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Murals in Belfast

  • Street artists express their feelings about social, religious or political conflict in unusual ways. They use buildings or fences to comment on the situation or to make people aware of certain events or movements in society. Northern Ireland suffered from a long ongoing conflict over the religious and political destiny of the region and the streets of Belfast are filled with murals as a reaction on these issues. These murals are full of imaginary and symbolism and help to illustrate the multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations which have made the problems of Northern Ireland so intractable. 

  • These murals perform several functions. First, they commemorate history (e.g. the Battle of the Boyne, King James, William of Orange, the Easter Rising and more recent events), they remember the martyrs for the cause and they depict the para-militaries as warriors protecting their community. These are common themes in the murals of both the loyalists and the republican nationalists. Second, the murals are used by the local community as a way of promoting a sense of common identity. “This is us and this is our history and this is our place.”  

  • But even within the republican nationalist community or within the loyalist community there are factions with different aims and allegiances.  In some nationalist communities you will see IRA murals, elsewhere Provisional IRA murals but also you will see murals encouraged by the Catholic Church. In the loyalist areas you will see UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) murals and elsewhere you will see UDA (Ulster Defence Association) murals an UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters) murals.  They each have their own symbols and imagery. Traditionally the UDF murals use a lot of red, white and blue the colours of the union flag.  On UDA murals you often see the Red Hand of Ulster (that had once been the official seal of the O’Neills of Ulster.)  And then on UFF murals you often see the colours red, blue and yellow (rather than white).  This is because the UFF wants an independent Ulster. 

  • A second point worth making relates to the history of murals in Belfast. The Protestant loyalist community started painting murals on houses in the early 1900s. They were becoming increasingly nervous about the growth of the Home Rule movement both in Ireland and on the British mainland.  The implicit meaning behind some of these early murals (and it continued to be an implicit meaning for later loyalist murals too) was that “this is our place”. Republican nationalist murals are much more recent.  They did not really emerge until the late 1970s, early ‘80s. 

  • The British government had introduced internment for paramilitary prisoners in 1971 and in 1972 they became Special Category prisoners, virtually prisoners of war, who did not wear prison uniforms and work in the prison workshops. This status was removed in 1976 leading to 5 years of protests – the so-called blanket and dirty protests.  In 1981 after a prolonged hunger strike 10 republican prisoners starved themselves to death. These, particularly the MP Bobby Sands, quickly became the subject of murals in most republican national communities. A loyalist tradition had been adopted and developed by the Catholic minority.

  • Since the 1880s there had been a growing demand in Ireland for political autonomy from British rule. Negotiations had been ongoing until the First World War. Then in January 1919 war broke out between the British Army and Irish Republican forces fighting a guerrilla campaign.  A ceasefire was agreed in July 1921 leading to the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921 which created the Irish Free State and ensured that the six northern counties remained in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland, with its own devolved parliament.  But the Treaty did not create an Irish Republic.  It gave the south dominion status within the British Empire.  It did not become the independent Republic of Ireland in 1921.  In fact in international law it did not become a republic until 1949 after the Irish Parliament had passed the Republic of Ireland Act 1948 and the British Government had responded with the Ireland Act of 1949. 

  • This dominion status was highly contentious within Ireland and led to civil war (1921-22) before the Free State faction led by De Valera took control. Partition was also contentious and the IRA continued a campaign in the north after 1922.  In Northern-Ireland the Northern-Irish Protestant Unionists had an inbuilt majority with two thirds of the population. They were determined to stay British and never be dragged into a United Ireland. Craig, the 1st Prime Minister said: “What we have is a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people”. Because of para-military activity in the north in 1922 the British Government passed the Emergency Powers Act (formerly the Civil Authorities (Special Powers) Act Northern Ireland) in 1922.  It could be power to enter houses or stop vehicles were all about countering terrorism.  

  • The truly astonishing thing is that the Emergency Powers Act remained in operation until 1996 when it was replaced by the even more stringent Prevention of Terrorism Act.  Roman Catholics suffered from systematic discrimination in jobs, housing, education and culture.

    In the 1960s Northern Ireland experienced an era of prosperity and progress. Catholics began to demand equality and Civil Rights. The government reacted with police brutality. This led to violence and the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) campaign: a shooting war against security forces and an economic bombing campaign which virtually tore the heart out of Belfast and provincial towns.

  • After decades of conflict, the parties participated in a Peace Process and cease-fires in 1994 and since the Belfast Agreement in 1998, Belfast and Northern Ireland have gradually moved towards normality.  But it is a slow change. Schools, churches, workplaces and recreation are still segregated for the most part. There is still a great deal of inter-communal mistrust, even hatred. Hence, the Belfast Wall/Peace line is still in place. This tension is also illustrated in the world famous Belfast murals you are about to see.

  • This caused a counter campaign by the Loyalists and extreme Unionists, mainly murdering catholic civilians. Belfast became one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Fearing for their lives many people fled into even more ghettoised areas for safety. Still nowadays social housing is 90% segregated on sectarian lines (see map). In 1969 riots and demonstrations intensified and the UUP government called in the British army to support the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  This led to much greater activity by the paramilitaries on both sides and in 1972 the British Government suspended the Northern Ireland Parliament and introduced direct rule.

 

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