I have been receiving treatment for a minor injury over the past two months, which has meant cycling – slowly – through the gates in the peace line between my part of Belfast and the Royal Victoria Hospital.
Just past the gates on the republican side is the so-called international wall, where a sixth-form selection of foreign leftist, nationalist and revolutionary causes are given the Belfast mural treatment.
Some of these murals rise a little above the standard of graffiti, presumably with the help of stencils, but the overall effect is of a worthy youth group allowed to brighten up the back of an industrial estate. Bizarrely, this is one of Belfast’s busiest tourist attractions. Cycling along the grim road through the gates, you suddenly need to watch out for badly-parked coaches and crowds spilling off the footpaths.
It is humiliating to be in an ordinary neighbourhood when a tour bus goes past, its occupants clearly regarding you as an anthropological exhibit
The irony of the international wall is how far it falls short of international standards, and that it does so before an international audience.
Most of the tourists photographing it will have seen incomparably better street art in their own countries. Across the western world, cities and towns are now adorned with murals in a different artistic league. In central and south America, where the politics inspired some of Belfast’s scrawls, the political murals put Belfast to shame in quality, quantity and sincerity.
All of this had been on my mind when the BBC broke a story last weekend about US travel publisher Fodor’s withdrawing its Belfast guide, after the content on murals was criticised as highly inaccurate and offensive.
“Protestants make the money and Catholics make the art,” the guide began, claiming this explained why “Catholic” murals are “Sistine-chapel lite” while “Protestant” murals are “grim” and reflect a “stern, Bible-driven way of life”.
There are some differences between republican and loyalist murals, although it is not explained by these bigoted cliches.
While Fodor’s found few defenders, a debate promptly began along the usual detailed, introspective lines about which side might be the lesser of two evils. There are complicated politics around paramilitary murals in particular, of which everyone is well aware.
What this debate missed, as most people in Northern Ireland seem to miss, is that nearly all of Belfast's murals are simply dreadful – not in the familiar "both sides are as bad as each other" sense but in just being embarrassingly dire.
Few display the slightest sign of vibrancy, creativity or talent. Their amateurism would be laughable if their subject matter was not so grotesque. Violence is lauded through the same handful of tired images and grievances are listed through trite sloganeering. Where murals have been “reimagined” in consultation with “communities”, they have the appearance of being designed by a council committee.
The open-topped tour buses that depart the city centre every few minutes pass by a smattering of genuinely impressive modern street art, none of which relates directly to the Troubles. But their destination is to gawk at the squalor of segregation in inner north, east and west Belfast, as merely demarcated by the writing on the walls.
We have become so accustomed to regarding these “mural tours” as a premier draw that we never consider how pathetic it is to make a sectarian zoo of ourselves for tourist consumption. We still imagine visitors see the murals as unique, a physical spectacle and a thrilling encounter with a conflict recently abated, as they perhaps were 20 years ago.
Today, they are at best tawdry reminders of petty hatreds and at worst a way of intimidating nearby residents. It is humiliating to be in an ordinary neighbourhood when a tour bus goes past, its occupants clearly regarding you as an anthropological exhibit. It is revealing to join a tour – an experience I would recommend to anyone in Belfast who thinks murals are a cultural treasure. Tourists quickly become glum, then bored. Seen one gunman on the side of a house, seen them all.
This is a feature of life in Northern Ireland we should be actively consigning to the past. To the extent murals are of local historical interest, a sample should be transferred to a museum. The Ulster Folk Museum 10 miles outside Belfast missed a trick by not relocating a traditional unionist "King Billy" mural when a few still survived. But it is not too late to begin moving current examples and directing the tourist buses out there.
Every other paramilitary mural should painted over and any recurrence should be treated for what it has always been in law – criminal damage. It is absurd, verging on corrupt, that businesses cannot put up unauthorised advertisements without being pounced on and fined, yet proscribed organisations can glorify terrorism on public and private property while officialdom stares at its shoes.
The space these murals occupy should be given to contemporary artists. Then one day, hopefully, Belfast might have street art as good as just about everywhere else.