Picture: Detail from a similar mural taken in 2007 by PPCC Antifa on Flickr
A new mural in Belfast is hardly a major news story, but last November a painting appeared in the city that made headlines across Northern Ireland. Rendered on the gable end of a terrace house in East Belfast were two men, rifles in hand, standing beside the insignia of the Ulster Volunteer Force, a notorious Protestant paramilitary outfit responsible for over 480 killings during ‘the Troubles’.
Paramilitary murals are supposed to be a thing of the past in Northern Ireland. So, too, are the armed groups that they are painted in support of. But in recent months both have been gaining a foothold in areas such as East Belfast, among red brick streets where Union flags
fly from lamp posts and dissatisfaction with the peace settlement is
running at an all-time high.
Around the same time that the finishing touches were being put to the UVF mural in East Belfast, senior US peace envoy Richard Haass was trying to hammer out a peace deal between the parties that share power in the devolved assembly in Stormont.
The Haass talks eventually ended in failure, on New Year’s Eve. The five parties - Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) on the nationalist side, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionists, and the Alliance party, which draws support from Catholics and Protestants –could not agree on what to do about the past, flags and emblems and parades. With local and European elections in May, the prospect of reaching a settlement is fast receding.
The Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998, brought to end three decades of violence that left 3,700 dead. There is no immediate prospect of a return to ‘the Troubles’ – despite the intermittent threat posed by anti-agreement Irish republicans and restive loyalists
– but increasingly a new form of confrontation is breaking out in Northern Ireland, one fought not with guns and bombs but with culture and tradition.
Symbols of identity provide the battleground in this new conflict. Murals have been part of the landscape for over a century, but the Union flag has been a major issue in Northern Ireland since December 2012, when Belfast city council voted to change its policy on flying the standard from all-year round to a select number of designated days. Loyalists responded to the flag’s removal with a wave of protests that almost brought Belfast to a standstill at one stage.
Parades by the Orange Order, a Protestant organisation, have also provided a number of flashpoints. At Twaddell Avenue, in North Belfast, a protest camp has been in place since July after a loyalist parade was prevented from passing through a nearby Catholic area.
‘Respect Our Culture’, reads a large poster overlooking the encampment, which is estimated to cost £50,000 to police.
There is ‘a boiling resentment within loyalism’, says Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionists, once the dominant party in Northern Ireland.
“The loyalist/unionist community were promised in ‘98 that nationalists and republicans accepted the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Republicans are now saying, ‘Northern Ireland may be part of the UK on paper, but we are going to do everything we can to make it not look like part of the UK. We are going to take down the Union flag where we can, we are going to take down flags where we can, we are going to take down symbols where we can,’” Nesbitt told me in a recent telephone conversation.
It’s a constant chipping at the manifestations of Britishness that is not something that anyone signed up for in 1998.
Dr Dominic Bryan, director of the Institute for Irish Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast and an expert on the Orange Order, is not surprised that symbols are taking on such potency in Northern Ireland. “When the peace process started we immediately ended up with much
higher profile disputes about the symbolic landscape,” he says.
The problem in Northern Ireland – where the electorate still votes overwhelmingly along sectarian lines – is that there is little or no impetus for politicians to compromise on identity. Unionist leaders, for example, can only lose votes by being seen to oppose Orange parades or the flying of the Union flag.
This situation is compounded by the reality that, more than a decade and half since the end of the armed conflict, society remains deeply polarized. The number of ‘peacelines’, defensive barriers separating Catholic and Protestant communities, has actually increased, particularly in Belfast. Education remains deeply segregated, with only about 5 per cent of students attending mixed, or ‘integrated’, schools.
“We have had a political agreement, a democratic process and a reduction in violence but we haven’t had any process that suggested that the communities were less divided,” says Bryan.
Increasingly, it is Protestants who feel like they are losing out in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland – educational attainment is lower in many working-class loyalist areas, and the erosion of traditional heavy industry such has shipbuilding has fuelled a sense of grievance.
“The same problems – deprivation, inequality, industrial decline – you will find in Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow. But (in Protestant communities in Belfast) de-industrialization has coincided with the peace process and the peace process gets blamed for de-industrialization,” says John Brewer, professor of post-conflict studies in Queen’s University, Belfast.
“Loyalists perceive the (Good Friday) Agreement as an anti-Protestant process, in which they have received little or nothing,’ says Brewer. Meanwhile, the Protestant middle-class ‘does not try in the slightest to understand loyalism’.”
In some respects, the existential crisis facing loyalism is surprising. The union seems safer than it has been in generations: a poll last year showed that more than half of Catholics support the constitutional status quo. While deprivation is an issue in some working class Protestant neighbourhoods, 16 of Belfast’s 20 most deprived wards have Catholic majorities.
The public sphere is still overwhelmingly unionist, too, says Dr Dominic Bryan.
It’s an utter irony for unionists to be holding barriers saying that there is a ‘cultural apartheid in North Belfast’ when they have had 32 parades down a particular road in one year. I don’t believe unionism or unionist culture is under threat, it isn’t.
Many loyalists, however, disagree. Jamie Bryson, an anti-Agreement loyalist who emerged on the Northern Irish political scene on the back of the flag protests outside Belfast City Hall, says that compromise with Irish republicanism has led to a ‘dilution’ of the culture of what has become known as the Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist (PUL) community.
“There is a ‘culture war’ against our community. I don’t believe our community can give up any more of our identity, to do so would leave us feeling even more oppressed than we already do,” Bryson told me in Belfast just before Christmas, when the Haass peace talks were taking
“Would Richard Haass go to America and tell the Americans to take down the stars and stripes because it offends al-Qaeda?”