Painting a brighter future in Belfast - Al Jazeera English

Painting a brighter future in Belfast

By Billy Briggs

David Stitt rolls up a trouser leg, plants his leg on a table and then turns it slightly so we can see his calf muscle. He points to a prominent reddish scar about a couple of inches long and says in a thick Belfast accent: "That's where I was shot. And that one there was caused by a hand grenade exploding."

Stitt, a lean 39-year-old who wears a Rangers Football Club jersey, sits back down in his chair. He is an Ulster Loyalist, and a staunch one at that. So much so, in fact, that as a young man he was prepared to kill for his beliefs. He is a former member of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), a Loyalist paramilitary organisation formed in 1971 to counter Irish Republican paramilitaries.

The UDA's armed campaign during what became known in Northern Ireland as The Troubles lasted for more than 25 years until an official ceasefire was announced in November, 2007. During that time the group and its military wing, the Ulster Freedom Fighters (UFF), were responsible for the deaths of at least 259 people, the majority of whom were Catholics.

Stitt is candid about his role with the UDA. At the age of 21 he was sentenced to eight years in prison for conspiracy to murder and possession of a firearm. He was 28 when he was released and makes no apologies for his past. To some people he was a terrorist, to others a legitimate defender of his people. He was the type of man venerated by the hundreds of overtly militaristic murals that adorn walls and the gable ends of long terraces of red brick houses in Catholic and Protestant housing schemes across the province.

Snapshots of history

Offering a certain standpoint on a troubled period these striking artworks mark territories and tell the story of The Troubles from those affected. Indeed, the murals have become part of the fabric of many communities, reflecting a time and a place and offering snapshots of history. Today, they are major tourist attractions in their own right.

But a decade or so on from the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - as the Northern Ireland peace process stutters forward - there is clamour from many people to have some of the more contentious images removed.

An initiative launched in 2006 by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland called the Re-imaging Communities Programme has proved massively successful with 105 murals having been changed completely or toned down. Such was the success of the initial $5.2mn pilot scheme that a further $790,000 of funding was made available in October, 2008, in response to a raft of new inquiries.

However, despite the fact that the Arts Council has 49 projects to finish and another 85 new proposals, money is running out and with Northern Ireland facing severe cuts in public spending there is a fear the initiative may stall.

Flashpoints

Stitt, as with many former paramilitaries, has been pivotal to the peace process. A social science student at university these days, he turned his back on violence in 1997 and took part in the decommissioning talks as a representative of the UDA. Aside from his studies he works as an outreach officer with a post-conflict peace body called Charter for Northern Ireland and is a member of the Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium.

Once a man with a gun in his hand, Stitt now vies for peace. "I have three girls aged 21, 16 and one years old, and I don't want them to suffer the way that we did growing up. I had friends shot and killed so that's why I got involved with the UDA," he says.

Originally from Bangor, Stitt has been involved in the demilitarisation process and changing murals in both his hometown and in inner East Belfast where he now lives. He met us in a new building called 'shared space', which both local Catholics and Protestants use together.

The office block is on a main thoroughfare called Newtonards Road, in the shadow of the giant yellow cranes of the Harland and Wolff shipyard and close to a small Catholic enclave called the Short Strand. This is what is referred to as an interface, a flashpoint where Catholics and Protestants have battled each other for years.

Further up Newtonards Road there is a spot called Freedom Corner which is home to several imposing UDA murals. One portrays a masked man holding a Kalashnikov beside a logo which depicts the Red Hand of Ulster and the words "UFF. Formed 1973. East Belfast Brigade".

Retaining identities

Stitt takes us to another recently redesigned mural on the corner of Lendrick Street. It shows St Patricks Church and Stormont Castle alongside the words "War" and "Peace", written in red and as striking as any of the paramilitary acronyms we had just seen. The design reflects both the new and the old. Painted at the top are the words "Remember the Fallen", alongside a dozen or so red poppies, added as a tribute to locals who lost their lives during World Wars I and II.

It is a historical theme, Stitt explains, that has been pre-eminent for Protestant communities wishing to change murals.

"People said yes they wanted to move away from militaristic murals but also that they wished to retain their British identities through new ones," he adds.

The cranes of Harland and Wolff are also depicted and Stitt talks about the importance of the shipyard to Belfast and how proud the working class people of the city are to have built vessels such as the Titanic, Britannic and HMS Belfast. "They're now building wind turbines there, which is another sign of changing times," he says.

The ill fated Titanic is synonymous with Belfast and in June an enormous art piece was unveiled at the Short Strand/Newtonards Road interface to honour the steamship while at the same time replacing a contentious Loyalist mural. Designed by Irish artist Ross Wilson and entitled Ship of Dreams, the artwork celebrates the city's ship building tradition and replaces a memorial to victims of Republican paramilitary groups such as the IRA.

'Time for change'

The painting was highly controversial as it was close to a Catholic church and portrayed the image of a hooded priest clutching a bomb. It had been commissioned by a senior Loyalist figure from East Belfast called Jim Wilson when he was active in a terrorist unit called the Red Hand Commandos, a proscribed group linked to the outlawed Ulster Volunteer Force.

Both the UVF and RHC supported the signing of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and in June, 2009, they finally announced that they had formally decommissioned their arms.

It was a move that Wilson could never have contemplated when he took up arms as a teenager in the 1970s but the 58-year-old was later involved in the peace negotiations and has been involved in the Re-Imaging programme too. He has received criticism, however, for his role in the latter.

"I got some stick for changing the Loyalist mural from one of the victims' relatives but I explained that I felt it was time to move on. This doesn't mean that we'll forget the people who were killed, not at all, it's just that it's time for change," he explains when we meet at Ship of Dreams.

Wilson became involved with the paramilitaries at the age of 19 and was detained as an internee at "Long Kesh" (HMP Maze) without trial for several weeks. Now, as a member of the Belfast Conflict Resolution Consortium, he regularly meets with his former Republican adversaries - the people he once would have shot in the blink of an eye - to oil the wheels of the peace process.

"It doesn't make me any less a Loyalist and vice versa and now I understand more about Republicans. Top Loyalists and top Republicans sitting together, people who were trying to kill each other, who would have thought, but that's the way forward," he says.

Strained budgets

Across the city in Ardyone, north Belfast, there is also a realisation that peace can benefit all and Republican murals are being changed to reflect the new mood.

Eilish McKenna works with a body called the Ardoyne Association and her office is in a part of the city that became notorious around the world in 2001.

The Holy Cross dispute made international headlines when local sectarian tensions erupted and young Catholic girls - in the face of Loyalist attacks - had to be escorted by riot police to Holy Cross Primary School.

McKenna takes us on a tour of Ardoyne in her car and we drive up to Holy Cross School passing Loyalist homes on the way. Houses closest to the interface are splattered with paint and windows are protected by heavy wire meshing. There is tension here, but McKenna says that Protestant-Catholic relations have improved remarkably in recent years although they remain two divided communities.

Ardoyne was awarded $48,000 from the Re-Imaging programme and four political murals in the locality have recently been changed. McKenna says there were no objections. One of the most contentious murals related to the Holy Cross issue likened the episode to the infamous Little Rock High School incident of 1957 in Arkansas, US, when segregationists tried to prevent black children attending a school.

The replacement eschews politics. It has the words "Value the laughter of children" and "We believe the children are the future" alongside the badges of 11 schools and a Celtic design as a backdrop. McKenna says it is progress but there is still much to do.

"Mary McAleese, the Irish president, came to unveil it and we have been inundated with requests from people wanting to do something similar. But the Northern Ireland Assembly is talking about 25 per cent cuts in public expenditure so unless more funding is obtained then we fear the project will end," she adds.

A message to dissidents

Our next destination is a place called Drumbeg, Brownlow, in the Craigavon area of County Armagh. It is a powder keg place and a stones throw away from Lismore Manor where policeman Stephen Carroll was shot dead last March. He was the first member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to be killed in a suspected terror attack in the province for 12 years.

Inside Drumbeg we are welcomed by an Irish tricolour that flutters in the wind on top of a tall flagpole which has the letters CIRA (Continuity Irish Republican Army) attached horizontally.

Our guide is Marion Weir, Re-Imaging officer with Craigavon Borough Council, who introduces us to local people working at the Drumbeg Reminiscence Sculpture Garden. The site is part of the project and sits on a small hill on the estate overlooking a roundabout that was once an interface.

"Youths used to gather on this hill to fight the police all the time so we wanted to do something positive and engage local people. Then a priest was brought into bless the ground and make it sacred so now the kids generally won't abuse it," Weir says.

She introduces us to locals Tommy Sheridan and Ian Astle who take us to a new mural directly opposite the CIRA flagpole. It is a mosaic of 24 Celtic squares with the names of the children who helped design it. It is in stark contrast to a memorial stone a couple of hundred yards away which also bears the names of local teenagers. The plaque remembers three people - Katrina Rennie, 17, Eileen Duffy, 19, and Brian Frizzell, 29 - who were shot dead by the UVF in an incident in 1991 that became known as the mobile sweet shop triple murder.

"The people here don't ever want these type of things happening here again," says Astle, adding that locals from Drumbeg now have better relations with people living on the nearby Parkmore estate, a Protestant area.

Sheridan nods as his friend speaks. "Times are changing and we don't want to be dragged back to the past," he says.

Still, there is a tiny minority in Northern Ireland who do hark back to The Troubles. On July 12, the date of an annual event held by the Orange Order to mark King William of Orange's 1690 Battle of the Boyne victory over King James II, Nationalist Ardoyne erupted into violence when youths rioted for four consecutive nights in protest at a contentious Orange Order parade.

More than 80 police officers were injured in dramatic scenes that were broadcast around the world. It would be a mistake, though, to assume that Belfast was returning to the bad old days. Hundreds of people gathered in Ardoyne a few days later to protest against the riots and as with the people we met in Drumbeg and Parkmore they advocated peace and echoed the sentiments of former gunmen, Stitt and Wilson.

The latter - once a man prepared to kill - has a message for dissidents - both Loyalists and Republicans: "Where are you going? Society has moved on and my community doesn't want violence and neither do the Republicans. It's time for change."

MORE FROM AL JAZEERA
Nepal: The Maoist dream

Nepal: The Maoist dream

Nepal's bloody civil war ended in 2006 when a Comprehensive Peace Accord was signed between the Maoist rebels and the Nepali state in Kathmandu. Many people have disappeared or got killed during the war. Al Jazeera tells this story through the eyes of the Nepali people.

War & Conflict, Nepal, Asia

MUST-SEE PROGRAMMES