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Northern Ireland is dotted with murals, created by both loyalist and republican communities. Bill Rolston explains how and why they originate, and argues that, while we don't have to accept their political message, they should be treasured nonetheless.

Art or propaganda?

At any one time there are hundreds of political wall murals throughout Northern Ireland. The tradition goes back a century in loyalist areas, but only a quarter of that time in republican areas.

Yet this phenomenon is often rejected out of hand. The art establishment is quick to point out that the murals are not “art”, but propaganda, the supposed antithesis of art. Many mainstream politicians view the murals simply as incitement to sectarian hatred, which ought to be obliterated.

What both sets of critics fail to realise is that the murals represent articulate political statements by the communities involved. They deal with complex issues of fear and aspiration within those communities. That complexity is not always immediately obvious.

For example, while there is much contemporary political commentary in republican murals, this is almost totally absent in those painted by loyalists. To ignore the loyalist iconography, however, would be to miss the way in which symbolism and style reveal deep political emotions and beliefs.

Old-skool loyalism?

Loyalist murals are for the most part stylistically rigid; often meticulously executed, with an almost heraldic attention to the details of painted flags and symbols,they present a sense of tradition, especially military tradition. While some deal with issues from loyalist and unionist history, the vast bulk depict armed men. Some are memorials to fallen comrades, but many show armed and hooded loyalists posing with guns or engaging in military action. Although a number of loyalist fringe parties which support the peace process - in particular the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party which disbanded last year - gain electoral support from the areas where the murals are most common, the paramilitary groups which commission the murals are at best ambivalent about peace. Many recent developments - such as the fact that there are now two Sinn Féin ministers in the devolved government - seem to spell the death knell of old-style, no-surrender loyalism. But instead of embracing, no matter how cautiously, the political process with its inherent compromises, loyalism has tended to dig the trenches deeper, proclaim its military prowess even more loudly, and from time to time target nationalists for attack or turn inwards in internecine loyalist feuds.

Articulating demands

Republican murals, on the other hand, are expansive, colourful and confident. There is a wide range of themes covered - from current political developments, through history and mythology, to references to political struggles in other societies, such as South Africa and Palestine. Unlike the loyalist murals, republican ones are not controlled by paramilitary groups, but are part of a much wider political movement.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this difference is the virtual absence of military iconography in republican murals from August 1994 onwards. Instead post-ceasefire republican murals displayed the republican movement's demands - such as prisoner releases, and disbandment of the local police force - as well as criticism of the slow pace of political change. Images of IRA personnel practically ceased.

Recently, there has been a partial reversal of this trend, but this cannot be taken as a warning that republicans are preparing to go back to war. The murals concerned are memorials. Unlike in loyalist military iconography, the IRA men and women depicted are not hooded and anonymous, but actual people from the local community. Moreover, they are frequently shown in the murals interacting with the local community; thus in one, a well-armed active service unit is being fed breakfast by older women.

There is of course a level of concern in that community too over the last eight years. Pursuing peace involves being prepared to engage in pragmatic compromise while holding on to deep-seated principles. Specific aspects of the peace process have been difficult for republicans to accept - for example, participating in elections to a devolved administration which sits in the ultimate symbol of previous unionist power, the parliament buildings at Stormont. But here again, murals have played a crucial part in reassuring the movement and in political education.

Yes, but is it art?

But are they art? In one sense, as the art establishment means it, no. The muralists are untrained and have little interest in esoteric debates about schools and styles which may reverberate in art colleges. But no less than fine art, loyalist and republican murals, each in their own way, deal with universals in the human condition - the desire for freedom and anxiety about the future. They are indeed propaganda, but should not be rejected out of hand for that.

In an age of political apathy, where scepticism about political leadership is rampant and fewer people, especially young people, turn out to vote, here are communities capable of highly articulate statements about their beliefs and aspirations. You don't have to accept the political message of the murals to recognise and indeed treasure that honesty.

More murals: You can view a range of Northern Irish signs, symbols and murals at http://cain.ulst.ac.uk/images/symbols/flags.htm

Bill Rolston is a professor of sociology at the University of Ulster. He is the author of Drawing Support: Murals in the North of Ireland (Beyond the Pale, 1992: Reprinted 1994. ISBN 0 9514229 3 6. Paperback 60pp) and Drawing Support 2: Murals of War and Peace (Beyond the Pale 1995)