Absorbing the intense murals of Northern Ireland’s troubled divide
How their visual messaging enhanced my understanding of the conflicts of today
During my recent visit to Derry-Londonderry and West Belfast in Northern Ireland, I learned a tremendous amount while walking around to view the politically charged street murals of the past and present. Through potent visual messaging, they fervidly expressed the ideologies of the two sides of the region’s continually evolving conflict. It struck me how the most radical views that breed war repeatedly share the same character traits, as chillingly echoed throughout the political discourse of today.
Before my visit, my understanding of the late 20th century period of sectarian violence known as The Troubles was that it was an ongoing battle between scrappy Irish Catholics who wanted a unified Ireland and police-backed British Protestants who wanted to remain within the United Kingdom. The city name of Derry-Londonderry exemplifies the lingering state of the conflict. Derry is the historical Irish name, while Londonderry is the official British name.
My closest exposure to The Troubles occurred when I was living in England during the historic election of 1997. That was the year Tony Blair’s Labour Party won in a landslide victory, dramatically unseating the nearly two-decade reign of the Conservative Party led by John Major and Margaret Thatcher. In the months leading up to the vote, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) would frequently wreak havoc by calling in bomb threats and strategically placing explosives. They successfully created gridlock throughout London’s public transit system and the main national rail and motorway corridors. Everyone around me treated the acts of violence as a nuisance, never a threat. It was clear that hurting people outside of Northern Ireland was not the intent. Rather, the goal was to grab attention and prove influence, which the IRA accomplished.
While tensions in Northern Ireland continued into the new millennium, the violent flare-ups receded from the international news cycle following the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 (a year after that election). I would go on to learn more about the intricacies of war while working as a graphic journalist for the Associated Press in New York. In addition to covering the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I learned the most about the complexities of sectarian violence over disputed territory throughout my decade covering the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
Now two decades after the Troubles subsided, my familiarity with the depths of blind hostility enabled me to view the murals through an expanded lens. Fully recognizing the analogies behind the potent visuals gave me a deeper understanding of the contentious perspectives that permeate the narratives of today, in Northern Ireland and beyond.
First of all, semantics matter. Just as the reality of the conflicts in the Mideast have little to do with the Jewish and Muslim faiths, the Troubles were not about the religious differences between Catholics and Protestants, nor were they a multinational divide between the Irish and British. The conflict was specifically between Northern Ireland’s British Loyalists, who were mostly Protestant, and Irish Nationalists, who were mostly Catholic. These ideologies segregated local communities throughout history in a way that created clear geographic borders that became battle lines.
The politically charged murals I saw in both cities passionately articulated the most volatile extremes of the conflict. I did not expect to learn the following: The British Loyalists equate themselves with the Israeli orthodox Jewish settlers who occupy the West Bank along with their supporters (who were the closest allies of South Africa’s Apartheid regime). The Irish Nationalists fervently align themselves with the Palestinians (as well as the Catalonians, Cubans and black South Africans among others).
So in essence, it’s yet another variation of the all-too-familiar story at the heart of contemporary volatility. One side are the staunch militaristic elitists and the other are the ardently combative “freedom fighters,” each epitomizing the far sides of the political spectrum.
The visual vocabulary both sides used in their graphic messaging emphasized their opposing views. The significantly higher number of Irish Nationalist murals in both cities were united by their pictorial, man-made painterly quality of various levels of skill. This aesthetic helped emphasize their perspective that their side represented the position of the people.
The small number of British Loyalist counterpoints were comparatively verbose, dominated by the iconography of Union Jacks and the Star of David, with classical typefaces and historical military photography. The sheen of perceived professional polish added to their identification with the Establishment.
Several of the West Belfast murals I saw in May 2018 were produced after the elections of Brexit and Trump, as documented via Google Maps Street View circa June 2016. Most dramatically, a prominent section representing the perspective of the British Loyalists has transformed from personable paintings supporting the message “We Are Proud, Defiant, Welcoming” to authoritarian imagery that evokes memories of World War II.
I felt so unsettled while walking through the Peace Line gates in West Belfast from the Irish side’s International Wall to the British Loyalist military murals. In addition to the emotional jolts from absorbing the contrasting clusters of visual messages, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Berlin Wall. The local defense of the Peace Wall argues that many residents continue feel safer with the barriers locked up at night, emphasizing that the structures were not built with the intention to partition the population at large. However, the sharp metal points at the top of the enforceable gates, along with the police-friendly buffer zone between them, made the structures themselves feel like a threatening statement of divisiveness.
The Peace Walls’ lasting legacy continues to heighten the mistrust between self-segregated groups of people, or as the BBC calls the structures, tourist attractions that are “shrines to segregation.” An agreement was reached five years ago to remove all remnants of the Peace Wall throughout Northern Ireland by 2023. However, only a few have been torn down thus far.
Now with Brexit looming at a time when Northern Ireland has a non-functioning government, and the demographics have shifted so the two sides each make up about half of the population, the future remains uncertain.
Speaking of walls and looming uncertainty, recognizing the familiar arguments between the two combative factions deeply troubled me — specifically in how they parallel the divides currently clashing within the life-and-death policies within the United States. While location and culture may change, the never-ending battles between the most volatile vocal factions of the extreme right and left, along with their impressionable followers, frequently drown out the often forgotten third side of every conflict — those who advocate for tolerance, compassion and common understanding.
Fortunately, that third perspective has also contributed their voice to the conversation through their own public art on display. Some of the most prominent and poetic visuals I saw advocated for reconciliation and peace among neighbors.
Had I visited Northern Ireland before the lead-up to the 2016 elections of Brexit and Trump, I may have viewed the conflict as just another distant combat zone far away from my daily life. But instead, I felt an eerie familiarity with the hostile voices of polarizing self-segregation that permeate throughout the discourse of today.