The Re-Imaging Programme in the six counties

by Irvine Forgan

“Our theatre critic Peter Crawley, writing in today’s paper of Friel’s portrait of lives ‘suspended between memory and hope, a misty past and uncertain future. . .’ could be describing the way many young people now see themselves. In truth, if we are redefining ourselves – our Irishness – at the moment, it is unfortunately largely in a discourse dominated by the negative. We are not Greeks. We are not Icelanders. We are not rich. We are not the citizens any more of a vibrant, confident state, but of a broken polity. We are no longer the masters we believed ourselves to be of our own fates, but hapless players of hands dealt to us by others, by huge uncontrollable forces beyond our understanding.”                                                           —The Irish Times, editorial of 17th March 2010.

A mural appeared in 1998 on the gable end of a house on Tavanagh Street in the mainly protestant Village area of Belfast. The iconography in this mural is a representation of Iron Maiden’s Eddie figure carrying a rifle, but no flag, with the scythe-carrying reaper in the background. Surrounded by the crests of the UFF and UDA and the writing —Ulster Freedom Fighters The Village, Donegall Rd, Ormeau Rd, Roden St, Lisburn Rd, Sandy Row” — it was located alongside an adjoining wall bearing the following message: —Through the lonely streets of Ulster, the Reaper come’s to call, he travel’s from town to city, right down to Derry’s wall. When the UFF they call him, to come and join the fight, he say’s if the bullet doesn’t kill them, they’ll surel’y die from fright. So when you’re in your bed at night, and hear soft footsteps fall, be careful it’s not the UFF and Reaper come to call.


Loyalist mural – Iron Maiden’s Eddy

Homi Bhabha’s term ‘grotesque mimicry’ is an appropriate classification of the representation in this mural. As part of his foundational analysis of colonial discourse and the emergence of ‘inappropriate’ colonial subjects, Homi Bhabha (1994) argues that the racial stereotype gives access to an identity that is predicated as much on mastery and pleasure as it is on anxiety and defence, that is to say it is a form of multiple and contradictory belief in its recognition of difference and disavowal of it. Deploying Foucault’s analytics of power he explored the ‘psychic sphere of colonial relations’ as foundational to his claim that like all power holders, colonial authorities unconsciously incite ‘refusal, blockage, and invalidation’ in their attempts at constant surveillance (p. 11). To refine his theory of active subaltern resistance, Bhabha used three interconnected concepts: mimicry, ambivalence and hybridity.

Mimicry is: ‘the [colonizer’s] desire for a reformed, recognizable ‘Other’, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite’ (p. 86). Thus for example British desire for the ‘Other’ to mimic ‘Britishness’ while also maintaining segregation, created the primary site of subaltern agency in India (p. 86). Interlinked with mimicry, Bhabha used ambivalence to explore an informed identity struggle between both parties based on ‘conflictual feelings and attitudes’ (p. 67). This ambivalent axis of aversion and desire which is at once a recognition of difference and disavowal of it has a fundamental significance for colonial discourse – a significance which is precisely the subject’s primal fantasy for a pure origin that is always threatened by its division. This means that the menace of mimicry is its double vision which in disclosing the ambivalence of colonial discourse also disrupts its authority.  However, where the colonial subject disavows difference, “the colonial subject turns into a misfit, a grotesque mimicry or doubling” of the colonial power (p. 107). The stereotype, he argues is a simplification because it is an arrested, fixed form of representation that in denying the play of difference constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject in significations of psychic and social relations (p. 107). This means that access to the recognition of difference is denied whereas it is the particular possibility of difference that would liberate the signifier of culture from the fixations of the analytics of blood, ideologies and cultural dominance or degeneration. And it is precisely in this sense that the ‘Eddie’ mural, at once a threat against the republican, is also a grotesque mimicry which finds the loyalist paramilitary and the unionist denying difference from their colonial occupier by itself undertaking action to preserve the colonial discourse.

The Tavanagh Street mural was replaced in 2008 at a cost of £18000, as one of 18 new commissioned public art projects forming part of the rhetoric of the ‘Re-Imaging Communities’ programme. Negotiations on the repainting had already began five years before with the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Defence Association (UDA) which eventually decided that the mural should be replaced by a King William portrait. The Council’s chief executive, Roisin McDonough described the Iron Maiden mural as divisive and offensive, but that “The fact that it’s being replaced by King William is not an act of triumphalism. King William is not offensive to people in this area. It’s part of their legitimate Orange cultural heritage.”[1] These sentiments cohere with the official explanation: ‘The professional artist, John Darren Sutton worked with the community to create four pieces of art representing alternative images that celebrate the culture and identity of the area – one of the projects involves the replacing of the ‘Grim Reaper’ paramilitary mural with a traditional artwork on canvas of ‘King William of Orange’ as a traditional figure which reflects the Orange culture of that community and the village area.’ [2]


Mural – King Billy

The mural is a skilled rendition of King Billy alone on his horse, painted by a professional artist in keeping with the fine art tradition of williamite imagery. The King Billy representation supplants the supporting role to paramilitary violence that it played in the militaristic imagery that prevailed during the Troubles, but it retains iconographic linearity with protestant ascendency. Noticeably absent from the image are paramilitary emblems, flags and writing. The image has been painted on canvas and is affixed to the wall where the ‘Eddie’ mural had been. The red wall background though has been retained. The mural has thus a general and universal quality. Whereas the ‘Eddie’ mural speaks of contestation (and hence indeterminacy) with the republican opposite, the new King Billy has been refigured with an ideology conveyed on an immanent (as understood by Deleuze) plane posited as formative. This exhibiting is an act of inscription placed, contextualized and narrativized by the curatorial state in which the colonized loyalist/unionist is no longer a grotesque mimicry but rather the pure mimic: “the [colonizer’s] desire for a reformed, recognizable ‘Other’, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (ibid), that is to say the Irish descendant of the English conqueror.

Replacement of the Eddie mural in Tavanagh Street has its origins in the so called ‘Re-Imaging Communities’ programme.  During 2006 the Northern Ireland Government issued policy documents which provided for an Action Plan designed to set a “clear framework for tackling disadvantage in some of the most deprived areas identifying more than 60 actions in response to the taskforce on working class protestant communities.” [3] It noted that the Task Force identified a number of fundamental problems which needed to be addressed to meet the needs of “disadvantaged protestant communities.” Among these disadvantages are listed educational disadvantages, a lack of social cohesion, active citizenship, and civic leadership and, prefaced as “a critical factor”, the damaging influence of paramilitary organizations. Although the documents are prefaced with a belief in “a fair and inclusive society” sectarian divisions are built into its provisions. For example, in addition to the apparent disparities appearing in the provisions of the Action plan as one meeting the needs of disadvantaged protestant communities only, the documents hold that although poverty respects no boundary of religion, politics or community and that both catholic and protestant communities face real challenges as a result of poverty, it records that much of its support for work tackling disadvantage does not have the same impact in protestant communities as it does in catholic communities. Thus while “disadvantage and poverty are still greater in the catholic community,” there is in those communities “a better developed capacity at community level to take advantage of the opportunities offered by Government funded programmes and services to support those communities.” Emphasis is also laid on the need to improve education in disadvantaged protestant communities which are said to be “lagging behind” (ibid). The needs of disadvantage thus demonstrate sectarian division between catholic and protestant. The class which otherwise would be identified as working class is distinguished in the Plan as catholic disadvantaged or protestant disadvantaged.

One of the 60 actions is the Renewing Communities Action Plan, described as “Place and Identity/In Art we Trust”, and subsequently labelled the ‘Re-Imaging Communities Programme’ a small grants programme of £5,000 per project to “enable local organizations and community groups, previously not involved in this area of work, to engage with professional artists to promote culture and arts within the local community.” When the programme was launched in July 2006, it aimed to deliver 60 to 80 community-based projects within three years, with a spend of £3.3 million. Initial reports of the £3.3million fund announced by the Northern Ireland Office responsible for overseeing the Northern Ireland devolution settlement and representing Northern Ireland interests at UK Government level and UK Government interests in Northern Ireland, focused on how the money would be spent replacing loyalist paramilitary murals; but a statement released by the Department Culture, Arts and Leisure subsequently shifted the official version away from this narrow focus to that of the broad rhetoric of the Culture Minister, Maria Eagle: “New murals and public art will transform parks, housing estates and built-up areas across Northern Ireland, celebrating the aspirations of the whole community and helping people feel part of their own local community,”  although the Minister also states “The purpose of the ‘Re-Imaging Communities Programme’ will be to engage local people and their communities in finding ways of replacing divisive murals and emblems with more positive imagery.” The minister also announced that larger projects would be eligible for grants up to £50,000 and that new £100,000 ‘Place, Identity and Arts’ small grants programme, aimed at fostering arts projects promoted by groups which have difficulties on religious and moral grounds with accessing funding from the National Lottery. [4] The Re-Imaging Communities Programme is managed by a Shared Communities Consortium made up of the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers (OFMDFM); the Department for Social Development (DSD); the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI); the Community Relations Council (CRC); the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and; the International Fund for Ireland (IFI).

The Arts Council of North Ireland explained the programmatic strategy of the Action Plan as one that “places artists in the heart of communities to work with local people to tackle visible signs of sectarianism and racism to create a more welcoming environment for everyone”. [5]  It noted that when it launched in July 2006, the programme aimed to deliver 60 to 80 community-based projects within three years, but this number has been surpassed by 25 percent. 109 projects have been funded, “helping to restore pride to local neighbourhoods and moving Northern Ireland towards a normal, inclusive and stable society”, it said (ibid). And the Belfast City Council described the project as one which “aims to transform communities by improving their environment and reflect the positive changes in Belfast. Sectarian murals, emblems, flags and graffiti will be replaced by positive images which reflect the community’s culture, as well as highlight and promote the social regeneration taking place in communities today”.[6]

The power of bureaucratic mediums to shape community response is inscribed in this programme. In doing so, the bureaucracy bolts the programmatic art tactically to postmodern notions of multiculturalism and diversity. One of the many projects involves replacing ten murals with violent imagery from the loyalist Shankill area of Belfast. One of these murals is the Drumcree Church Orange Order mural showing Portadown Orangemen marching on Garvaghy Road carrying banners reading—We demand the right to march—and—Portadown district LOL No.1. The mural also bears the loyalist Drumcree emblem and the writing—Drumcree – Here we stand we can do no other—and the UFF emblem with the Red Hand of Ulster under the writing—Shankill Rd supports Drumcree.  This mural which also shows the Drumcree church has been painted with elementary graphic and painterly skills.


Mural – Drumcree March

Garvaghy Road in the Portadown area is a republican/nationalist dormitory and is a focus of contestation with loyalist forces parading from the Drumcree church through the Portadown district. The mural is an instant index to the mapping of partisan conflict and violence. The Lower Shankill Community Association worked with local residents to replace this and other murals with what the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Naomi Long described as images representing the area’s “social, cultural and industrial heritage.” [7] The dominant bureaucratic medium of this programme emerge in her rhetoric:  “This is a prime example of what Re-Imaging is all about – taking us out of the divisions of the past into a new era of hope and enlightenment, reflecting the heritage of our diverse communities in a positive manner. Our vision is of a Belfast without barriers. The concept of renewal, change and respect lies at the heart of the ‘Re-Imaging Communities’ programme, which recognises the importance of creativity in all its manifestations and in all our lives, reflecting the heritage of our communities in a positive manner” (ibid).  But of course this hyperbole is founded on the principles contained in the Government’s Action Plan that tackles disadvantage defined by the binary between ‘Catholic disadvantaged’ and ‘Protestant disadvantaged’. It is not semiotic content alone but precisely this mapping that is evident in the mural replacing the Drumcree mural. Called the ‘Shankill A-Z mural’ it restricts its mapping to the Shankill community. The nature of this art may be described as art documentary. By this I mean art that has developed under the conditions of the contemporary biopolitical age, in which life itself has become the object of technical and artistic intervention as demonstrated by authors Michel Foucault, Georgio Agamben and others who have written along the lines about biopolitics as the true realm in which political will and technological power to shape things are manifested today. Under these conditions of modern technology we are no longer able by visual means alone to make a firm distinction between the natural or organic and the artificial or technologically produced, demonstrated for example by discussion about the criteria for deciding when life begins and when it ends. In these circumstances the difference between a genuine living creature and an artificial substitute is taken to be merely a product of the imagination, a supposition that can neither be affirmed nor refuted by observation. Because the living thing thereby loses its unique inscription in time, documentation becomes indispensable, producing or inscribing the existence of the thing in history. Art as documentation in this sense therefore refers to art that is primarily narrative, that is to say it provides an origin by means of narrative.


Mural A-Z History of Shankill Road

The mural is a digitally formatted collage of photographic images, for example the Orange Order march is represented by marching flute bands and the lambeg drum used during its marching season, historic buildings in the area are shown; there are images of community gatherings, a bust of Queen Victoria, a worker in overalls, children at play and portraits of people who were born or grew up there such as author C.S. Lewis and a local boxing legend David Healy. The origin inscribed into the life of the community is made easier with its references to the flute bands. It is the young men, often members or supporters of the blood and thunder bands who play the most prominent role in decorating the areas and building the bonfires for the marching season. The bands often form a centre of social life; band halls function as social clubs and illegal bars, and many bands attract sizeable followings of friends and neighbours when they parade. Jarman notes that it is the band members who introduced paramilitary emblems to Orange parades, and this was extended on to many walls, as bandsmen co-opted mural painting for their own interests; thus a number of paintings celebrating flute bands appeared among paramilitary images. These paintings varied between those which created a trade mark image for the band and those which linked a band with a paramilitary group. The Roden Street Defenders band is linked symbolically and linguistically with the UDA, while the neighbouring Pride of the Village Flute Band incorporated their name into the Red Hand Commando mural adjacent to the King Billy on Rockland Street. The contested line between the UDA in Roden Street and the UVF/RHC in the Village coincides with the support for the two different bands. However there is some doubt whether depictions of the flute bands will resonate with ‘hope and enlightenment’ in the minds and hearts of the nationalist community. The march on the twelfth July each year for example is inextricably linked to the iconography of King Billy which admits a single contingency of political domination. The reappearance of these icons, although aesthetically transfigured, does not remove their agency nor stop the contested parade through Portadown. Thus although the transparent reference to violence that was contained in the Drumcree mural has been removed, a more insidious replacement has taken place with the Shankill A-Z mural which inscribes as a cultural rite of passage, the irritant in the conflict with the nationalist community, namely the marching season.

These examples of a political practice that deploys imagery to dominate social convention strategize, in the sense understood by de Certeau the bureaucratic medium of art documentation to refigure a tradition and inscribe its refigured manifestation with a history so that it continues uninterrupted in a manner in which the fictive and the real become indistinguishable. In works such as The History of Sexuality and Homo Sacer Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben respectively have written along the lines that in an age of biopolitics as the true realm in which political will and technology’s power to shape things are manifested today the lifespan of a person is constantly being shaped and artificially being improved as a pure activity that occurs in time. That is to say if life is no longer understood as a natural event, as fate, but rather as time artificially produced and fashioned, then life is automatically politicized, since the technical and artistic decisions with respect to the shaping of the lifespan are always political decisions as well. The art that is made under these conditions of biopolitics – under the conditions of an artificially fashioned lifespan – cannot help but take this artificiality as its theme. Now, however, time, duration, and thus life as well cannot be presented directly but only documented. The dominant medium of modern biopolitics is thus bureaucratic and technological documentation, which includes planning, decrees, fact finding reports, statistical enquiries and project plans.

In Homo Sacer, Giorgio Agamben points out that the ‘bare life’ has yet to achieve any political and cultural representation. He proposes that we view the concentration camp as the cultural representation of the bare life, because its inmates are robbed of all forms of political representation – the only thing that can be said of them is that they are alive. But life in a concentration camp can be reported—it can be documented—although it cannot be presented for view. Art documentation thus describes the realm of biopolitics by showing how the living can be replaced by the artificial and how the artificial can be made living by means of a narrative (Agamben, 1995: pp.166ff :). And Foucault argues that biological existence is reflected in political existence for the first time in history in modern society: “Power would no longer be dealing simply with legal subjects over whom the ultimate dominion was death, but with living beings … it was the taking charge of life, more than the threat of death, that gave power its access even to the body” (Foucault, 1978: 143).

The Re-Imaging programme can thus be seen to link the artwork produced under the programme  into a contemporary notion of art which documents and narrativizes the artificial. It is necessary to recognize here strategies and relations of force. The King Billy replacement of the Eddy mural is an installation in a unionist locality of a document having the effect of the here and now of an historical event (in Benjamin’s usage). The narrative which accompanies it is inscribed into the life of the community. And this narrative is one of biculturalism, “…a traditional artwork on canvas of ‘King William of Orange’ as a traditional figure which reflects the Orange culture of that community and the village area’ (ibid). It thus removes the contestation that murals on either side of the contested axis were able to bring to one another. Either side is isolated in its own cultural paradigm.            For example a recurrent problem is the demand of Orange marchers to pass through nationalist areas such as Garvaghy Road, Portadown (which is the march depicted in the mural replaced with the Shankill A-Z mural). As recently as during the 2010 march uncontrolled violence broke out and petrol bombs were thrown. In the past republican murals have contested the Garvaghy Road march by confronted the march in a number of ways. One 1997 Portadown mural celebrated nationalist culture by portraying three Irish dancers. The image was repeated on the same wall the following year but in this instance it also included reference to the annual siege of the area by Orange marchers with an Orangeman with a petrol bomb towering over the three dancers. A few days later three young nationalist boys were burnt to death in a petrol bomb attack on their home in Ballymoney, the attack linked to the ongoing Drumcree march. ‘Not all traditions deserve respect’, noted another mural referring to the plight of the residents of Garvaghy Road. This mural is a commanding and complex image. A horseman cloaked and hooded in the style of the Ku Klux Klan, wearing the orange sash of the Orange Order, points to ancient Gaelic stones on an Ireland landscape. The stones bear the inscription: ‘Garvaghy’. Flames have burnt the sky. The red of flames and blood contrasts with the blanched skulls on the landscape. The figure on horseback parodies King Billy. This factor of parody which pivots on ironic transcontextualization is the primary indicator that the point of articulation is not the historical battle giving rise to the tradition but the contemporary violent descendant of that tradition. At the same time its conflictual structure follows the dramatic axis between the Drumcree march and sectarian murder. A vision of cultural justice is thus tensed to the anchored and reified referents posited as formative, namely the privilege infused in the tradition. But the dominant power is the one that manages to impose and thus to legitimate, indeed to legalize the interpretation that best suits it. Thus the Re-Imaging Programme invests this tradition with its own territorial specificity (“King William is not offensive to people in this area. It’s part of their legitimate Orange cultural heritage”). The new King Billy mural depicts the warrior in fine attire and mounted on his rearing horse. Painted in a style that is linked to a fine art tradition and which mimics the stereotypical pose of the hero warrior of old the paramilitary representation of the King is transposed back into the present. Here we find a biopolitical certified natural origin inscribing a new life into the existence of King Billy in history. But the bureaucratic narrative driving the imagery is isolated to a specific community and its own legitimacy thereby augmenting the binary between the two traditions.


Mural – Not all Traditions Deserve Respect

Duncan Morrow, chief executive officer of the Community Relations Council, the primary body responsible for funding and development of the Programme tries to shift responsibility for removing the city’s imagery onto the community. He claims the scheme is wholly reliant on interaction with the communities it involves. “There are two specific objectives,” he explains. “A negative one, which is taking down aggressive displays, but the more important one is actually engaging with communities to talk and to work through how they would like to see their own image portrayed how they could promote their community.”[8] This attempt at social engagement glibly avoids the violence that inheres in the Re-Imaging programme. Walter Benjamin has already shown us that material injury which inscribes itself in the history of the original carries with it less violence than destroying the original (removing the aura). He speaks not only of a loss of aura but of its destruction. And the violence of this destruction of aura is not lessened by the fact that the aura is invisible. On the contrary, a material injury to the original is less violent, in Benjamin’s view, because it still inscribes itself in the history of the original by leaving behind certain traces of its body. The destruction of the original by contrast produces an invisible and thus all the more devastating employment of violence because it leaves no material trace.

In this sense removing (destroying) the murals is the more important engagement than their replacement. Benjamin speaks of how the state tends to appropriate for itself and precisely through threat, a monopoly on violence (Critique of Violence). The removal of violent imagery can thus be seen to pivot on confrontation with the paramilitary discourse — that grounds its activities in history rather than as simply another form of textuality—as an emphatic defeat of that discourse. Thus although removing the provocation of violence in the Orange Order Drumcree mural for example shifts the discursivity of violence, the King Billy mural which replaces it is the very iconophilia which this community has deployed to transform the Battle of the Boyne into a rigid text of protestant ascendancy. The physical significance of violence and the possibility that it has established its own discursive formation thus remains unexamined in the new imagery. This means that the reimaged art-documented murals fail to map the violence in relation to the socio-political context in the way, for example the Garvaghy Road Portadown murals map the interchange of violence. The importance of these murals that map violence is that the possibilities and potentials that they evoke inversely suggest the possibility of resolving the conflict through reconciliation. But the Action Plan for the improvement of the disadvantaged undermines the vision of cultural justice by mediating an irreducible border of cultural difference.

The recent removal of two UVF murals and other territorial markings in the Springmartin area of West Belfast, identified as a disadvantaged protestant area, includes the landscaping of a disused green space with artwork in the form of three stone columns designed by a professional artist at a cost of £30,890. The new garden of reflection and sculpture highlight the history of the Battle of the Somme. The columns are dedicated to remembering the Battle of the Somme, and acknowledge losses from the surrounding areas of the 36th Ulster Division the 16th and 10th Irish Divisions. Also featured on the columns is a dedication to a local unit the West Belfast Volunteers who fought at the Somme. The Ulster Volunteer Force is interlocked organizationally and historically with the West Belfast Volunteers which recently formed a flute band. We find in these developments a performative celebration of the men and deeds of the Ulster Volunteer Force:

The West Belfast Volunteers Flute Band was formed in late 2003 by a group of young men from the Highfield, Springmartin and Shankill areas of Loyalist West Belfast in Remembrance of the men of the 36th Ulster Division (Ulster Volunteer Force), Ulster Special Service Force 1912, 9th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles 1914-1918, The Shankill Road Boys and The 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (The Young Citizen Volunteers) who gave their All For King, Country and Empire on the Blood Drenched Battlefields across Northern Europe during the Great War of 1914-1918.[9]

Dating back to the early part of the 20th Century the display and commemoration of the Battle of the Somme is associated with the iconophilia of King Billy and the triumphalism of protestant supremacy. But this is not a public memorial and statue commemorating a united nation state. In this and in the other examples referred to the emphasis is placed on aesthetic issues of design, style, conceptualisation, layout, siting, symbology and iconography, that is the how of the commemoration rather than the what. Much has been written about potential ways of distinguishing between monument and memorial. The most influential and frequently cited attempt at a definition remains that of art historian Arthur Danto, (1987) who declared that triumphalism (celebrating heroes and victories) is characteristic of monuments, whereas a memorial is a solemn precinct honouring the dead. This example and the others such as Drumcree and Tavanagh that I have referred to demonstrate therefore that although the new imagery replaces what might be described as art at war the new imagery comprises a monument to the triumphalism of loyalism-as mimic (in Homi Bahbha’s sense).

The effect is screened over with postmodern notions of multiculturalism and respect for diversity. It does not come as a surprise that a Miami artist Xavier Cortada who received sponsorship from the United States Department of State for a programme which supports the International Education Policy issued by President Clinton on April 19, 2000 travelled to Ireland to create what was described as a collaborative mural with and for the people of Northern Ireland.  A description of the artist’s work is given as follows:

Mr. Cortada uses a special technique that incorporates participant’s actual writings and drawings into his murals. Each person is asked to express himself or herself by writing or drawing on a separate piece of paper. These messages are then glued into three canvas panels around an image designed by Mr. Cortada himself. Through this method, voices are united by common concerns. Every participant is encouraged to write (preferably with permanent ink) or draw a message on one side of a piece of white paper no larger than 3 inches by 4 inches.  The messages will focus on how youth have learned to respect or celebrate diversity. [10]


Mural – Reimaging/ Xavier Cortada

The situation out of which this work emerges bears no reference to the north of Ireland context. Its semiotic content is open to synthetic contradiction, a text already written elsewhere, a nowhere land. Its reason apparently is not to generate unforeseen creativity but to reproduce a predefined focus: ‘to respect or celebrate diversity’. It is clearly more a case of the community being encouraged to endorse the preconceptions of the artist and the state funded policy with what they were doing rather than the other way around. The deployment of the messages invests the mural with universal notions such as ‘the uniqueness of the individual’, ‘the healing power of love and peace’, ‘the rich diversity of humankind’, ‘the values of Western civilisation’, ‘the rights of property’. The irony of liberal pragmatism’s advocacy of notions such as these will not be missed, particularly when it simultaneously elevates to absolute status values that are clearly relative, and takes for granted in post-modern style that diversity and plurality are always unequivocal goods.  If diversity, plurality, flexibility and inclusiveness can indeed be precious values, they are also as Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism has shown us the mantras of a late capitalism (in Jameson’s usage) which needs for its own purposes to break down barriers and loosen up old allegiances; and the true pluralists are those who feel the need to say both things together, rather than remain blind to the material basis of their own beliefs. The doctrine that honest doubt is preferable to firm conviction; that firm conviction is always only a heartbeat away from authoritarianism; that the truth generally lies in the middle; that there are no important conflicts in which one side must absolutely win and the other absolutely lose; that a readiness to compromise in the spirit of realism is always to be commended, and that resistance to this counsel is inherently a vice all of these abstract, inflexible, one-sided, grossly generalizing liberal dogmas must surely be thrown open to a genuinely free play of the mind.

Thus we see that the north of Ireland is suddenly ahistorical. Noticeably absent from this historiography is reference to the conflict that has pervaded Irish history from the Tudor invasions of the 16th century to the present which was so aptly contained in the images now being whitewashed.  The signage fails to interrogate the causes of conflict but propagandizes the opposite belief that the division is in the past—that is as if it never occurred. Each of the new murals features a small plaque showing what it replaced, which adds an element of triumphalism to the new mural. In a shift reminiscent of the progress made by the technique of the spectacle theorized by Guy Debord toward modernization and unification, together with all the other tendencies toward the simplification of society, the new Peace Agreement of 1998 is a sort of phenomenon, duly noted and dated and understood: a very simple sign, ‘the end of the Troubles’. Repeated over and over again this might well form the basis for a motto for the new Belfast: “On this spot nothing will ever happen – and nothing ever has”. Throughout this process of cultural incarceration the spectacle of the new imagery (the referent) reduces substantive issues of policy to mere symbolism under the veil of ‘the importance of creativity in all its manifestations and in our lives’ (the words of the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Councillor Naomi Long referred to above). Here we see organized consent and hegemonic control exercised through the technique (as understood by Foucault) of creativity which is portrayed as more than mere art, but as an inclusive commitment by all of society (all our lives) to a ‘creative’ renewal.

Implicit in this portrayal of the present as a ‘renewal’ is the destructive constraint of the past. But modern multicultural identities can be every bit as coercive and constraining as some pre-modern concepts of selfhood. It is evident for instance that the loosening grip of religion in Ireland fails properly to balance the precious gains of this secularization with the loss of a certain spirituality, as the country shifts from comely maidens to hard-faced executives. Not all nostalgia is self-indulgent. In some respects, the past was indeed superior to the present, just as in other respects the opposite is the case. Atavists and progressivists are alike tunnel visioned. Walter Benjamin managed to forge nostalgia into a revolutionary concept, aware that what stirs men and women to revolt are not dreams of liberated grandchildren but memories of oppressed ancestors.

It bears mention in regard to the art of the reimaged murals that the belief that the artist has a special calling, a talent which is necessarily revealed in the artist’s created work and which tells a truth transcending the truth of history is a position that has become increasingly old fashioned. Those who remain faithful to this position often are concerned to give their work a social justification, and thus to support their claim to a place inside history. To substantiate their sense of their own art as a form of political action, they at times invoke a romantic Marxism according to which false or bourgeois art, the art of the disintegrated consciousness with no vision of the future is opposed by true art – that is to say, the art of the true artist: the art that emerges from a dialectic between artist and people (between relevance and commitment), an art whose goal it is to transform society and move towards truth. According to this faith, in certain periods of history, during revolutionary phases for instance, the artist may thus have a subject dictated by the people without having to feel any loss of ‘artistic freedom’. During such times the artist responds to the dynamic of what Ernst Fisher calls a “collective consciousness” (Fischer, 1963: p. 47). However, this double discourse in which the artist bears both the role of lone Shelleyan visionary and voice of the people, is tied to the ideological binaries of aestheticism, a hierarchy of high art and popular art, one standard for the true artist, another for the rest; bedevilled by the individual need for self expression, a sacred place where the artist can draw sustenance from a vision of truth, it gains to itself the undesirable attempt to write the art into the era in order to claim an historical lineage of some sort and draw strength from it.


[1] On line at retrieved 11/08/10.

[2] On line at…/7282868.stm retrieved 10/10/09.

[3] On line at retrieved 05/11/10.

[6] On line at retrieved 13/08/10.


Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare life transl. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 1995.

Benjamin, Walter. Critique of Violence in Reflections, transl. Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books. 1978.

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Posted on March 11, 2013, in 21st century republicanism and socialism, British state repression (general), Censorship, Civil rights movement, Commemorations, Culture, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Partition, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, six counties, Social conditions. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Hello

    I would like to know if there is any special reason about this Iron Maiden’s Eddie on Loyalist murals?
    Were-Are Iron Maiden loyalists?

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