Muralists airbrush out Ulster gunmen

August 8, 2003

Loyalists in Northern Ireland are beginning to clean up their act when it comes to gable wall murals, Ulster University sociologist Bill Rolston has found.

The images of hooded gunmen in paramilitary uniform are giving way to historical and cultural images such as Davy Crockett, hero of the American frontier, whose parents came from Derry.

Political murals are a common sight in working-class estates, especially in Belfast. But Professor Rolston said that after the 1994 ceasefires, republican murals had changed almost overnight from paramilitary images to memorials and historic themes.

Republican murals were painted on behalf of a movement, he said. They might be commissioned by Sinn Fein or community groups that might have a connection to Sinn Fein or be painted spontaneously by muralists themselves.

Loyalist murals were painted for whichever paramilitary group controlled that area. Professor Rolston said these forces were beginning to focus on themes such as the first world war.

Pressure group the Ulster Scots Heritage Council has negotiated with the paramilitaries to sponsor murals on social and cultural themes, including American presidents, such as James Buchanan, who had Ulster origins. "I would see these as ethnic pride murals," Professor Rolston said.

He outlines the changes in a new book that includes more than 100 photographs. The loyalists had come under pressure to "clean up their act" from within unionism, the clergy and the Northern Ireland Office, he said.

He added that traditional loyalist murals spoke "of a deep inferiority complex, a defensiveness and a fear that the writing is literally on the wall for loyalists. There are many deep problems facing them. The Ulster Scots' murals are a breath of fresh air, but only time will tell if they will ever seriously challenge the paramilitary murals."

Drawing Support 3: Murals and Transition in the North of Ireland by Bill Rolston, Beyond the Pale Publications, £11.99.

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