BELFAST (Northern Ireland) — For years, it has been almost impossible to get to a worship service at the East Belfast Mission, attend a seniors lunch or go to a youth group meeting without confronting images of violence and terror.
They are painted on the walls. Paramilitary murals, as they are called, can cover the whole side of a house and often pay tribute to those who have used guns and bombs to make their opinions heard during 30 years of violence between Catholics and Protestants.
But the view in this neighborhood is changing. The Rev Gary Mason, a Methodist pastor, and his colleagues have spent more than a year negotiating with local Protestant paramilitary groups to replace militaristic murals with new ones celebrating local culture and human achievement.
So far, eight are completed. They include tributes to writer C.S. Lewis, who grew up here, and the Titanic, which was built in the local Harland and Wolff shipyard. One new mural even honours Methodism founder John Wesley along with Martin Luther and John Calvin.
The Rev Mason said: “Imagine a six- or seven-year-old child who gets up every morning, opens the curtains, and the first things he sees are two hooded gunmen painted on the side of the building across the street.
“Is that healthy? Now imagine that same child is getting up and is seeing scenes from the C. S. Lewis children’s classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”
The Rev Mason suggested replacing some of the local murals as part of a larger effort to regenerate the area, which ranks fifth out of 560 electoral wards as the worst place to live in Northern Ireland. It was a suggestion local paramilitaries initially reacted to with “extreme caution — capital letters!”, he confessed.
The East Belfast Mission eventually applied for and received government funding for the murals programme, officially called, “The Writing is Not on the Wall project”.
This is not some simple “spruce-up-the-neighbourhood” effort. The old, traditional paramilitary murals mark out territory. Whether painted by Catholics or Protestants, they are meant to intimidate the “other tribe” and remind their own community who is in charge. The murals most often appear in economically struggling Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods where people feel isolated and marginalised.
Replacing these symbols of power signals a willingness on the part of those some would label “terrorists” to move beyond the violence and brutality of the past.
“It’s time to do away with all this now and get on with our lives,” said Mr Paul Hoey, who served time in the infamous Maze prison for his involvement with the Protestant paramilitary group, the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). “I have children myself. I have a young lad who is actually older than I was when I joined UVF. I want a more stable life for him and my daughter.”
Mr Hoey has been supervising a group of local “lads” working on a replacement mural. When finished, it will pay tribute to both Catholic and Protestant war heroes from the two World Wars.
But his favourite among the new murals is one featuring George Best, a man who was both a soccer superstar and a friend of the Beatles during their Liverpool days. Best grew up in East Belfast.
The Rev Mason said that people are approaching him on the street to say how pleased they are about the new murals. He has also received phone calls from Catholics outside the area offering him a “quiet ‘thank you.'” The mural project even prompted a group of Catholics to request a “listening” meeting with Protestant paramilitaries to better understand their perspective.
Father Stephen McBrearty, whose Catholic church in a nearby neighbourhood has suffered its share of sectarian attacks, said the new murals are making the area less intimidating.
“They are taking away that blatant hatred, and hopefully it’s not just from sight but also from mind and from heart,” he said. “And if it can go towards doing that, it’s progress and warmly welcomed,” he added.
Kathleen LaCamera is a United Methodist News Service correspondent based in England.
STORY AND PICTURE
BY KATHLEEN LACAMERA