Backstory: Belfast murals reflect a change of art

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

On a pale wintry morning in working-class East Belfast, hooded men with guns seem to follow me. These ghosts from a long-gone conflict lurk on the walls, peering through the slits of their balaclavas at kids skipping to school and a woman lugging home her weekly shop.

Protestant terrorists, who fought to defend the Union between Northern Ireland and Britain during the Troubles, may be mostly inactive now (give or take the occasional internal feud). But here, they still stare down from hand-painted murals at the gable ends of terraced housing, their masked mugs a permanent, if patchy and fading reminder of yesteryear's war.

In all of Northern Ireland there are hundreds of these sectarian murals, done by artists from both sides of the conflict. The Rev. Gary Mason, a cheery Methodist minister, wants to exorcise this ghostly presence from East Belfast. He heads a project to "decommission paramilitary murals" and replace them with more positive celebrations of Protestant culture.

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"Imagine a wee boy or girl looking out of their bedroom window and seeing burly guys with rifles. What does that do to them, psychologically?" he asks. "It doesn't only say violence is acceptable, which would be bad enough; it says violence is something to be celebrated in colorful paintings."

In oftentortuoustalks that began in 2002 and continue now, Mr. Mason has coaxed leaders of Protestant paramilitary groups to give up nine murals which have been painted over with images of "cultural treasures we can be proud of," he says. One of the "post-para" murals shows George Best, the East Belfast boy who revolutionized soccer in the 1960s and died recently; another shows C.S. Lewis, also born in East Belfast, alongside scenes from his most famous book - now a big box office flick - "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe."

"Now there's peace, why should we have war on our walls?" asks Mason. "We've taken the gun out of politics; now we need to take it out of the murals."

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Over the past 20 years, Belfast has become famous (perhaps infamous) for its paramilitary murals, visual depictions of its "troubled" times. In Catholic republican areas, street paintings celebrated the Irish Republican Army; in Protestant loyalist areas they paid tribute to a host of splintered violent outfits such as the UDA, the UVF, the UFF. Things are starting to change. With the help of generous city government funding, community activists are replacing these symbols of war with advertisements for peace.

"The new murals can contribute to the peace process," says Bill Rolston, a sociologist at the University of Ulster, who for 20 years has photo-graphed and analyzed this street art-cum-propaganda (not for nothing is he known as "Mr. Murals").

I meet him at the Europa Hotel in the city center, itself a glass and concrete testament to how much has changed here. It once had the unenviable title of "the most bombed hotel in Europe," targeted 11 times by the Irish Republican Army.

"The old murals captured the two communities' aspirations and anxieties," he says. "The new murals, coming through slowly and tentatively, suggest that people are keen to look forward, not back."

The new murals, often funded by local government, come with conditions attached. There are strict rules about what can be depicted - and this has some artists and curators asking: "Well, is it really community art?"

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After spending the morning with George Best and C.S. Lewis in Protestant East Belfast, I take a cab to Catholic West Belfast.

We drive through the Falls Road, the heart of republican Belfast - past the Sinn Fein offices, a mural paying tribute to the IRA hunger strikers who starved themselves to death in 1981, and graffiti saying "Victory to the CIRA" (the Continuity Irish Republican Army).

At the offices of the Upper Springfield Development Trust, Deirdre Mackel explains the thinking behind the new "peace murals."

"Our aim is to get the local community, especially young people, involved in painting them," she says. "It gives them a sense of ownership of their surroundings."

She has commissioned some quite stunning work, including the Whiterock Children's Centre Mural, a celebration of Celtic myths painted by a professional artist with the help of local kids; and "Tá ár gCultúr beo" (Gaelic for, "Our culture is Alive"), a sprawling 60-foot mural that celebrates the Irish landscape.

But certain things are off limits. "We are censored, yes," says Ms. Mackel, whose trust is funded in part by the Northern Ireland government. "We cannot paint any flags or emblems, and we have to steer clear of politics." That's one reason many of the new murals in this part of Belfast depict mythical events - red-haired beauties on white horses that are unlikely to offend anybody.

Pauline Hadaway, director of the Belfast Exposed photography gallery, which recently published a book on the changing face of murals, worries that making local communities look nice is "a smoke screen obscuring our failure to address important social and economic questions" in east and west Belfast, which are among the poorest communities in the United Kingdom.

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Back in East Belfast, the George Best mural has become an impromptu shrine to his memory, with locals leaving flowers and notes of condolence. And this, says Gary Mason, proves that the new murals are about more than "tinkering with the way things look."

"They can make a real difference to how people feel. And companies will be more willing to invest in our communities if there aren't pictures of gunmen everywhere," he says. "This kind of art can help to make a better future."

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