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Last Updated: Wednesday, 6 June 2007, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Portadown edging towards change
By Chris Summers
BBC News, Portadown, Northern Ireland

An inquiry has opened into circumstances surrounding the killing of Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) founder Billy Wright in Northern Ireland's Maze Prison in December 1997.

One decade on, attempts are being made to break down sectarian divides in his former home town of Portadown, County Armagh.

See the old and new murals

As you drive down the road from the centre of Portadown towards the town's football club you come across a striking mural across the gable end of a house.

Pictured in his pomp, dribbling a football, is the Manchester United and Northern Ireland legend George Best, who died in 2005.

He may have been a flawed character off the field but Best's footballing genius and his general bonhomie made him a perfect and uncontroversial image when the time came to paint over a mural to LVF founder Billy Wright.

New image

Wright was murdered by republican enemies in the Maze prison in 1997 and is still admired by some in his heartland on the loyalist estates of Portadown and nearby Lurgan.

But his image, and his reputation as a ruthless sectarian killer and drug dealer, is not what is needed in an area struggling to shake off its bloody recent history.

Seventeen other loyalist murals in the town have been painted over in recent years and the driving force behind the change has been a group called Portadown Local Action for Community Engagement (Place).

Billy Wright memorial in Portadown
Last year a memorial to Wright and another LVF man Mark Fulton was unveiled

Place activist Cyril Moorhead explained the benefits: "Instead of living under a mural of a gunman bearing down on them, children can now go to school without that image. People are looking to the future and the positive roles they can play in society."

John O'Dowd, Sinn Fein Assembly member for the Upper Bann area, said: "The changes within the loyalist community have to be welcomed. The Billy Wright mural was more about controlling the (loyalist) community than threatening the nationalist community."

The Place group has helped transform Portadown's five mainly Protestant estates - Brownstown, Edgarstown, Rectory Park, Killycomain and Corcrain/Redmanville.

The estates were associated with Wright and his cohorts.

Victims remembered

The LVF was later involved in a bloody feud with the larger UVF.

Last year a "garden of remembrance" was opened overlooking the Brownstown estate and in it are separate memorials - to one side Wright and his LVF "comrade" Mark Fulton and on the other slain UVF commander Richard Jameson and three other men.

Last month the UVF announced it was renouncing all violence and would cease to exist as a paramilitary organisation.

Mr Moorhead said: "The paramilitaries have lost the community support that they once enjoyed in this area. Slowly and surely they realised there was not a need for them any more."

Cyril Moorhead by the garden of peace in Portadown
The paramilitaries have lost the community support that they once enjoyed in this area. Slowly and surely they realised there was not a need for them any more
Cyril Moorhead

People in Portadown hope the town has shed its violent reputation and Place is playing a part in moving things forward into a more peaceful era.

Mr Moorhead said: "We recognised, with others, the need to make a more conducive society, to soften and promote a more positive Portadown."

He said: "If you go into the town centre you'll find lads playing pool with each other, some in Celtic tops and some Rangers tops. Sectarian prejudices are shrinking, there's no doubt about that."

Place runs a number of community activities and is stressing the importance of education to youths on the estates who may formerly have drifted into the paramilitary world.

Mr O'Dowd said: "Things are moving in the right direction. Clearly there are still suspicions on the ground between the two communities but when the political leaders, Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, are working together it helps at street level."

The red, white and blue paint on the kerbstones of the five estates has faded but loyalism has not gone away.

Orangemen at Drumcree
The annual Drumcree march remains a bone of contention

Tensions tend to rise with the nationalist community during the summer marching season, especially around the 12 July - the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne.

An annual bone of contention is the Orange Order parade, or more specifically the part of the march which would take it down the largely nationalist Garvaghy Road.

Tense time of year

Because of residents' opposition to the march, which they saw as triumphalist, it has been forbidden from the Garvaghy Road in recent years.

In 1996 and 1997 there was widespread disorder. Peace has returned in recent years but tension inevitably rises in July.

Ignatius Fox is a councillor with the nationalist SDLP in the town and he says there is still a long way to go to bring down the "walls in the minds" of many people in Portadown.

He told the BBC News website: "We are a long way from being a normal society but things are moving, if slowly, in the right direction."

Cllr Fox said July was always a contentious time. The town centre is festooned with union flags and bunting, which are unwelcome among the nationalist community.

Loyalist graffiti daubed on the interface
Both sides hope the interface walls can one day be removed

"It is not a very inviting thing. People feel intimidated by it," he said.

Cllr Fox said part of the problem was Northern Ireland's education system which means that young Catholics and Protestants tend to be schooled separately.

"Sometimes a child can be 15, 16 or 17 before they have any association with someone from the other community," he said.

The town is scarred by a number of ugly walls - known as "interfaces" - which separate loyalist and nationalist neighbourhoods.

Confronting sectarianism and racism is an urgent priority for this administration
Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister

Mr O'Dowd said: "It's going to take time for the physical barriers to come down. But I think it's an achievable objective in the next few years."

A spokesman for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister said: "There can be no place in a stable society for racism, sectarianism or prejudice. These attitudes must be effectively challenged wherever they occur.

"Practical and public support must be provided for victims. Confronting sectarianism and racism is an urgent priority for this administration."

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