16 September 2005

Painting the walls in a colour of peace and hope


16 September 2005

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Click to view CAIN photo of peace line by Martin Melaugh

A FEW HUNDRED yards from the violence of last Saturday, a minor revolution is happening on Belfast's Peace Wall. The infamous murals depicting guns, paramilitaries, barricades and threats are being phased out. Murals featuring sporting heroes, taxi tours and peace messages are replacing them. The loyalist ex-prisoners behind the change now want to transform the Peace Wall into Europe's largest open-air art gallery. Meanwhile, on the Wall's republican side, former prisoners have set up a mural tour business to give locals a slice of Belfast's lucrative tourist trade.

The former prisoners are so determined to transform the unemployment blackspot of West Belfast, they are prepared to do the most dangerous thing possible - cooperate with each other.

Open-topped double-decker buses have been weaving hourly through the narrow, terraced streets on either side of the Peace Wall since life in Belfast "normalised" five years ago. Since then, watching and photographing the divided world of West Belfast has become big business. And, after two days' interruption, they are travelling again as usual - past the barricades, past cranes removing burnt-out cars, to take visitors to sites of old bombings, shootings, hijackings, riots, hunger strikers' graves, and, of course, the 20ft high sections of the concrete Peace Wall itself .

A new boutique hotel, part of the Glasgow-based Malmaison group, features political murals throughout its city-centre upmarket building. Black cabs transport around a quarter of a million people round the "hotspots" on guided tours. Drivers are well informed and surprisingly neutral - they have acted as public transport since buses were withdrawn on West Belfast routes after hijacks in the 1980s.

West Belfast isn't a neutral place, though. It's living history - a real frontline with dangerous street life, infamous street names, memorials, flags and paramilitary slogans everywhere - not to mention the blackened relics of the last week's streetfighting. However, although the Falls and Shankill are the focal points of every Belfast tour, hardly a penny is spent in the area.

That's where the two warring clans of West Belfast are agreed: something's got to change. Although they have no formal contact - and once lived simply to oppose one another's right to exist - it's the former political prisoners who are leading the way and negotiating with their own paramilitaries to replace the armed struggle with a search for cultural identity and prosperity.

As the events of the weekend show, that's easier said than done. But when touring the divided walls of West Belfast it becomes clear a lot has been done quietly over recent years. In fact, commercialising the world's fascination with the Troubles may be the only way to find employment for former prisoners, who are barred from civil service and local government jobs, adoption, foreign travel, taxi-driving licences, bank loans and mortgages.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 secured the release of 15,000 political prisoners. Many were surprised to be freed under such controversial circumstances, but now complain about the limitations imposed by their criminal records. Former doctors, lawyers and accountants remained unemployed.

"It certainly gives you time to think," says William Smith, a loyalist former prisoner who now runs a support group, EPIC.

From his bright-yellow office at the very top of the Shankill Road, William surveys a road strewn with Union Jack bunting for the best part of two miles. This, he says, is progress.

"Until a few months ago those flags were UVF and UDA paramilitary flags. We're trying to rediscover our culture - stop the children walking past images of guns and men in masks. We're so used to those images we don't even see them any more. But the children do."

He's curious about what the republicans are doing - the International Wall on the Falls is a site he's heard of but never seen.

"Unlike them [the republicans] we don't care what the rest of the world thinks. We are defending the status quo. It's that simple. Our way of thinking has been, 'Why should a Unionist community have to persuade anyone. Or apply for money to set up projects. It's our society and we just want it kept that way.'"

Three years ago Smith visited Los Angeles in a cross-community tour and was amazed to see powerful murals telling the story of the Hispanic and Mexican populations - overseen by a council-funded Director of Murals.

"What they were doing was like us but much more powerful. They were explaining their history, exploring their culture, converting onlookers, creating sympathy - we've been sticking two fingers up," he says. "I realised if we changed the murals, we could use art to our advantage."

Smith came back convinced the isolated and defensive culture of the Shankill fitted into a worldwide community of street art. He persuaded the loyalist paramilitaries to allow some murals to be painted over and replaced with "no-guns storyboard" murals. One massive mural portrays the aftermath of IRA attacks on local civilians - questioning republican integrity without a display of guns. Other murals celebrate the loyalists' high points of British rule - the Queen's Jubilees and the life of the late Queen Mother.

Right beside a local school is the spray-painted image which could hold the key to the future. Created by American street artist John "Zender" Estrada, it has nothing to do with the political situation and everything to do with the youth centre it advertises. Now he wants to apply Zender's approach to the Belfast Peace Wall.

A six-metre-high steel, concrete and chain-link series of walls - flung up over decades to protect "interface communities" - it is a symbol of all that is wrong in Northern Ireland. Built right up to the backs of houses on the republican side, it's visible only on the loyalist side - especially at Cupar Street where facing houses have been demolished and a glass-strewn no-man's-land allows visitors to survey Western Europe's last community fortress.

Zender and local children have already drawn pilot community murals on some walls but visitors - including the Dalai Lama and Bill Clinton - have all but obliterated the artwork by writing peace messages over them. Smith views the graffiti positively.

"Tourists want to see our story. They want to leave messages of hope, too. There's going to be room for both." He envisages a future where the 166 bleak cement panels are transformed into a colourful art history of the Shankill with a large peace message wall. The project - "If Walls Could Talk" - would base international mural artists in the Shankill and train 12 local children to work with 12 local schools and fill the 700-yard section of Peace Wall with murals 20ft high.

Smith could do worse than discuss the idea with his opposite number, Caoimhin Mac Giolla Mhin, of An Coiste, who sits in another bright-yellow office at the top of a terraced house less than half a mile from Smith's.

The two men have met once -in government offices in the city centre. The An Coiste office sits just off the Falls Road, where street signs are in Irish, green flags and Irish newspapers abound and "Eurozone" signs in shop windows proclaim a European, not British, frame of mind.

Set up in the wake of the prisoner release in the late 1990s, An Coiste realised the republican story had become the focus of worldwide academic interest. Political tours were set up to try and professionalise and commercialise the Republican response. Or, as Caoimhin puts it: "Why should some bloke from Donaghadee [a rural beauty spot] be employed to drive round our streets telling his story not ours?"

Earlier this summer 50 European academics, hosted by Queens University, were given talks and tours by Republican former prisoners for two days. In an unprecedented move, the group were then taken by bus to the Peace Wall, where a loyalist guide boarded in a handover operation akin to the prisoner swaps across the old Berlin Wall. The group was then given an account of the conflict by EPIC former prisoners.

It worked. But Caoimhin would go further. His vision - now perhaps unattainable - is a cross-community organisation, Welcome to West Belfast, allowing representatives of local people from the Falls and Shankill to plan and market daily bus and walking tours run by locals on each side.

Whether the loyalist infighting on the Shankill will ever allow such formal cooperation is doubtful, but the Republicans have pressed ahead with their own political walking tours. They've been running daily for a month. They start at the Divis Tower - either scarily infamous or utterly unfindable for visitors - and there has been relatively little take-up. Tour guide Sean was uncertain about the wisdom of a city-centre pick-up point: "It would only take one confrontation with Ian Paisley to lose business completely."

Meantime the International Wall on the Falls has been developing business of a different kind. Sympathetic groups such as the West Belfast Taxi Tours and a government-funded anti-racism quango have paid for mural ads. The going rate is between £500-£1,000 - a fraction of the cost of a billboard ad.

The wall comments on international disputes - the occupation of Iraq is currently centre-stage - and is updated regularly, like a monthly mural comment strip. One thing's clear, though. If both sides are determined to "stuff the red tourist buses" and snatch a share of the lucrative tourist trade, they'll need to co-operate, even if it's done so covertly that it makes the talks between the British government and the IRA in the 1980s appear positively public.

Will the former prisoners prove to be misguided optimists or the only effective agents of social change in their warring communities? Watch the walls.

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