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Taking the mural high ground

LOYALISTS are beginning to clean up their act when it comes to gable wall murals, according to a University of Ulster professor.

The old-style murals depicting hooded gunmen and paramilitary imagery are giving way to ones with historical themes - such as World War 1 scenes and images of Ulster Scots language, culture and history.

That is one of the developments charted by UU lecturer Professor Bill Rolston in his latest book on political murals, entitled Drawing Support 3: Murals and Transition in the North of Ireland.

The 114 photographs and text in the book cover the developments in mural painting between 1996 and the present. The period has been one of a live, if at times precarious, peace process.

Professor Rolston said: "Republican murals responded to the ceasefires in a number of ways: dropping paramilitary references except in memorial murals, and frequently commenting on progress - or the lack of it - in the peace process.

"They have also continued to represent themes that were their hallmark since the 1980s: electoral campaigns, opposition to state repression, Irish history and mythology, and references to political struggles against colonialism and repression.

"Loyalist murals, on the contrary, became for some years increasingly dominated by paramilitary imagery and made few direct comments on current political events and issues.

"There has been some change in recent years with the appearance of a number of murals on historical themes - including World War I - and murals on the theme of Ulster-Scots language, culture and history."

He added: "The loyalist murals also speak of a deep inferiority complex, a defensiveness and a fear that the writing is literally on the wall for loyalists.

"There are many deep problems facing them. The Ulster-Scots murals are a breath of fresh air, but only time will tell if they will ever seriously challenge the paramilitary murals."

He noted that in one area of Belfast, the Lower Shankill, there were, until recently, 14 murals, mostly containing paramilitary images. Seven of those have been painted over, partly as a result of changes following the recent loyalist feud in the area and partly in response to pressure on loyalists to clean up their act.

Republican murals are very different in nature, he notes.

"Paramilitary imagery was never as dominant as in the loyalist murals, but it disappeared, practically overnight, with the ceasefire. With the exception of memorials to dead IRA personnel and some historical themes, the guns are absent from republican murals and are unlikely to reappear."