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Posters from the edge

Malachi O’Doherty tells how these provocative images now featuring in an exhibition at Belfast’s Linen Hall Library capture the horror of the Troubles

In the early days of the Troubles, one of the hazards of working on a newspaper, aside from having to cover riots, was that people would sidle up to you in pubs like Kelly’s Cellars or the Old House and ask if you could swipe a roll of newsprint for them. These rolls weighed about the same as a car.

‘Well, can’t you just peel some off and stick it up your jumper?’ It wasn’t just republicans who wanted the stuff. In fact, the Provisionals were too busy killing people at first to run major poster campaigns, so this work was more often done by smaller groups, some left, some anarchist, like People’s Democracy and the long forgotten Belfast Libertarian Group.

What a survey of Troubles posters should tell you today is how diverse the political thinking was at the start. It is too easy now to project back from the outcome of the Troubles to assume that the political groups which settled terms in the end were those which had been irritating us all along.

In fact, back in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there were groups which wanted Russia to invade; there were Citizens’ Defence Committees; there was the Official IRA; there were Libertarian anarchists; there was the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association which was proud of its roots in the British army, though many of the newer members had never held a gun till they joined.

And there was a similar proliferation of groups among loyalists and secularists. Who now remembers Freaks For Ulster?

The virtual monopolisation of nationalist ire by the Provisionals was not inevitable, back then, any more than it was clear that Ian Paisley would take over unionism and lead it into a deal with the IRA.

The Troubled Images exhibition at the Linenhall Library in Belfast gives a sampling of that giddy ferment of ideas, drawn from the much larger political collection. Given the numbers of posters that were printed down the years, this has to be a small sampling but it is broad ranging and reminds us how anxious we were and how eccentric.

You walk in through the Fountain Street entrance and the posters, now framed, though printed to be stuck on lamp posts and forgotten, fill the whole stairwell.

The library is so proud of this exhibition that it even has a display illustrating how it was hung, by abseilers!

There is the famous cartoon of Willie Whitewash, as the first Secretary of State was dubbed, masking the list of the dead when the toll, however horrific, was still low: The Ulster Vanguard artist was only acquainted with security force figures: British Army 62, RUC 22 and UDR 7.

The poster inviting us to Vote Unionist for Peace Order and Good Government in the elections of 1973 seems almost a wry joke in the light of what followed, the Ulster Workers Council Strike. And the pale sketched outline of Brian Faulkner seems to betray a lack of confidence in the artist that this is the face of the future.

Another relic of high unionist hopes is a poster put out by the Progressive Unionist Party: an Orange V, suggestive of a collarette, and the words Progressive Unionists say Unionist Solidarity means Victory.

Unfortunately for them, the consolidation of the Unionism could only squeeze them to the side. It would not be the PUP who would lead unionism.

Next year is the 90th anniversary of the creation of the state of Northern Ireland. We were invited to mark the 50th with Ulster 71, an embarrassing exhibition in the Botanic Gardens in Belfast, now remembered in a sarcastic poster which superimposes the swastika on the Ulster flag to make a semblance of the Union Jack. A rough wee poster depicting a younger Ian Paisley framed by the words For God and Ulster tells you that there was a time when he had little money behind him and had to improvise with the methods of the other agitators on the street, before some of them evolved into big parties and the others died away.

One of the best photographs from a gun battle here is the Pacemaker Press picture of Official IRA man Joe McCann, crouching with an M1 Carbine beside a burning barricade in the week internment was introduced. The picture was copied into a poster celebrating McCann as a Soldier of the People, after he was shot dead while running from paratroopers in Joy Street in April 1972.

In some the image tells the whole story. One poster shows a pile of 13 skulls with the words Remember Derry. There may be some people today who would not connect that to Bloody Sunday but none then would have missed the message.

Then there was the state’s response in its own poster campaigns. Remember Porta – Up and Tandra-glee. The NIO tried to raise our enthusiasm for peace by imagining our town names changed in celebration of ‘days like this’. Somewhere in an office in Stormont there may still be an official cringing lest someone remind him that this was his idea.

There is variation in quality here too. ‘If You Find Yourself Thinking Like a Bigot, Think Again’ — the slogan on a Community Relations Council poster. The image is of a football. The poster asks if it matters which foot you kick with. It’s clever enough to remind us that football is divisive, not sharp enough to observe that most bigotry is grounded in the fear of losing something, not in old wives’ tales about feet and eyes.

Where there is the unmistakeable thumbprint of the ad agency in the work, I turn away. The professionals sought to rise above the very thing that makes these posters interesting, their amateurishness, their roughness and the evidence they provide of eager backroom activists applying skills that were learnt only as soon as they were needed.

Sometimes, when there were a couple of people labouring over a printer in one room, others were planning a protest or perhaps building a bomb in the next.

The slapdash urgency and improvisation of the rougher posters gives a sense of real history stumbled upon as political movements, some small and all with a sense of being overlooked by the media, rushed out their messages, laced at times with anger, at times with humour.

This is the only place I know where you can see the social history of the Troubles at a glance with all the retrospective simplifications compromised.

What I would like to see next is an even bigger exhibition of posters and a showcasing of the songs and the pirate broadcasts, if anyone has recordings of them.

What is interesting in this exhibition is what unprofessional artists and activists produced in the heat of upheaval, struggling to comprehend what was happening and to impose their message on us through the instant medium of silk screen printing.

These posters tell us how diverse and how naive we were in our ideas back then.

We can all look in and see how silly we were.

The exhibition runs until September 11, Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm, Sat, 9.30am-4pm

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