This grim-faced gunman staring out over a dreary housing estate in Northern Ireland is not an unusual sight in itself, given the popular tradition of paramilitary-inspired, gable-end "art" on houses across both sides of the sectarian divide in the British-run province.

But what's different about this one is that rather than the customary automatic weapon and hood, the hero is wielding a musket and clad in a buckskin coat.

Experts say the mural of American hero Davy Crockett - who died in the 1836 battle of the Alamo, helping Texas win independence from Mexico - is an attempt by hardline Protestants to clean up their militaristic image and reclaim their Ulster-Scots heritage.

"They're saying that this is where our origins are. This is where we come from ... our identity," said Bill Rolston, who has been studying the province's diverse murals for over 20 years.

But like everything else in Northern Ireland, politics is never far below the surface. An accompanying slogan reads: "They were the first to proclaim freedom in these United States."

Londonderry roots

Crockett's family originally hailed from south County Londonderry, which provided the impetus for a cultural group to sponsor the wall painting in Ballymoney, in the northeast of Northern Ireland.

And similar murals celebrating famous American presidents and generals with Ulster-Scots connections have sprung up all over the province as Protestant "loyalists" - so called because of their fiercely professed allegiance to the British Crown - strive to present a more positive image.

One even depicts the first US president, George Washington, who although not an Ulster-Scot, employed a number in his continental army in Virginia.

"If anything, the number and intensity of loyalist paramilitary images intensified after the loyalist ceasefire of 1994"

Bill Rolston,
Northern Irish murals expert

The transformation has taken the best part of ten years since loyalist guerrilla groups first announced a ceasefire in response to the nascent peace process.

"If anything, the number and intensity of loyalist paramilitary images intensified after the loyalist ceasefire of 1994," said Rolston. 
 
A warning to leaders 

This reflected a reluctance to be seen as putting down the gun for good at an early stage in the peace process, and also a warning to political leaders that a ceasefire did not necessarily mean an end to their "No Surrender" mantra.

"Apart from that anachronism or incongruity, it also looked quite pessimistic in asking the question of whether loyalists could change," added Rolston.

In contrast, muralists in Catholic neighbourhoods had always enjoyed far more artistic freedom than their loyalist counterparts.

Republicans were also able to draw on a vast reserve of Irish history and Celtic mythology for their muse, as well as expressing solidarity with other political struggles such as the Palestinians and East Timorese.

But a revival of interest in the Ulster-Scots heritage, fuelled by the 1998 landmark peace deal designed to end three decades of sectarian bloodshed, provided fresh inspiration for loyalists.

Originally of Scottish Presbyterian stock, the Ulster-Scots moved to the north of Ireland in the 17th century. An estimated quarter of a million of them emigrated to America during the next century, fleeing religious persecution and poverty.

Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, language and cultural rights for both communities in the province were given equal rights. The Ulster-Scots Agency was set up as a result.

Infighting

"The agency does not exist to help the peace process but the end result is that it is helping it by promoting the language and culture of the Ulster-Scots," said an agency spokeswoman.

Republicans were also able to draw on a vast reserve of Irish history and Celtic mythology for their muse, as well as expressing solidarity with other political struggles such as the Palestinians and East Timorese.

But other factors have also played a part in changing the iconography of loyalist murals.

Over the past year, a number of paramilitary murals have been painted over in the hardline Protestant Lower Shankill area of west Belfast.

This does not reflect a repudiation of violence but simply infighting within different loyalist factions, said Rolston.

"It looks positive but on the other hand they've only wiped out murals closely associated with Johnny Adair," he said, referring to the ousted west Belfast commander of the Ulster Defence Association.

"There has been some evidence of change but I would not exaggerate the extent nor say we will reach the point where paramilitary imagery will disappear on this side as it has on the other," said Rolston.