The Politics of Image

As mentioned before I have been walking by and through the Sandy Row neighborhood throughout the last ten days taking stock, exploring and pondering. The streets, like all Protestant Unionist neighborhoods, are decked with Union Jacks and the three colors of loyalism bunting crossing the sky. Sandy Row is infamous for its balaclava-donned UVF gunman solemnly welcoming you to the neighborhood. The wording is very much like the commemorative wall in the Bogside. Welcome to Free Derry.

The push is on all over Belfast to remake the terrorist imagery on the broadsides of buildings in a less villianistic proportion. The Catholic neighborhoods have been effective in this process. They have turned their messages to acknowledge similar leftist social justice causes around the globe. Guernica. The politically disenfranchised Cuban population. Palestine. Global warming in the developing world.

When communicating their own history, murals have turned into their story of struggle or celebrating their cause for political standing in the North. The potato famine. The Falls Curfew in 1970. Gaelic sports like hurling and football.

I have noticed the political cohesion in Catholic Republican neighborhoods. Most people have told me I am spot on. Historically Sinn Fein and the IRA have had a cozy relationship. In most cases during the Troubles, the IRA simply carried out the guerilla war agenda of the Republican ideal. Sinn Fein worked the on the political side of things. Once seen as a radical left political party, Sinn Fein has gained seats in Stormont and momentum as the party of the people in Northern Ireland ever since Hunger Striker Bobby Sands won an election while in prison. Almost every neighborhood in Belfast has a Sinn Fein office. The tie between the people and the party is apparent and this has helped Sinn Fein establish itself the voice of the working class and poor.

Not long ago the murals in Catholic neighborhoods were also branded with a terrorist feel. Gunmen peering through balaclavas was not unique to Sandy Row or the Shankill. But the face of this public artwork has changed to reflect the people, not the war. It is a manner of distancing themselves politically and morally from an ugly conflict with its impossible victories. This push has been made easier as the IRA has lost its grip of violence on the neighborhoods and Sinn Fein can act as the moral safeguard.

In Protestant Unionist communities, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) have existed since the beginning of political separation of Ireland and Northern Ireland in 1921. Politically, these two parties have shared votes, voices and neighborhoods in these areas. Coincidentally, the Ulster Defense Alliance (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Fighters (UVF) took up arms as neighborhood defense regiments during the Troubles. So politically and militarily, neighborhoods like the Shankill have been divided along these lines. And in the choppy wake of the Troubles, the political mouthpieces advocating for these areas have not been as effective in galvanizing a community wide vision for these areas in the way Sinn Fein has. Especially when it comes to the artwork.

On Monday though, a major hurdle had been cleared for the Sandy Row. At the community unveiling one speaker noted that tourists would walk across the Boyne Bridge to snap a photo of the mural’s sinister welcome and turn away from the shops lining Sandy Row. This is an opportunity to regenerate the mural itself but also the community in connecting the history of King Billy to the present. It is noted in history that King Billy marched with his troops through Sandy Row on his way to the Battle of the Boyne. Therefore the image of their beloved King is not just an artistic gesture. It is the story of the neighborhood.

The mural captures the famous quote King Billy had for his young troops that day. “Let ambition fire thy mind.” For the Sandy Row, this ambition is to cling onto the caboose of the financial train Belfast is becoming. The city is attracting tourists like never before. Well, because no one had ever come to Belfast aside from war correspondents from 1970-1998. So in the last fifteen years, along with the cherished peace money flooding war ravaged neighborhoods, the financial impact of touring these notoriously paramilitary-haunted neighborhoods has regenerated places tourists had never been even before the Troubles.

The press was there to see it. The community celebrated with tea and scones. And at 10 AM on a Monday teenagers were nowhere to be found.

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