The Cupar Way ‘Peace Wall’ – the fairness of British justice?

by Irvine Forgan

“He was a bad scribe because in reality he was ‘remaking’ the text” — Antonio Gramsci

This discussion focuses the signifying and ideological values articulated in the contrasting instances of the euphemistically named ‘peace walls’ and modes of mural expression. Although each instance is distinct from the other they contain mutually affecting variables.

With their arrival in the north of Ireland in 1969 the British army constructed sand banks along lines separating Catholic and Protestant residential areas in west Belfast and areas of Derry. [1]  These frontiers have in the present time reconfigured as invitations for the communities’ to cooperate in building hegemonic legitimacy of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.  However a code precluding the formation of a collective identity between nationalist Catholic neighbourhoods and loyalist Protestant ones is written into the peace wall discourse inasmuch as its conflictual structure invites the community on either side to contest the other through asserting its own narrative. This becomes evident in the discord between the postmodern rhetoric of diversity, inclusiveness, and liberation of personal taste attributed to the cultural discourse in the new Northern Ireland, and the prescriptive policies and programmatic strategies prescribed by the new law of the Belfast Agreement. One such programme strategy inures the discourse through the aesthetic themetization of the peace walls with state sponsored imagery. The return to popular taste strategized in the imagery produced on these walls is in fact a state sponsored mise-en scene.

On the Bombay Street side of the Cupar Way wall, many Catholic houses and businesses back directly on to the wall. Metal grids provide limited protection to these homes and businesses. The site of the Clonard Memorial and Bombay Street mural which engages with the violent events of August 1969 that occurred in the street and elsewhere in Belfast is located against the wall on this side. The mural, painted on the gable end of the rebuilt terraced estate in Bombay Street, prior to the introduction of the re-imaging programme explores the violence that occurred in the street and surrounding areas during August 1969. Angry red flames leap from burning homes; a woman holds a child to her bosom; figures are shown in silhouette. A photograph of the innocent face of a young boy Gerald McCauley is shown in an oval frame with the writing alongside—Dedicated to the memory of Fianna Gerald McCauley. Below, in the format of a film strip, reproduced photographs show burned out homes, grey building rubble and a deserted street. These images contrast sharply with the red and orange flames and provide narrativized access to the aftermath of the violence. Above the scene are the words in bold—Bombay Street Never Again.


Fig. 70 Bombay Street mural


On Belfast’s map, Bombay Street is a site of particular significance, recognized as a site which embodies whole histories of conflict in Ireland and Northern Ireland. The mural is interlocked with both the Clonard Martyrs Memorial garden located alongside the mural (the rear wall of the memorial is in fact the lower part of a “peace wall” on Cupar Way) and the annual parade during August of the The Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in recollection of the events of 15th August 1969.  However, the anchorage to closure which would arguably reduce the mixture of the imagery, the memorial garden and the procession to a commemoration is undermined by the provisionality of this context in which the conflictual structure of these performances follows the axis between self determination and imperial control; this is reflected in the polarization of the two main protagonists; the nationalist/republican on the Bombay Street side and the unionist/loyalist on the Shankill side.


Clonard Martyrs Memorial backing onto the Cupar Way Wall

Clonard Martyrs Memorial backing onto the Cupar Way Wall


Cupar Way Wall – before the Re-Imaging Programme

Cupar Way Wall – before the Re-Imaging Programme


In contrast with the Bombay side of Cupar Way, The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) have painted paramilitary emblems, union jacks, armed militant figures, images of Lord Carson, who led resistance to Irish Home Rule, and reproductions of traditional brick houses on the Cupar Way wall on the Shankill side of the wall. Testimonials to those who died at the Somme during the First World War and pictures of Orangemen are shown.


irvine 4


Although the cease fire has mostly put a halt to paramilitary violence, the UVF military emblem must be read against the background of the organization’s formation. It was the loyalist paramilitary organisation formed in 1966, the UVF which launched the attack on Bombay Street in 1969and which vowed to destroy Irish republicanism and warned off ‘speeches of appeasement’. Sarah Nelson, in her investigation of loyalism reports that a UVF founding statement from 1966 reads as follows: ‘from this day, (21 May 1966) we declare war against the IRA and its splinter groups. Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation . . . we solemnly warn the authorities to make no more speeches of appeasement. We are heavily armed Protestants dedicated to this cause’ (Nelson, 1984: p. 61).

During 2009, and in close proximity to the UVF paintings, three paintings funded by Northern Ireland’s Department of Arts, Culture and Leisure were unveiled along the Cupar Way wall as part of a European Union-funded initiative to promote ‘shared cultural space’. The project was commissioned by the Greater Shankill Partnership, a group aiming to create an outdoor art gallery and provide a platform for the heritage and culture of the area’s Protestant residents.[2] These initial pieces highlighted twentieth-century Shankill Road home life and military service, themes of history, references to traditional loyalist rituals such as bonfires, alongside local residents’ portraits. Since then, three more artworks have been added as part of the ‘If Walls Could Talk’ project[3]. These include: ‘The Face’, a metalwork relief meant to reflect the area’s heritage as a key source of labour in Belfast’s industrial past; ‘Changing Faces’, which focuses on the area as moving forward through images of old paramilitary murals juxtaposed with playful renderings of football players, good-looking girls and Union Jacks; and a multi-panel piece inspired by the work of the Northern Irish poet John Hewitt.

The Face

The Face


Artist Kevin Killen gave voice to the programme: “The Face relates to the themes of Belfast industries. Working with the young adults in Impact Training, we designed and fabricated the artwork. Being a part of the project was rewarding and insightful to everyone involved. As the group was a part of the process from start to finish they have developed ownership of the artwork, which is an important benefit. I hope that the artwork gives pride to all the participants involved in the project.”

This explanation ignores the historic legacy of structural inequality within the working class between catholic and protestant that favoured protestant ascendancy and excluded catholic’s from many sectors of employment. The transfer of agency to the Shankill Impact Training group is one that entrenches this historical division. The Face does not foretell of a united future but rather conflates the aesthetic thematization of cultural capital with the political discourse of the Belfast Agreement. Its ‘formalized’ aestheticism contains iconophilic sanctuary for safe and easy evasion of the underlying elements of poverty and class differentiation. These examples of a political practice that deploys imagery to dominate social convention strategize 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.



The Hewitt Mural


Although the Hewitt mural is an attractive addition to the wall, it is difficult to assess whether it contributed to a ‘shared cultural space’ as suggested by the funding programme or is embraced by the wider ‘community’ (the Greater Shankill has a population of more than 20,000). The unveiling was sparsely attended (roughly two dozen people were present) and consisted mainly of individuals affiliated with the project or city council aides. Of the more than a dozen residents who lived near the wall, none reported being invited to the event, despite repeated assertions at the unveiling that it was fundamentally a ‘community’ project. Within months, it had been written over with graffiti. By April 2011, the sinister imperative – ‘Kill Republicans’ – appeared spray-painted in large letters further down along this same wall, thus raising persistent questions about the collective nature of this space.



Defaced panel of the Hewitt mural



Publicly funded artwork on the Cupar Way wall


In addition to the publicly-financed artworks on the wall, an estimated 500,000 tourists a year[4]  can also take in the  unofficial art – a mix of cartoons, peace messages and standardized tagging, produced during international graffiti jam sessions and organized with help from an ex-loyalist paramilitary member and the ex-prisoners’ association which employs him. The graffiti does not have official permission to be placed on the wall, which is under the purview of Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice, and a tense relationship exists between the organizers of the publicly-funded art – mounted on movable panels in the event that the wall is ever demolished – and those who spearhead the graffiti work. Both sides claim that the other’s artistic product does not truly reflect the Shankill identity but for all that the graffiti painters have mostly not defaced the public paintings and so mounted a challenge to the publicly constructed identity.



Graffiti on Cupar Way


Today, despite the existence of a peace agreement, the surrounding Shankill area continues to suffer from the presence of paramilitaries as well as high levels of unemployment and low percentages of residents with educational qualifications. Prior to the cease fire the Shankill estate had been abandoned and become derelict. The derelict estate was demolished and a new neighbourhood constructed some distance back from the street. The new neighbourhood which is now located behind the two metre metal railing fence faces towards Cupar Way and the eight metre wall. It features a mix of private and public housing stock, a small locked memorial park to a young victim of suicide, a heavily fortified football pitch, and a large derelict field. The field is notable as the scene of an annual 11 July loyalist bonfire that marks the 1690 victory of the Protestant King William of Orange over the Catholic King James II at the Battle of the Boyne. During this annual ritual, effigies of the Pope and coffins draped in Irish tricolours have gone up in flames. More ordinary activity along the wall consists of vehicular traffic, dog-walking, occasional runners and yobs stone and bottle-throwing. But residents mostly assert that the primary use of the space is as a ‘back road’ to ‘take traffic off the Shankill’.

These fragmented signifiers are subordinate to the institutional structures of the new dispensation and reflect the political and communal divisions that were the basis of the crisis in Northern Ireland – that is to say that the structuration of the conflict remains intact. The political objective is undeniably to construct a Northern Ireland cultural identity as the nearest possible replica of the framing discourse of the United Kingdom that can be easily inscribed in the new capitalist international order. The symbolic referent for this replica is not a monument or material structure or painting, but rather the signifier of the fairness of British justice. The basic strategy of this ideology can be said to operate in the following manner: If the United Kingdom has already managed to unite all contradictions under the sheltering roof of its own thinking, what could be the point of partisanly advocating just one of these contrary positions [5]

Michel Foucault has already shown that in modernity the existence of power is productive, producing not negative effects but a new reality: “We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of modern power in negative terms: it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’- In fact power produces reality” (M Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison 1977:  p. 194[6]

In their enquiry reflecting on three decades of formal and public enquiry in the north of Ireland, In the Full Glare of English Politics: Ireland, Inquiries and the British State, Bill Rolston and Phil Scranton observe that Foucault’s early writings on truth and official discourse were criticized as over-deterministic, reducing ‘truth’ solely to the expression of institutional power so that  if ‘free spirits’ and independent thinking could not produce alternative truths, what constituted the foundations of dissent, opposition and resistance? But, they argue recognizing that ‘truth’ is not confined to imposition ‘from above’, i.e. it is not the prerogative of defining institutions and it carries multiple expressions in the micro and immediate worlds of social action, interaction and reaction, does not invalidate the proposition that the state has the capacity to impose its régime of truth on its citizens, particularly in those sites of intervention where state authority and political legitimacy are challenged.

Kevin Bean The New politics of Sinn Féin likewise points towards this reality making process by showing that the conflict between the politics of difference and the politics of universalism is fully reflected in the public and political sphere in Northern Ireland. Conflicting identities are widely perceived to be the central dynamics of political and cultural conflict in the region, subsuming and marginalizing other explanations rooted in universal categories such as class. As the dominant power in the region, the British state’s framing discourse stresses the fundamental duality of the conflict, and emphasizes that political structures should ensure equality between the two traditions.  It is this understanding that shapes the public sphere, rather than the aim of constructing an alternative political space to the particularized structures of republicanism and unionism. He states: “Attempts at political settlement since the 1970’s have been rooted in these politics of difference, and have been designed to manage rather than resolve conflict”. He notes that the Good Friday Agreement bestowed equal legitimacy on two fundamentally conflicting republican and unionist aspirations, reflecting not “ simply a skilful piece of political legerdemain but also the absorption of political discourse into a cultural framework (Bean, 2007: pp. 158/159).

The technique of diversity of aesthetic forms provides British power with the internal space to isolate and distract from the national question of self determination by stressing questions of belonging and culture. In Terrorism and Modern Literature, Alex Houen refers favourably to Bill Rolston for whom postmodernism poses problems for Northern Ireland not as descriptive terms, but as a prescriptive policy: ‘All the buzzwords of postmodernism are apparent in the utterances of those associated with the Community relations Council and the Cultural Traditions group – ‘tolerance’, ‘diversity’, and of course, the rejection of such essentialist notions as ‘the nation’ (cited in Houen, 2002: p. 243). From this perspective, Houen observes, postmodern policies are available as a strategy to prevent Irish nationalists, for example, from contesting that the regions ‘multi-cultural diversity’ remains firmly lodged within a UK framework. Hence underlying the heterogeneity of multiculturalism, the plurality of the individual artistic mural projects throughout the city, is an invisible hand censoring and combining these projects according to its own vision of the ideologically appropriate mix. Accordingly an alternative way of reading the new Northern Ireland is to see it as a physical plan in which contesting narratives pivot on structural reconfigurations that isolate and neutralize their agency. This would suggest that postmodern state policies will gain hold and override cultural memory which with a consequential loss of cultural skills in reading it is in danger of becoming forgotten. The reimaging and rebranding programmes strategize this cultural consumption pattern as a means of collapsing the political projects of the community with cultural demands and hence we find that the language of political discussion has shifted from concepts of power, authority, class and legitimation to the area of culture and identity resulting in parity of esteem being privileged over national self determination and building a nation state.

And whereas once republican and loyalist political wall paintings offered a way of mapping the political crisis, the walls now do so. This is not a move towards abstraction, for the naming and coding of the city is also linked to powers of surveillance. Whereas on the one hand the streets and walls have their own material potential, on the other security forces use virtual surveillance technology, cameras and helicopters to monitor the community. Both the paintings on the walls and the observation technology are thus deployed to control the shape of events. Counter-terrorism here means securing a dominance of the virtual over the material. Yet they are ontologically distinct and retain their own potentials.


Bean, Kevin. The New Politics of Sinn Féin. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. 2007.

Christie, Nils. Limits to Pain. Oxford: OUP. 1981.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish, transl. Sheridan, A. New York: Random House. 1977.

Houen, Alex. Terrorism and Modern Literature from Joseph Conrad to Ciaran Carson. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2002.


[1] With time the sand banks were replaced with brick walls. In 1994 when the cease fire was declared there were 26 walls (euphemistically named ‘peace lines’) in Greater Belfast. According to a report by the Community Relations Council (CRC) in Northern Ireland this number has multiplied since the agreed ceasefire to a total 99 permanent walls. Metal sheeting, often topped with wire fencing has been used to raise their height sometimes to a height well over 8 metres. The walls are made of brick, iron and steel and have been strategically located to cut through Catholic and Protestant dormitories often penetrating the estates immediately up against resident’s homes. They are armed with surveillance equipment aimed at the homes and surrounding areas. Housing redevelopments and relocations have been framed around the barriers; motorways have been strategically rerouted to form a division between the city centre and these residential areas, particularly that of West Belfast; ‘peace walls’ on one edge of enlarged streets form a bulwark in residential areas. Solid metal gates prevent the flow of traffic along streets which cross protestant and catholic areas.

[2] The Re-imaging Programme is funded by the Shared Communities Consortium, led by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, and comprising OFMDFM, DSD, DCAL, Community Relations Council, PSNI, SOLACE (Society of Local Authority and Chief Executives), The Department of Justice, International Fund for Ireland and NI Housing Executive.

[3] Roz Small from the Greater Shankill Partnership explains this policy as follows: “The ‘If Walls Could Talk’ project focuses on the installation of world class public art pieces on the oldest and probably most foreboding peace walls in Belfast at Cupar Way. This wall has become a ‘must see’ for visitors to Belfast. With an estimated 500,000 visitors per year, it provides the perfect canvas to challenge people’s perception of the Shankill. It also showcases the rich history and heritage of the area and its community in the form of public art works that illustrate the social, industrial and cultural history of the Greater Shankill. The Face is an important addition to the project being the first to focus primarily on the significant contribution the Shankill made to the Industrial past of Belfast. retrieved 10 October 2013

[5] Institutional devolution has resulted in a textbook integration of Northern Ireland into mainstream thought about British politics which now discuss common issues in terms of the UK’s territorial diversity. As Professor Roy Foster noted, “the dominant theme of Irish history in the last thirty years has been the cementing of partitionism and the institutionalising of twenty-six-county nationalism. At the beginning of the 21st century Northern Ireland is just as firmly entrenched in the UK (maybe more so, in fact) and Ireland as far away from reunification”(reported in Irish News, 5 July 2010).

[6] Nils Christie shows that the state establishes a ‘shield of words’ as an effective means of disguising the character of its activities. Within the criminal justice process for example the ‘person to be punished’ becomes a ‘client’, the ‘prisoner’ becomes an ‘inmate’, a ‘cell’ becomes a ‘room’ and ‘solitary confinement’ becomes ‘single-room treatment’ (1981: p. 13). Hence it is no surprise that ‘peace wall’ replaces rampart, re-imaging replaces the political wall paintings.


Posted on November 30, 2015, in British state repression (general), Censorship, Civil rights movement, Commemorations, Culture, Democratic rights - general, General revolutionary history, Historiography and historical texts, Irish politics today, Political education and theory, Provos - then and now, Repression and resistance in 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Repression and resistance in the six counties today, Unionism, loyalism, sectarianism. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. interesting, original article – thanks

  2. for the background as to why the peace walls were needed please see
    the post includes the following witness statement:

    One story, later recounted by Jimmy Burns, from Ballymurphy, would encompass much of the haplessness that awaited them:

    “One of the most harrowing sights I remember was up in St Aiden’s. I
    went up there to find out where we could get provisions. There was an
    old man and an old woman in the school and they were in shock. They
    couldn’t speak. In their lifetime it was the fifth time they had been
    burned out of their home by loyalists. If there had been a photographer
    to take a picture of yon grey-haired old woman … She had been burned
    out as a child; she had been burned out along with her own children;
    and she was now burned out again after her children had their children.
    This was her whole life”

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