Page last updated at 07:57 GMT, Tuesday, 31 May 2005 08:57 UK

Old masters change murals

Northern Ireland's political street art is one of the main tourist attractions for visitors to its principal cities of Belfast and Londonderry.

This UVF mural may be the next to be replaced
In the second of two reports, the BBC News website's Marie Irvine reports on the moves to change the face of some of east Belfast's loyalist paramilitary inspired art.

Paul Hoey is a self-confessed "bad boy".

At least that's how he introduces himself to me with a rueful grin when I meet the lanky loyalist for a tour of the political street art of east Belfast.

Hoey is referring to his past. He is simply wise enough to acknowledge that in some eyes he will never escape the label he earned as a former UVF prisoner who served five years in prison during Northern Ireland's Troubles.

Now, like so many ex-paramilitaries, he is involved in a variety of community projects.

Paul is meeting me to explain the reasoning behind the decision - made over the last year or so - to transform some of east Belfast's hard-edged militaristic murals into softer canvasses.

Sons of Ulster

The new emphasis will be on celebrating the achievements in sport, literature or music of the "sons of Ulster" rather than the dogs of war.

There's no doubt they are a tourist attraction and they help generate income for the wee shops along the road
Paul Hoey, ex-UVF prisoner

Traditionally, the art of the paramilitaries in this part of the city, like many others has been obsessed with the insignia and weaponry of the paramilitary world.

The painted images often feature balaclava clad men, in guns and camouflage uniform.

Although the murals are striking they are also a fairly frightening clue to the darker side of conflict for visitors and those passing from one part of town to another.

But Paul Hoey says they are not about staking out turf or intimidating outsiders.

"They're just a legacy of the last 30 odd years. It's not about marking out territory - if it was there could be another 50 or 60 murals up."

Footballer George Best features on one of the newer murals
In fact, he says, the UDA's murals along the Newtownards Road at the locally nicknamed "Freedom corner" continue to be a major draw for visitors.

"You get busloads of tourists stopping there. You see people trooping out and getting their photos taken in front of them.

"There's no doubt they are a tourist attraction and they help generate income for the wee shops along the road."

But it is changing some of the murals that is dominating discussion at present.

Van Morrison request

A year or so ago, after much community consultation a decision was taken to remove some of the old warlike UVF and Red Hand Commando murals in favour of a softer approach.

Paul explains the thinking: "If there is somebody coming to invest in east Belfast and there's a militaristic mural on a wall near where they are thinking of opening a business, it will put them off."

To date five murals have been changed and another is under consideration.

"They won't all come down, that is a nailed on certainty," said Hoey who adds that many people in the UVF are waiting to see if the UDA will reciprocate its move and take down any of their murals too.

Depicting UVF men who died in the Somme and in the Troubles

Among the new images are paintings of footballing legend George Best and the children's writer C.S. Lewis.

Belfast born singer Van Morrison is understood to have turned down a request to feature his face on a mural.

The murals which have been changed are simply painted over, one canvas disappearing under another like the hidden paintings of the old masters.

"They're not lost, we take photographs before, during and after" explains Paul.

"You can also buy copies of those in the Union Jack shop along the road here."

Hidden talent

Despite the changes, the wall space where the murals stand is still associated with the UVF and Paul Hoey says this creates a reticence among the artists to be identified in public.

"Way back when the Troubles first started, you had people you wouldn't think would be involved from a variety of backgrounds like school teachers, civil servants, a whole range of different people who've been involved as artists on the murals.

"Obviously, there is the connotation that if the artist is doing UVF murals then maybe that would make him part of the UVF organisation.

This wall painting used to be a Red Hand Commando mural

"These people aren't involved in anything they are just artists but there is still targeting going on in Northern Ireland."

It is a peculiar state of affairs for outsiders to think of a paramilitary group commissioning artists to paint pieces but that is exactly what happens.

A firm is contracted in to put up the scaffolding, insurance is taken out against accidents and the rough work is completed by less skilled workers before the main artist comes in.

He will sketch and then fill in the final outline, sometimes by hand, sometimes using a projector to scan the image onto the wall.

As a result, each mural has a final cost of something in the region of 3,500 to 4,000.

Perhaps it is not a bad price for a one-off original.

Loyalist art of east Belfast
31 May 05 |  In Pictures
The men behind the murals
26 May 05 |  Northern Ireland

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