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'The mural is demanding change'
Danny Devenney describes the RUC mural
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Wednesday, 31 May, 2000, 15:19 GMT 16:19 UK
Painting politics in Northern Ireland
Danny Devenney (right) and Marty Lyons
Danny Devenney (right) and Marty Lyons
By BBC News Online's Dominic Casciani

As the man charged with implementing reform of Northern Ireland's police arrived in Belfast, a mural was set to go up on the nationalist Falls Road making clear what one section of the community wanted.

Under the slogan "The RUC must go", a cartoon-like artist's hand erases an orange sash and rifle from around the neck of a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer.

When the kids picked up the paint brushes, they found a way of expressing the views of their community

Mural artist Danny Devenney
In the next frame, the officer appears in civilian uniform - the change that republicans say that they want to see.

Since the first IRA ceasefire of 1994, Northern Ireland has seen a massive growth in the number of murals.

Created by both loyalists and republicans, for years the murals were often dismissed as graffiti or crude propaganda.

But as the political process has grown, their stark expressions of community opinions have been harder to ignore.

Danny Devenney, the most prolific of the republican artists, completed the RUC mural this week in his Falls Road studio, shared with Marty Lyons and others.

Click here for a picture gallery of murals.

He first turned to expressing politics through art while imprisoned as a member of the IRA.

Drawing on much of the left-wing political iconography of the 1970s, he and others began producing graphical illustrations for the Republican News newspaper before graduating to full-scale murals.

The development of a mural is often quite vague. Mr Devenney says sometimes they are approached by communities who ask for a work, but most of the time he and other artists hunt out locations and offer their services. Sometimes an idea emerges out of discussion within the republican community and a suitable space is found.

One of their latest works is the new memorial to IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands on the side of Sinn Fein's Falls Road offices.

Changing traditions

For decades, loyalist depictions of protestant "King Billy" at the 1690 Battle of the Boyne dominated Northern Ireland's political art.

Loyalist mural of King Billy, William of Orange
King Billy: Foundation of loyalist murals
In Danny Devenney's view, there was a very simple reason for the lack of nationalist murals.

"We were living in a state dominated by unionists," he said. "There was a riot in 1964 after republicans put up a tricolour in Divis Street. What do you think the reaction would have been to a mural?"

With the coming of the H-Block blanket protests and hunger strikes by IRA men over political status in the late 1970s and early 1980s, republicans searched for ways to express their position amid media "self censorship", said Mr Devenney.

"The graffiti during this period wasn't a case of seeking to be bellicose and belligerent," he said.

"There was a policy of criminalisation and containment of nationalists.

"But many kids saw the blanket men as heroes. The graffiti and the murals that followed were these kids telling the state, 'they have our support.'

An early republican mural depicting an honour guard over a coffin
Early republican: IRA celebrated as heroes
"Bobby Sands said that 'everyone has a role to play.' If a journalist was reporting in Belfast or Derry in front of a mural, that was our form of publicity."

While King Billy murals continued to be touched up every year in loyalist areas, the first landmark republican murals followed the 1981 death of Bobby Sands as a commemoration of the hunger strikers.

These were quickly followed by military imagery, memorials to volunteers killed "on active service" and the first paintings promoting Sinn Fein's developing electoral strategy.

Widening themes

In the years since, the themes have widened to cover the entire range of the socialist/republican agenda, including allegations of repression, police brutality, cultural, ties with historic and mythical Ireland and, most recently, social issues such as unemployment.

Loyalist themes
Battle of the Boyne 1690
The Union Flag
Red Hand of Ulster
Paramilitary memorials
"We have sought to do is reflect the views of the community," said Mr Devenney.

"If we put up a mural in the Ardoyne area of Belfast saying 'Brits out', that would be the opinion of 99% of the residents.

"For years there was no means of expression for that population.

"When the kids picked up the paint brushes, they found a way of building confidence in their community."

Professor Bill Rolston, author of two books on the murals, said that there had been a marked change in the work since 1994.

Republican themes
IRA units
The hunger strikes
RUC reform
Irish mythology
"Republican murals have moved away from much of the paramilitary imagery," he said.

"They were never fixated on paramilitary imagery. In contrast, the loyalists have focused on three areas - King Billy, the flag and, for the last decade, the paramilitaries."

Prof Rolston said that loyalists were now producing more paramilitary-focused murals than ever before.

Mixed messages

One of the first to appear following the 1994 ceasefire, depicted masked gunmen under the text: "Prepared for peace, ready for war."

"I'd believe the message if there been something like a picture of a dove," said Prof Rolston.

A mural of the Irish potato famine
The Famine: Drawing on Irish history
"But other than the word peace, you had nothing to suggest that was the message.

"But who are these guns pointing at? Are they aimed at the nationalist community or turning inwards?"

One reading of the consistently "bellicose" nature of the loyalist murals, he said, was that they were reflecting factional internal struggles between the different groups.

"There has been an explosion of loyalist murals," said Prof Rolston. "At the moment there are 13 new murals going up in Belfast's Lower Shankill Road area.

"A nationalist could feel pretty threatened by this but I think that it also has a lot to say about what is going on within loyalism."

Community confidence

Prof Rolston suggests that the shift in republican murals towards more cultural and social issues reflects the continuing political changes.

"As loyalism's confidence has receded, republican confidence has come to a fore," he said.

People who see themselves coming from a socially and politically low position, the nationalist community, can imagine their goals and find means of expression.

"This has been reflected in other parts of the world in the imagery used by groups such as the ANC during apartheid.

A loyalist paramilitary mural
Paramilitary: Loyalist work retains military focus
"But that's something that loyalism cannot do in the same way. In the case of loyalism, the state allowed them the space for expression - but kept them at a distance.

"When you have a diminution of that space, these people find it difficult to define themselves politically because that community has always had a sense of confidence in its position."

Recent loyalist work includes the first appearance of the mythical Irish hero Cuchulainn as the ancient "defender of Ulster". But Prof Rolston says that the subject matter has not yet shown a consistent shift away from violence.

"Mural artists don't create the political culture, they reflect it," he said. "In the absence of a clear direction, you cannot reflect the views of a community.

"And when people cannot articulate where they stand, then that's a recipe for frustration - and possibly violence."

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31 May 00 | Northern Ireland
Picture gallery: Northern Ireland murals
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