East Belfast Mural Walk

Yesterday my friend Mary took me on a walk through protestant East-Belfast. We passed many UVF and UDA murals, including two on the lower Newtonards road which were being painted by a group of men, some with their paramilitary tattoos exposed. Some murals have been up for decades, some are worn by the long passage of time, and others have been continually retouched. The areas that bear these murals also often fly flags from lamposts or houses, either the Union Jack or the Ulster Banner. These are heavily protestant, unionist communities. Even so, the murals have the sense of being-imposed on the areas. Certainly there is some public support for the Unionist paramilitaries, but the failure of the UVF associated Progressive Unionist Party to break through in the polls suggests that these groups are seen as community protectors rather than community leaders. It is strange to me that the Independent International Committee on Decommissioning didn’t add the removal of pro-militant murals to the scope of the decommissioning of paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland – the presence of these works is a strong material-symbolic approval of the use of violence, and participate in the binding of the local area to its identity as requiring extra-judicial protection of what are today essentially gangs.

Last week at TAPSS if we learned one thing it is that we don’t only see representations, we see according to them. In other words, what is interpretively-active in a representation is not it as a depiction, or its referent (if its depiction is, say, of a particular event or person), but in the manner or style of its evocation of an affective, symbolic content which encourages or allows us to perceive the world in a particular manner. In other words, representations are transcendental. After my long walk yesterday, this appears particularly true of the murals – the murals do not simply depict events, they enact a style of life in the areas where they are put up. That style moves according to the values intended in the art-works: valour, heritage, community, nation, protection, aggression.

A major difference between Unionist and Nationalist communities at the end of the Troubles in the the North of Ireland is that while Nationalist communities have largely elected ex-combattents to be their political representatives. Unionist communities have consistently elected religious leaders and other community leaders by voting for the DUP and UUP rather than the PUP and UDP, which is in sharp contrast with the rise of Sinn Fein, which has since re-entering electoral politics with the election of Bobby Sands captured an ever larger share of the Republican vote. In the elections this week Sinn Fein recieved 27% of the Northern Irish vote; which means a majority of Republican voters chose the former IRA associated group to represent them. No party associated with a unionist paramilitary group received a single seat.

This lack of a civic role for ex-combattent organizations is actually a problem for the decommissioning process. Groups want to hold onto their power (this follows as a tautology from the nature of institutions), and without a way for their power to be transformed such that it comes from someplace other than reactionary protectionism and the barrels of guns, the paramilitary groups will probably continue on the trend they find themselves on today – drug dealing, infighting over territory, essentially on the road to becoming normal “gangs”. They might claim a glorious history, rooting back to their origins in World War 1 regiments and the Battle of the Somme, but in reality there is no threat to the communities they claim to defend. (The dissident republicans, for instance, are no threat to Unionist communities since their principle targets are Catholic police officers).

Since our walk was limited to East Belfast, we walked mostly through unionist, protestant communities bordering other protestant communities, so there is no need for Peace Walls. We did, however, enter the Short Strand – the one Catholic neighbourhood in East Belfast, and saw many murals there. Compared to the other areas, the short strand felt most like a fortress – it is surrounded on most sides by 50 foot high walls (sometimes with unionist flags flying just outside them), and there are relatively few entrances for getting in or out of the Short Strand into the surrounding neighbourhoods. However, while the architecture is one of being under-siege, the murals there stress a very different attitude to militarism than the ones on the nearby lower Newtonards road. The murals there stressed peace, and were often explicitly the result of a community consultation process and community involvement. One project by Tom Agnew involved eight ceramic panels placed upon a peace wall was produced in consultation with “local residents of all ages, from 5 to 75”.  Other murals resonated the theme of the need for and achievement of peace with other east belfast areas. Searching on the internet, I have found more a republican paramilitary mural in the Short Strand depicting the INLA hunger striker Mickey Devine, and showing the dates of passing of 9 other IRA or INLA hunger strikes. However, even this stands in contrast to the protestant murals – even though these men might have been involved in armed struggle, this celebrates them as having died in a form of passive resistance. Another difference is the comparative lack of paramilitary iconography. While from the mural hangs an Irish tri-colour and the starry plough, these are symbols shared with the political movements – whereas protestant paramilitary murals bear flags shared with the unionist political movement in addition to crests which are specific to the paramilitary organization, or even the specific paramilitary unit. This might originate historically from the way protestant paramilitary organizations see themselves as decedents of state-military or state-police organizations, but independent of that it seems to reveal a different attitude towards institutions in general. Many things about protestantism in the North of Ireland remind me of Deleuze’s analysis of the majority in Thousand Plateaus, but I won’t give that analysis again since you can read it here.

I think that the differences between the Republican and Protestant murals reveal important differences in the ways these communities experience oppression (either real or unreal), and conceive of their shared values as an end and as a means for attaining goals together. However, I have not yet had the chance to see a large selection of Republican murals, so this afternoon I’ve asked Mary if we can walk up the Falls Road in West Belfast where hopefully I can get a better sense of the range of republican murals and how they are functioning in Catholic communities.

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