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Illegal memorials do damage to our image

Editor's Viewpoint

In any normal democratic society, the erection of 119 paramilitary memorials and murals on publicly-owned property would be regarded as an offence, and they would be removed. But Northern Ireland is not a normal society and paramilitaries - both republican and loyalist - still hold sway in many areas.

While politicians may make ritual calls for the memorials to be removed from gable walls or public spaces, they know fine well that workmen will not carry out that task, and no one can really blame them as they would be putting themselves at risk.

In any case, the memorials would be quickly replaced. In a way, they mark the continuing influence of paramilitaries or former paramilitaries. They know they can defy the authorities - and quite probably ignore the feelings of local people - by insisting that the memorials are retained.

The murals and memorials - even those which many people feel are offensive - have sparked an alternative tourism trail showing that visitors view the symbols as some kind of shorthand to explain our past conflicts.

However, valuable work has already been done in replacing some of the murals depicting the savagery of the conflict. This has come about through painstaking and protracted conversations involving statutory agencies, paramilitaries and residents. In several cases, the outcome has been very positive.

One image that springs to mind is the Ross Wilson mural of King William of Orange in the Sandy Row area, which replaced a UDA mural.

That points towards how portraits of masked gunmen can be reimaged to become cultural icons instead. There is no shortage of potential portraits which could tap into the cultural heart of communities on either side of the divide.

For instance, there are footballing and boxing heroes who could sit easily on either side of the peace walls, but each community might also wish to draw on historical figures who were inspirational in their time.

What is not in dispute is that many of the wall artists display a high degree of skill, and there is no reason why that cannot be put to good use in proper public art. It can be argued that it would be more authentic public art that some which currently passes for it.

By engaging local communities, the intimidating images and memorials which glorify terrorism could be replaced by ones reflecting a wider narrative.

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