Travel guide got it right on loyalist murals

Posted By: June 20, 2019


Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, June 19, 2019 
Shock, horror, sensation! Someone wrote what’s staring everyone in the face about Belfast’s murals.

Fodor’s Travel Guide wrote that murals in Protestant areas like the Newtownards Road and the Shankill “sometimes look like war comics without the humor.”  On the other hand, murals in Catholic districts are ‘wildly romantic’ and express ‘themes of oppression and rising nationalist confidence’.

Whoever wrote the commentary also points out that murals in Republican districts, ‘surreally mix and match images from the Book of Kells, the Celtic Mist mock-heroic posters of Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick, assorted phoenixes rising from ashes, and revolutionaries clad in splendidly idiosyncratic sombreros from ideological battlegrounds in South America’.

Cue outrage from predictable quarters, partly engineered by local BBC. You’ll notice the Travel Guide said loyalist murals ‘sometimes look like war comics’, not always. Unfortunately, those are the ones which grab attention and prompt people to ask why are they there twenty-five years after the cease-fire? Of course, you can find murals which have replaced bloodthirsty displays with exhortations to peace and harmony, but the ones which dominate the main road are in black and grey or red and black. They portray men in balaclavas carrying sub-machineguns battering down a door to carry out a sectarian [anti-Catholic] murder.

The continued existence of these murals represents the failure of people in Unionist districts who have worked to try to wean loyalists from illegal gangs – the UVF and UDA. Remember a few years ago loyalists were persuaded with a cash grant to paint out a threatening mural and replace it with one featuring George Best? They did so, then a few weeks later painted out Best and football and restored the paramilitary mural complete with guns and balaclavas. If the continued dominance of the UVF in decorating main roads through Unionist districts with violent scenes is a failure of well-meaning people in the community to alter the power dynamics, it represents a greater failure by the police to eradicate the UVF and UDA. Ordinary civilians can’t do it. It’s up to the police who have shown no inclination to do their job in protecting society in Unionist districts from Loyalist gangs.

Some who complained about the Fodor guide objected to the portrayal of a whole community opposed to modern society ‘and all the isms eroding their stern bible-driven way of life’. There are liberal Unionists as evidenced by the thousands in the local elections in east Belfast who swung away from the UUP and voted Alliance. The murals don’t represent them or their view of the world. However, what are observers to conclude when they see on a mural at the edge of Tiger Bay ‘Rev(elations) 18.4, and then on a mural below that, depicting an amateur World War I war memorial, John 15.13? In their ignorance, visitors are going to conclude that the inhabitants of the district approve, never thinking that there is no choice but to have their gable wall defaced.

Along the loyalist side of Northumberland Street murals commemorate World War I, display a portrait of Lord Kitchener, and other scenes from a century ago. Come round the corner onto Divis Street and see the ‘International Wall’, cartoon-based murals about arms to Saudi Arabia, solidarity with Catalonia … craftily mixed in with portraits and slogans about IRA heroes and republican history. Now, what is a foreign tourist going to relate to Kitchener (who?) or war in Yemen? Republican murals, in short, are bang up to date, show an awareness of identity politics, strike a chord with foreigners (who may not agree with the content) who flock in their hundreds every day to video them and take selfies.

The people who complained about Fodor’s accurate description of grim loyalist murals with ‘wall-eyed paramilitaries’ are in denial about the state of their own communities. There are colorful murals about children playing games, others depicting scenes from Belfast’s industrial past (but why in black?), even some about Irish history. Fair enough. However, the ones which are arresting and shocking are those extolling UVF fantasies about ’defending Ulster’ with sectarian [anti-Catholic] murder. Visitors wonder, why are they there? What is the UVF for? Why does it still exist? Criticizing Fodor is attacking the messenger.