Murals Lie At The Center Of A Debate Over Northern Ireland’s Future
In Belfast hundreds of colorful murals line the city’s streets, detailing a century’s worth of conflict and political division.
While some of Belfast’s political murals date back to the early 1900s, this artistic tradition has carried on over the years as an outlet for political statements. In particular, muralists have made a canvas of “peace walls,” the 300 miles of barriers that once split warring militias during The Troubles, a particularly violent period of war between Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland that lasted from 1969 to 1998.
In Protestant sections of the city, murals proudly display United Kingdom flags and celebrate Northern Ireland’s colonial relationship with Great Britain. Murals in Catholic neighborhoods boast Irish flags, commemorating nationalists who lost their lives fighting for an end to British rule and the reunification of Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, to the independent Republic of Ireland in the south.
Many of the murals throughout Belfast depict individual combatants who fought in the sectarian civil war. Others portray gun battles or bomb attacks from paramilitary troops, such as the 1971 bombing of McGurk’s Bar in Belfast and the 1998 car bombing of a shopping center in Omagh, Northern Ireland. More than 3,500 people died during The Troubles.
In 1998, the internationally-brokered Good Friday Agreement, also called the Belfast Agreement, officially ended the conflict and set up a power-sharing government between Protestant Unionists and Catholic Nationalists. Since then, the violence has largely subsided. But tensions still linger between Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, with some residents reluctant to bridge the gap.
In the last several years, some communities have repainted portions of the most controversial murals or erected new ones in an effort to continue normalizing relationships between Protestants and Catholics. Under the Re-Imaging Communities project through the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, some communities have received funding to create new murals in place of older images.
Some residents say the murals mark an important part of Northern Ireland’s past and should not be taken down. But newer images and public art projects could help the communities move forward.