete as a social economy business with these people." Currently, the republicans hand the tourists over to the loyalists at a rendezvous point on the peaceline for the Shankill side of the tour. However, there are plans to share red-top buses for future political tours.

Republican murals made their first significant appearance during the hunger strikes in 1981, and new hunger strike memorial images are currently being painted for the 25th anniversary. "The murals came about as a reaction to censorship. They represent the feelings of the community," says Danny Devenny, one of the best known mural painters in the North. He started painting on prison walls when he was jailed in the 1970s. "The murals impacted on solidarity in communities. We see them as vehicles - they deal with whatever is being talked about." Devenny's most famous image is that of Bobby Sands on the side of Sinn Féin's headquarters on Sebastopol Street. As well as celebrating the "armed struggle" and the IRA men and women who died in it, republican murals have illustrated the marching issue, decommissioning and demilitarisation.

THERE IS MUCH martyrology, some humour. Former secretary of state Peter Mandelson featured as Pinocchio. Devenny has used ideas from advertising. "There was one we did a line at a time. It started off with "the waster" and then "wasting time" and "wasting your votes" and went on until finally Trimble's face was put on." In turn, advertisers have commissioned him. Devenny doesn't care for comparisons with loyalist muralists. "We use the same medium but it's like in film-making - some people make porn, and some make documentary," he says.

University lecturer Bill Rolston has written extensively about murals and has published several books of photographs. The books are important - many of the images he has documented have now gone. "Murals are a very potent form of articulation," he says. "Loyalist ones actually got heavier and more threatening after the ceasefires. It was like a warning about the peace process but there was also a sense of the confusion within loyalism - what is left if you take the guns away? Republicans have a very wide range - they've addressed solidarity with other struggles, such as Palestine, Nicaragua and South Africa, and there are murals about violence against women, slavery and the famine. Loyalists tend to come up with George Best and the Titanic." Rolston says he finds it surprising that so many murals continue to be produced. "They were a product of conflict," he says. "However, it appears they have the potential to become part of conflict transformation."