- Loyalist emblems and children's toys, Belfast, June 2000.
Photo - Michael Dartnell..

"Walls and Places: Political Murals in Belfast"

Dr. Michael Dartnell - mdartne@uwindsor.ca,
Department of Political Science, University of Windsor

This paper addresses the theme of philosophy and violence through examining political wall murals that I photographed in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in June 2000. The murals represent two conflicting communities and the resulting clash of cultures, symbols and values. Loyalist and republican communities have developed into segregated units over the past 30 years. Their violent births resembled "ethnic cleansing" in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. In addition to representing conflict, the murals in both communities express an effort to literally paint a coherent structure out of confusion of civil conflict. This effort underlines the changing context of the contemporary states, whose presence in such areas is greatly circumscribed. This change can be described as de-territorialization because it undermines the Westphalian division of the political world into clearly defined spatial units with absolute and complete authority within their boundaries. One response can be seen in the non-state actors' attempts to control public space.

Northern Ireland is a political unit that never really fit into the liberal-democratic paradigm and so cannot be understood as a conventional Western political space. The province was created by the British government through the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 following the Irish War of Independence. The legislation territorially separated two Irish communities that have separate definitions of "Irishness" [Photo 1]. Prior to 1920, no territorial unit in Irish history corresponded to Northern Ireland. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the entire island was a British colony in which Penal Laws deprived Roman Catholics and Presbyterians of civil equality with members of the Church of Ireland (Anglican). Ireland gained a Westminster-style parliament in the 1780s, but was wholly incorporated into the United Kingdom in 1801. Partition of Ireland into Free State and North followed Unionist resistance to devolution and independence.


Postcolonial political fragmentation and Northern Ireland

The effect of partition in Ireland was complex and is still being felt. The impact is evident in various attempts to represent an image of Northern Ireland, where an institutional, governmental representational monopoly was exercised by Protestants from 1922 until 1969. Representing Ireland has been a contentious issue for hundreds of years [Photo 2]. After the 1798 Rebellion and Great Famine of the 1840s, visually articulating a sense of Ireland was integral to both nationalism and unionism. The dispute was not over location or existence of Ireland, but rather the meaning and import of imagined community and control of public space. Romantic nationalist painting in the nineteenth century, for example, depicted critical moments in the national mythology, such as marriage of Strongbow to Aoife [The marriage of the Norman Richard Fitzgilbert to Aoife, daughter of Diarmait McMurrough, King of Leinster, in 1170, followed a Norman slaughter of the defeated Irish in Waterford. After McMurrough lost the kingship of Ireland to Ruaidri, Prince of Connacht, he fled to England and sough the assistance of Henry II. Henry agreed and Diarmait was able to secure the help of Strongbow in exchange for his elder daughter's hand and succession to the kingdom. At the same time, Pope Hadrian IV, an Englishman, granted Henry II the Irish throne at the request of John of Salisbury. Once Strongbow's victory was secure, he offered the throne to Henry. Irish nationalists trace the beginning of English colonization and imperialism in Ireland to this event. - MD] The nationalist artist's subject was part and parcel of "the spirit of the burgeoning cultural nationalism of the mid-nineteenth century" and Celtic imagery represented an imaginary "nation striving to see its Celtic legacy as part of a glorious past awaiting revival" (Berger: 71). Through painting, the viewer entered a nationalist, de-colonizing and later post-colonial discourse. The discourse was manifest in political, cultural, social and linguistic nationalism as well as economic pressure on vested interests. Nationalist discourse was met by unionist and later loyalist response [Part of the unionist-loyalist cultural response to Irish nationalism involved the adaptation of the Medieval tradition of religious and artisanal processions through the vehicle of the "loyal orders" that appeared in the late eighteenth-century. These processions have long spawned serious problems of public order. For example, a violent riot at Dolly's Brae on July 12, 1849 led to the deaths of 30 Catholics and provoked anti-procession legislation in 1850 in the form of the Party Procession Act. Similarly, government forces used buckshot (a nineteenth-century version of plastic bullets) to disperse an Orange demonstration in Dungannon in 1880. The violence and intensity of Orange marches has historically reflected the rising and waning of Irish nationalism. See T. G. Fraser (ed.), The Irish Parading Tradition: Following the Drum, London: MacMillan 2000 and especially James Kelly, "The Emergence of Political Parading, 1660-1800" and James Loughlin, "Parades and Politics: Liberal Governments and the Orange Order, 1880-1886", in that volume.].

Irish postcolonialism was written in the island's division into two political entities: republic and British province. Separation of the six northern counties from the rest of Ireland did not remove the region from this discourse since "both unionist and nationalist identities in Ulster remain heavily informed by representations of nineteenth-century ethnic nationalism" (Graham: 193). Nonetheless, Northern Ireland's distinctiveness lies in its "unagreed" (because non-consensual) character, which eventually led to an undeclared thirty-year civil war. The resulting political formation does not fit into the classic paradigm of a Westphalian state, as both units were supposed to do when founded. This unagreed Ireland is represented by political wall murals in Belfast and elsewhere in the North [Photo 3]. The murals in effect demarcate post-colonial political fragments, entities that are unrecognized in international law and theories of political society and organization, but which can also be detected in Sierra Leone, Bosnia and the Philippines. In all these cases, paramilitaries exercise power and reduce the state to a nominal status. In Belfast, the state is literally bunkered, walled in behind compounds and armoured vehicles [Photo 4].

One principal manifestation of de-territorialization in post-colonial political fragments is the lack of interface between civil society and the state. This is expressed as radical lack of consent, an absence of what Rawls calls "the acceptance of the principles of right and justice [that] forges the bonds of civic friendship and establishes the basis of comity amidst the disparities that persist" (Rawls: 517). Another way to express the character of these fragments is to emphasize the primacy of a sense of place over that of territoriality or political space within them. Northern Ireland is in cease-fire, not at peace. Periodic violence between the two communities stem from their basic disagreement over the form of state that civil society might assume, mutal distrust, and willingness to resort to arms [Photo 5]. Richard Kearney argues that

    the claim of either [British or Irish] national government to "represent" both Ulster communities (British and Irish) as "one and indivisible" is doomed to failure. No matter how it is viewed - as part of a United Kingdom or of an eventual United Ireland - the pluralist character Northern Ireland defies the question of absolute sovereignty with a unitary body. Hence the need (i) to separate the notion of nation from that of state; (ii) to acknowledge the co-existence of different identities in the same society; and (iii) to extend the models of identification beyond unitary sovereignty to include more inclusive and pluralist forms of association... (Kearney: 24)

Reading the postcolonial narrative of loyalism and republicanism in contemporary Northern Ireland must transcend Kearney's pluralism. Because it might very well take 15 to 20 years to create conditions for pluralism (i.e. both parties recognizing that the other side might have a legitimate narrative), a non-linear, non-developmental perspective of post-colonial theory suits societies in which

    the literal barricades of Belfast streets, built to obstruct and delay the movement of the military, are simultaneously the "random-riot" of memories and unruly associations, a defamiliarization of modern rationalities through a parody of the modernist and postmodernist device of the list that simultaneously deploys the dislocated temporalities of a (post)colonial culture (Lloyd: 51).

Post-colonial in loyalist and republican representations can be seen through reading wall murals. In general, murals are a response to the sense of disorder and incompleteness in Northern Ireland society [Photo 6]. The images aim to provide a coherence for and control of public space that is otherwise lacking. In this sense, murals are a public medium with four features. First of all, they are located in specific places. Secondly, they address an unknown body of viewers. Thirdly, mural images are allegorical and moralizing. They are linked to a concept of inherited culture and ennobling reconstruction of a history that was lost. Finally, murals have a volatile relation to public space, debates about governance and visual language. They might frequently be painted over as circumstances change [Photo 7].


Loyalist wall murals: Martyrs and warriors

Loyalist murals began as an expression of control of public space (MacRaild: 50). As continuing controversy over Orange parades illustrate, control of public space is central to loyalism [Photo 8]. Control is expressed by the presence of murals, parades, flags, arches and other emblems of loyalist tradition, which lend permanence by altering the physical surroundings [Flags are also central to control of space in Northern Ireland. The number of Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) flags in loyalist areas represents territorial competitiveness between two paramilitaries. Republican attitudes to flags are quite different, but no less controversial. Sinn Fein ministers Martin McGuinness and Bairbe de Brún refuse to allow Union (i.e., UK) flags to fly over their departments, even on the twenty days designated for hoisting it. Gerry Moriarty, "Competition proposal for Northern Ireland flag", Irish Times, July 20, 2000. - MD]. As in all traditions, the meaning of this behaviour has changed over time. Loyalties to Great Britain and the Westminster parliament, for example, have gradually been displaced by loyalty to the Crown, which points to deeper anxieties,

    Loyalists, particularly since control over their destiny has gradually slipped out of their hands, earnestly believe that they have, against their wishes, become physically, psychologically and increasingly spiritually detached from their nation. Unlike their Catholic counterparts, who enjoy sympathy throughout Ireland, within the ranks of the political left in Britain and particularly amongst the huge Irish community in America, support for the loyalist cause is minimal and unionists feel friendless, deserted and betrayed, both by the political actions of their governments and by a general public whose apathy and indifference they greatly resent (Parkinson: 19).

In the period after they first appeared [Photo 9], loyalist murals often depicted William of Orange, a conquering Protestant hero seen to have triumphed over treachery (in loyalist terms: Catholicism) and betrayal (supporters of James II) to assert individual rights and liberty as public values. The first murals appeared as the British government prepared to implement home rule, a plan for devolved Irish government that would have ended Protestant domination. In this sense, loyalist wall murals began as a politically and culturally defensive act. After creation of Northern Ireland, murals symbolized control of public space, discourse and power by unionists. Mural imagery subsequently evolved during Northern Ireland's thirty-year civil conflict.

In general, Belfast loyalist murals in June 2000 focused on the themes of martyrs, warriors and history. This apparent thematic narrowness did not prevent a rich variety of representations, images and icons to be incorporated in the paintings. The need for interpretation is complicated by division of the loyalist universe into two distinct variants organized around the Progressive Unionist Party (PUP) and its paramilitary wing, the UVF, and the Ulster Democratic Party (UDP), and its paramilitary wing, the UDA-UFF (Ulster Freedom Fighters). The murals generally express a community that sees itself as under siege, has difficulty in building alliances and poorly communicates its anxieties to the wider world. Loyalists are very much aware that republicans draw much more international attention and support. Today's murals are thus part of a loyalist counter-narrative, a tale of its own self-image. Given that loyalism and the wider unionist community fragmented in the years since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the dual nature of loyalist murals reflect a new reality,

    a time of political uncertainty when the parties linked to the paramilitary groups have begun to break with traditional unionist rhetoric . . . [and] . . . it was perhaps necessary to offer a reassurance that loyalist interests would be defended and that there would be no sell-out (Jarman: 248).

Both UVF and UFF murals portray martyrs. UVF murals use red-blue-yellow colours [Photo 10], which symbolize an independent Ulster. Red-blue-yellow is juxtaposed to the red-white-blue of the Union Jack, which is found everywhere in Belfast's loyalist neighbourhoods on murals, curbstones, flags and bunting. The theme of warriors is closely associated to martyrdom through figures such as Billy Wright [Photo 11], who was murdered in Maze Prison by members of the republican Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Other warrior figures on murals ranged from sci-fi figures [Photo 12] to Celtic mythological characters such as Cúchulain. The latter previously figured exclusively on republican murals, but is now integrated into loyalist mythology [Cúchulain, in Celtic myth, was a Cruthin (Pict). This ancient tribe in east Ulster resisted the intrusion of Celts from the south of Ireland. The Cruthin, so the story goes, subsequently moved to Scotland. Loyalists, many of whom descend from seventeenth-century Scottish settlers, use the image to link themselves to ancient Ulster and thus justify their resistance to the republicanism.].

Loyalist mural historiography follows two parallel paths. In the first, UVF murals openly identify with paramilitaries [Photo 13]. The UVF name was taken from an organization created in 1913 to coordinate paramilitary activities during the Home Rule crisis. Volunteer paramilitaries formed in 1911-12 in Ulster were brought under Ulster Unionist control through the first UVF, which had 90,000 members and was led by retired British military officers. The UVF was revived during the Irish War of Independence and incorporated into the Ulster Special Constabulary, which played a leading role in fighting the IRA in the North until the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) was formed in 1922. The UVF title was resurrected in 1966 by Belfast loyalists who opposed reforms by then-Northern Ireland PM Terence O'Neill. A ruthless core of members eluded arrest in the 1970s and 1980s. From 1969 until its leaders signed the joint loyalist cease-fire in 1994, the UVF was the main loyalist organization that carried out political and sectarian assassinations. The UVF's main commando groups are the Red Hand Commandos and Protestant Action Force.

The second loyalist history on murals is that of the UDA and its paramilitary wing, the UFF. UDA-UFF murals use constitutional symbols and emblems [Photo 14]. The UDA was set up in 1971 and active in protests against abolition of the Stormont parliament by the British government. UFF assassinations sometimes targeted republican activists, but often randomly-selected Catholics, in response to IRA actions [Photo 15]. The UDA also operated drinking clubs, other businesses and protection rackets and conducted gangster-style activities. However, it is also associated with a pragmatic approach to the Northern Ireland conflict. In 1975, the UDA attempted to form a coalition with the mainly-Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), but was blocked by the mainstream Ulster Unionist and Democratic Unionist parties. A combination of extreme violence and political flexibility continues to characterize the UDA, which set up the "Combined Loyalist Paramilitary Command" (CLPC) with the UVF in 1994 and organized the UDP for elections. Urban, working class UDA leaders consistently avoid domination by more conventional politicians, especially Ian Paisley.

Images on UDA murals are more elaborated than UVF ones and constitute an effective "signature". The UDA often uses the Ulster coat-of-arms, a red cross on a white shield, alongside the Ulster Red Hand below a six-pointed star. The motto Quis Separabit (Who Shall Separate Us) is also widely used [Photo 16]. The actual UDA symbol has a Red Hand on a blue field under a Crown. The Crown represents the British monarchy, loyalty to which is a distinguishing feature of loyalists [Photo 17]. Since neither the PUP nor UDP are represented at Westminster, identification with the Crown makes sense and expresses feelings abandonment by the British government and Westminster parliament that are widespread among Protestants. A clenched red fist and the Scottish flag also appear on UDA murals [Photo 18].

Many loyalist murals honour the dead. Aside from paramilitary "martyrs", many images refer to the Battle of the Somme. The importance of this World War I battle cannot be underestimated in symbolic and real terms

    If any one event in the great War might be selected as the moment which symbolized the psychological partition of Ulster Unionism from the rest of the island, it was probably the impact of the Battle of the Somme upon the Ulster Unionist psyche, and the Ulster Protestant community generally, coming as it did so soon after the Easter Rising . . . The lesson drawn by many Unionists after the Easter Rising, when they compared their blood sacrifice for King and Country, was that of instinctive Nationalist disloyalty (Hennessey: 198-200).

The Somme is important because of the role of the 36th (Ulster) Division, which included many original UVF members [Photo 19]. In two days of fighting in 1916, the Ulster Division suffered 5000 killed, wounded and missing. Today's loyalists compare themselves to the dead at the Somme in terms of defence of Queen and Country, fighting spirit, and readiness for blood sacrifice. In June 2000, the Somme continues to visually resonate as loyalists come to terms with the impact of the Good Friday Agreement, which mandates power-sharing with Catholics and an end to 80 years of Protestant hegemony in Northern Ireland [Photo 20]. The message on the murals is one of defence: compromise does not equal no protection or a sell-out. In addition, honouring the dead signals an end to the conflict, a need to commemorate and acknowledgment that a significant break with the past has occurred. In linking the current situation to the past, loyalist assertion of tradition aim to express permanence.


Republican murals: Silent victory [Photo 21]

The first republican murals appeared in 1981, seventy-three years after their loyalist counterparts. Their appearance occurred during the republican hunger strikes in which Bobby Sands died. The murals were part of a republican effort to get their message [Photo 22] out to a wide public ["After January 1971 the system of reference upwards [for permission to interview members of the IRA] operated (more or less) as a means to ban interviews with the IRA altogether. Permission had always to be sought and therefore was requested less and less often - and when requested it was more and more frequently refused", Anthony Smith, "Television Coverage of Northern Ireland", in War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader (Bill Rolston and David Miller, eds.), Belfast: Beyond the Pale Publications, 1996, p. 31.]. Doing so had been a problem for the nationalist-republican camp since unionist domination of Northern Ireland meant that "any public manifestation of Catholicism and Irish nationalism could be represented as a threat to the state and therefore dealt with accordingly" (Jarman and Bryan: 96). In 1980, a sixteen year-old boy was shot dead as he painted republican slogans. The RUC officer who shot him claimed that he thought the brush was a gun and was found not guilty of murder (Rolston: 102).

Republican mural interpretation is considerably simplified by the fact that, aside from occasional INLA graffiti, the IRA-Sinn Féin (SF) has visual hegemony. There is a certain parallel focus to loyalist murals through themes such as martyrs, warriors and history, but the breadth and depth of imagery on the republican side is much richer. Overall, republican murals aim to commemorate history, celebrate Irish culture and are part of a political campaign. In addition, many republican murals incorporate images of women [Photo 23], as in the case of the well-known mural "Who fears to speak of Easter Week" on Whiterock Road in Belfast that adds the figure of Countess Markievicz, an important turn-of-the-century nationalist women's leader, alongside the seven leaders of the Easter Rising who signed the Proclamation of Independence [Countess Markievicz did not participate in the occupation of the Dublin General Post Office (GPO) or sign the Proclamation. The first woman to be elected as a Westminster MP, her presence acknowledges the role of republican women. - MD].

Aside from the INLA, the only exception to IRA-SF mural narrative in republican Belfast is the Roman Catholic Church [Photo 24], whose portrayal of the Virgin Mary is political in a society whose very origin is linked to militant Protestantism. The Church's murals co-exist with republican murals that address several themes. Commemorative murals [Photo 25] mark the deaths of both the 1981 hunger strikers (especially Bobby Sands) and the Gibraltar Three [On March 6, 1988 in Gibraltar, three unarmed IRA members were shot dead by the British SAS at point-blank range. Seán Savage, Daniel McCann and Mairéad Farrell were known republican activists. Farrell served a ten-year jail term and McCann was imprisoned for two years for terrorist activities. The trio were followed around Gibraltar by the MI5, but SAS soldiers in civilian clothes later over surveillance, allegedly intending to arrest them. The SAS claimed that they were spotted, feared a bomb was about to be detonated, and shot the trio. Several witnesses who saw Savage and Farrell shot claimed they were given no warning. One IRA member was shot 16 times. The IRA trio was not carrying arms and no explosives were later found in their car although it contained electrical equipment used to make bombs.]. Solidarity murals proclaim IRA support for Catalan nationalists. Symbols of Irish nationalism and republicanism abound in the murals: the phoenix (symbol of the Irish Republican Brotherhood), the starry plough, orange sunburst, the Irish tricolour, lilies and coats-of-arms. The Irish language is used extensively in republican murals to draw together cultural and republican identities. Cease-fire murals are also widespread. A well-known mural [Photo 26] says "Time for peace, time to go", showing a white dove carrying a British soldier away from an Irish flag toward a British one. Anti-military themes are also common.

Since the republican community was long marginalized in Northern Ireland and unable to spread its message through conventional media, wall murals developed as a form of mass media as well as the most powerful example of republican visual display. As Jarman notes regarding the murals in general, republican images have an ambiguity due to the fact that their meaning can be interpreted differently. Rather than weakness and confusion, ambiguity gives murals their strength: they are able to speak to a broader public and retain multiple meanings [Photo 27]. Multiple meanings moreover co-exist alongside the use of particular images in specific places, which gives the murals an ability to express a sense of place and community (Jarman: 55). As such murals show the power of political imagery. They illustrate the process of constructing difference, which in turn is used politically to build identities.



In both loyalist and republican communities in Belfast, murals serve to define public space and lend a coherence to an otherwise mute physical place [Photo 28]. Rolston argues that murals are windows into political worlds,

    Loyalism and republicanism are not equivalent political practices; their imagery thus has very different origins and purposes. Each political ideology has its themes and traditions and above all separate relationship to the British state. Given that, it is as naive to accept murals as identical cultural artifacts as it is to reject them out of hand (Rolston:. viii).

In the context of a globalizing international scene, wall murals also express a transnationalizing process of de-territorialization. In this process [Photo 29], even old states such as the UK increasingly find themselves at odds with new, less tangible and less territorial agents that undercut their abilities to exercise "absolute dominion" within their political space. The republican and loyalist postcolonial political fragments in Belfast exemplify these agents, which are situated within two communities and "sign" their presence through murals. Arriving in the Shankill neighbourhood in Belfast, I was struck by the rapid appearance of a local loyalist, who seemed to monitor comings and goings. He abruptly raced up in a car, but then engaged my driver, traveling companion and myself in a friendly and casual conversation about murals and the general political climate in Northern Ireland. I rarely encountered symbols of the government of Northern Ireland (government offices, post offices, police officers) in my visit, aside from appearance of two RUC officers in a heavily armoured Land Rover, a rapidly passing British army convoy and several heavily bunkered RUC stations. The state does not control the streets in these areas, its presence is episodic and, one suspects, surgical. Loyalist and republican paramilitary organizations and their political conjoints have taken over. Murals express their re-organization of the political universe.



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This article was researched and written with the generous support of the United States Institute of Peace


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mdartne@uwindsor.ca - Photos taken in June 2000.