Nearly 20 Years have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, officially ending the period known as the Troubles. Today the majority of the Peace Lines, erected in response to the violence, remain standing. What has taken so long to remove these walls?
In the 50 years since the beginning of the Troubles, various murals now accompany the Peace Lines. Often political, these murals illustrate the views of people on both sides of the conflict; leaving the public and government in a quandary over erasing the oftentimes violent depictions of the past.
Both the murals and Peace Lines have become subject to tourism. For some, the tours are a way of preserving history; while others decry the idea of a company profiting off of past violence and walls that still actively divide people. The debate over tourism is just another argument in a series of arguments that make up the continuing legacy of the British colonization of Ireland. Today how the lines are remembered is up to the actions of the people and government of Northern Ireland.
Current State of the Peace Lines
Only in the last 2 years has progress been made in tearing the walls down,. In a September 2017 The Guardian article by Henry McDonald, he writes about the second Peace Line to come down. This Line was a “three-metre-tall wall cutting off Springfield Road from Springhill Avenue in West Belfast.” The first Peace Line to come down was demolished in 2016. As of today, 108 remain standing.
This relatively recent action of tearing the Peace Lines down has been expected for some time. In a 2013 article for The Irish Times, written by Gerry Moriarty; the First Minister and his Deputy First Minister (at the time), Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness respectively called for all of the Peace Lines to come down 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement. However, as noted in the 2017 The Guardian article, the Peace Lines can only come down with community consent from both sides of the line. A report available on Northern Ireland’s Executive Office website mentions the progress that has been made with the removal of the Peace Lines.
Community assent might be why it is taking so long to tear the walls down. In a 2012 study by the University of Ulster, 76% of the general population of Northern Ireland said they want the Peace Lines to come down as soon as possible; however, when looking at the people who live in/around communities closest to the Peace Lines, 69% believe they should stay up to prevent future violence.
Even after 50 years have passed sense the beginning of the Troubles, those who live around the lines feel they still serve their purpose, and believe Peace Lines still serve the same purpose. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of ages and their respective opinions based on how participants experienced or learned about the Troubles. It should be noted that in the Ulster University study of the 69% that said Peace Lines should stay up; 58% of those respondents want to see the walls come down in the future.
One question is what will become of the walls when they’re torn down. The first two torn down were completely destroyed, but should there be a few sections kept as what happened the Berlin Wall? Until communities start working together to break down the rest of the Peace Lines this question will have little thought put into it.
In order to integrate the communities that have been divided by Peace Lines, the Northern Irish government has been focusing on building programs that encourage inter-community relations. In the Executive Office’s 2016-2017 report, they mention developing youth sports programs to encourage children from different communities to play with each other and develop friendships. Funding programs that promote cross-community interaction is a step intended to ensure that the Peace Lines come down in the future, as a generation that tears down sectarian and cultural walls will eventually tear down the physical ones.
Murals: Call to Arms or Call to Remembrance?
The history of political murals in Belfast predates the Troubles and construction of the Peace Lines. In article by Debbie Lisle, Professor at Queens University, Local Symbols, Global Network: Rereading the Murals of Belfast , the “Loyalist community began the tradition with murals commemorating World War I casualties” (28). It wasn’t until the 1980’s that the “republican community adopted this form of cultural expression… to commemorate hunger strikers” (Lisle, 28).
One of the most prominent murals is painted on the side of the Sinn Féin office on Fall Roads; a mural depicting Bobby Sands. Sands was an IRA member who participated and died in a hunger strike in Long Kesh prison during the Troubles. These murals provide a look into how each side of the Troubles view their legacy. These murals are heavily contested, in part due to imagery and the fact that Troubles-era political agendas are still being pushed after the Good Friday Agreement.
Today the murals dotting the Shankill and Falls Roads feature a variety of images and cover a range topics. Unionist murals tend to feature the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) and it’s members, representations of the Union Jack, the red hand of Ulster signifying their beliefs that Northern Ireland should remain in the United Kingdom.
Debbie Lisle, understands that the murals have a sectarian origin but believes that “As the murals are increasingly exposed to a clientele of regional, national, and international tourists, it becomes necessary to reposition these images within much wider interpretive networks” (Local Symbols, 28). As the internet and photo-sharing have spread the audience for these murals has expanded, allowing for artists to spread messages on issues outside of Nationalist/Unionist politics.
When I visited Belfast in 2014, one of the murals depicted a call for Israel to release over 4,000 Palestinian political prisoners, and another called for the release of American Leonard Peltier. Tourists visiting get a sense of Northern Irish political struggles, but also a sense of what global issues are important to Northern Ireland.
Sometimes the murals don’t focus on anything political, in Belfast I saw a stretch of wall painted with various superheroes from DC/Marvel comics. The fact that all of the heroes are breaking the walls in their murals provides a not-very-subtle idea that good ultimately comes from breaking down the walls. The lack of explicitly stated politics in these murals could be due to the more global population in Belfast, such as tourists and immigrants, who may have less knowledge of the Troubles. While the superhero images themselves aren’t inherently political, they might be repainting old political murals.
There have been efforts on the part of the Northern Irish government to do something regarding the imagery of the murals . Tricia Tongco and Shweta Saraswat in a The Atlantic article cover opinions on the matter, including muralist Danny Devenny and Professor Bill Rolston of the University of Ulster.
The authors also interview members of The Re-Imaging Committees, which looks to paint over the existing murals. The Committees want to repaint murals about the Troubles that prominently feature the IRA or UVF, weapons, and scenes of violence; intending to replace them with less politically motivated images.
On the idea of repainting the murals, Rolston says, “The trick of Re-imaging is to persuade people in these areas to still make political statements about who they are, what they believe in, what they hope for and what they fear — without being offensive.” Devenny, however, has issues with the goals of the committees, believing “that the Arts Council’s approach trivializes the legacy of the city and replaces it with sweet nothings.”
While Devenny has a point that the idea of repainting murals can be tantamount to erasing history, there has to be a compromise that allows for muralists to continue their art while keeping the public from feeling like the murals are encouraging sectarian viewpoints/violence . Perhaps a museum or gallery for muralists to display their work? Photographing murals and creating an archive for those that are historically significant. It is important for the art to be preserved as the murals for Devenny, are a representation of a historical event. A solution has to cater to those wishing to avoid constant talk of a sectarian past, but also provide a space for people to discuss the legacy of the Troubles.
Since the Troubles, the world has become more interconnected. As travel became easier and people immigrated, torusim has become a part of the Northern Ireland economy. The Peace Lines and the Shankill/Falls Road murals have become tourist attractions, which has further complicated the issue of replacing/repainting murals, as well as taking down the Peace Lines.
One of the tours that drive tourists along Peace Lines and walk them along the murals is the Black Taxi Tours. These tours focus mostly on the Shankill/Falls Roads area. Speaking on the Black Taxi Tours, Debbie Lisle states “What is more, at mural sites… the drivers have developed relationships with the locals. They often stop for a chat while the tourists take pictures, and sometimes they include tourists in their conversations” (Local Symbols, 45).
These tours bring up a quandary with regards to the deconstruction of the Peace Lines and the murals. Does the profit that comes from tourism justify the continued existence of walls that still separate neighborhoods, and are muralists painting images related to the Troubles to increase tourism? There are varying opinions regarding how the lasting legacy of the Troubles and the Peace Lines should be handled.
In an 2012 opinion piece for The Guardian, Chris Jenkins deems tours of the Peace Lines “Conflict Tourism”. “Tourists take photos of the division lines that are not consigned to history, but are a part of living Belfast” and that companies exploit the fact that tourists come to visit sites like where a Shankill Road bombing occurred in 1993. Jenkins believes “If this were history perhaps it would be more acceptable”. Would the Peace Lines be as much of a tourism magnet if the walls were torn down and parts placed in various museums?
In a 2006 The Guardian travel piece by Henry McDonald titled Terror tours, and cheap too , highlighting the economic advantage of going to Belfast over Dublin; mentioning the high quality food alongside promoting tours of areas where Troubles violence occurred. Even though this article is six years older than Jenkins’ piece, it points out how the discussion regarding the Peace Lines and murals can be divided among a single entity such as a newspaper. Even the murals themselves are not immune to the draw of tourism, when I visited Belfast there was a painted mural for the West Belfast Taxi Association that advertised the Black Taxi Tours.
Although progress has been made with regards to the Peace Lines and the murals, Northern Ireland is still trying to find a way to move forward without reopening the wounds caused by the Troubles. People working toward an undivided future view sectarians as either: attempting to destroy the past (repainting murals), or letting go of something still necessary (tearing down Peace Lines). To compound the problem, the profits of tourism make a convincing case for leaving Peace Walls up regardless of the fact that they aren’t yet a part of history. While the Peace Lines and murals physically represent the legacy of the Troubles, steps are being taken to provide a lasting legacy that reconciles rather than divides.
For more information on the Peace Lines and their early days visit http://contestedrepresentations.history.lmu.build/shane-m/
To learn more about the use of art in Irish politics, visit http://contestedrepresentations.history.lmu.build/janiem/
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