Belfast Telegraph

Friday 22 August 2014

Writing is on the wall for paramilitary murals

There's more to Belfast's Sandy Row than shoes and cream buns. But it has an image problem. In order to reinvent itself it must discard some of its historical baggage, argues Brian Rowan

The axing of the UK Film Council could have an impact on the burgeoning film industry in Northern Ireland, as it is one of the bodies which funds film-making here.

The power-sharing Executive must resist the temptation to follow the example of the Westminster government in meddling in this important sector for the sake of some short-term financial gains. Instead it should consider investing more in the creative arts here.

You get a sense that loyalists are lost in the peace - left wondering what it is all about, what it has meant for them and for their communities.

And, so, they will cling to anything - even the eyesore murals painted on the walls as a reminder of conflict and war.

They are in your face, and are meant to be. And they are about something that is meant to be in the past.

On one, a stone's throw from the city centre, the message reads: 'You are now entering loyalist Sandy Row, heartland of south Belfast - Ulster Freedom Fighters.' Painted alongside the message is a hooded gunman.

The paramilitary brigadier Jackie McDonald has an office on that stretch of road - within walking distance of the City Hall and not far from the so-called 'Golden Mile'.

"If you don't want a pair of shoes, or a cream bun, there's no point going to Sandy Row," McDonald told this newspaper.

There is, of course, more to this part of the city than its cakes and its boots, but the UDA leader made the comment to make a point - that much more is needed.

"If their identity is a gunman on the wall, what sort of a future do they have?" he asked.

"The Folks on the Hill [Stormont politicians] are going to have to look into loyalist working-class communities, make them better.

"We are communities coming out of conflict. People don't have a life - they have an existence."

But McDonald also accepts that in his part of the city: "That mural puts a lot of people off."

It frightens away those who might consider investing or building and making that much needed difference.

So, before it is helped, that community needs to do something for itself: begin to change the message and the image on its walls.

McDonald believes the masked man must go - and could be replaced with some sporting tribute, possibly to Linfield Football Club founded in Sandy Row in 1886 by workers at a local spinning mill.

Thinking and talking about changing the picture is one thing. Doing it will be much more difficult - something that has to be negotiated.

There is a community argument to be won first; won in places where people believe the peace process has 'just by-passed them'. "We've got to convince them otherwise," McDonald argues.

Convince them with 'product', things that will make a real difference to their lives. The problem, according to the UDA leader, is not just about murals - but about providing a better future for young people, and before it is too late.

Since the ceasefires and decommissioning, something has changed in the loyalist communities.

"Now, because there's no paramilitary law, the youngsters believe they've a licence to do whatever they want," McDonald said. "They don't fear you anymore."

In the period of the Twelfth, young people ignored the orders of the loyalist brigadier; didn't listen to what he said to them in disputes over bonfires; what they could burn - and what they couldn't burn.

But he says parents are still coming to paramilitary organisations such as his and saying: "You need to beat them", and "Some parents don't know what parental responsibility is."

So, he wants a "big conversation" about community and family needs, something that changes the attitude, "What do you expect?"

These are some of the challenges of the peace process; work that still has to be done, in places where people haven't noticed a difference and need persuading.

And in the background, the UDA is still dealing with old problems and old foes.

Andre Shoukri has raised his head again. Not long out of jail, according to loyalists he hasn't so much tip-toed back into north Belfast, but has come marching in - parading all his ego, muscle and friends.

The challenge for the UDA is to do nothing, to prove they have changed and are changing and to leave this to the police.

McDonald and John Bunting, who replaced Shoukri on the paramilitary leadership, met the PSNI on Monday to say: "This is your problem."

"He's thinking he's coming back into north Belfast to take up the mantle again," Bunting said of Shoukri.

The UDA won't allow that to happen. And, if the police can't deal with this, then they will.

This is one of the realities of that world - that no individual has ever been allowed to be bigger than the organisation.

Shoukri is not the first to try. But if one bullet is fired then the UDA is finished; its ceasefire and decommissioning discredited.

And what would that mean for loyalist communities in the peace? It will give strength to the argument: "What do you expect?"

And it will allow people to say to McDonald and others: "Didn't we tell you so?"

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