The news that yet another mural in Belfast that had previously been changed from a paramilitary display to something more broadly ‘cultural’ (in this case, famed footballer George Best), has now been changed back to a violent display of a masked gunman, is causing concern to both local residents and local elected officials as well. A report from the BBC can be read here:
And here’s a video report from the BBC:
Because of my experience in the field of post-conflict reconciliation in Northern Ireland, a few things stood out to me in the two reports, though they weren’t particularly unusual. Firstly, there was the condemnation of the act with local politicians making clear their disappointment and dismay. Secondly, the representatives described the ‘huge public outcry’ regarding the mural, making clear that the vast majority of people in the area did not want it. Thirdly, there is the hope that (according to the PUP’s John Kyle) through local engagement carried out ‘without intimidation or without any threats’, local people might be able to ‘say what they would like in terms of their street art and public art.’
Finally, almost as an afterthought, there is the confirmation from an anonymous source from Belfast City Council that the council was ‘unaware’ of any plans to change the mural.
Most jarring to me, however, was the resignation expressed at the end of the BBC video, intimating that that local people’s ‘changed view’ of ‘a gunman rather than a goal scorer’ will undoubtedly be there for some time.
While it’s probably not fair to expect in-depth analysis from short news stories, I think it’s worth noting what is not in the reports- and I believe should be part of any discussion of this issue that is to come. First, there is no mention of what action, if any, will be- or indeed, could be- taken regarding the mural. Also, there is no mention of who would be responsible for considering and/or taking such action- the council? The police? Local people themselves? To be sure, there is a vague invocation of hoping that discussion with local people about the look and feel of their neighbourhood will take place, but little else.
In addition, the video report talks about how such violent displays have recently ‘appeared’, which I feel makes them sound like unavoidable nuisances, like weeds or dry rot. The fact is, people painted this mural; people who live among us. They did so illegally, without permission from the owners of the building. Those points usually don’t come up in these discussions, as law-breaking of this kind is so common as to have become thoroughly commonplace.
Finally, there is no real discussion about what effect, if any, this particular mural is having on the local community, on Belfast as a whole, or on the entire peace process itself. Could it be said that this mural and others like it are doing something so damaging or dangerous that it must be dealt with immediately?
Considering that, in 2011, two unauthorised UVF murals were newly painted on the Newtonards Road, and the reporting in the local media, right down to the condemnation from local people and politicians, was nearly identical to this recent story, I believe that we can safely draw the conclusion that, no- no one is sure what to do, who should do it or if anything particularly needs to be immediately done.
Make no mistake; there are official actions that could be taken. When you consider that a mural in memory of the late DJ John Peel, featuring a lyric from ‘Teenage Kicks’ by the Undertones, was unceremoniously- to the outrage of many- removed from a city centre overpass by the Department for Social Development (DSD) in June, we know that local government does indeed feel itself able to take action against public displays that it deems not to be in the public interest. This should lead us to ask, will the DSD take such action against this new mural, or the ones on the Lower Newtonards Road, and if not, why not?
As a reconciliation activist, I believe that this new mural- particularly because of where it is, what it displays and when it was painted- does real damage to us all. At this stage in Northern Ireland’s process away from civil conflict and toward some form of transformed, shared society, the ugly reality that illegal armies can still - with impunity- publicly advertise in many areas of Northern Ireland their might, their power and their determination to, if pushed, commit acts of violence against local people and law enforcement- should be worrying to us all. Every one of these new displays, as well as all of the actions, disorders or illegal events, no matter how isolated, damages the chances of any semblance of a shared future. Each one is like a cigarette inhaled into deeply damaged lungs- and we’ll never know which cigarette tipped our condition over into being inoperable.
The question for me as both a theologian and a reconciliation activist comes down to, what do we do? What is the role of the people, particularly the people of faith? Do they have any role to play, any action to take?
The vision of Christianity that inspires me most is the radical strain that runs through its history- the radical, nonviolent reflection and direct action of Tolstoy, Bonheoffer, the Catholic Worker movement, the Ploughshares movement, Quaker activists, Dr. Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Solentiname and the Base Christian Communities under the oppressive regimes of Central and South America. These groups and individuals, at great personal risk- and personal loss- pointed to a Christian vision of witness and resistance against fear, intimidation, oppression and violence. They declared that the Kingdom of God was among us, in the person of Christ made flesh by his church.
Now, regardless of the personal bravery and vision of several key individuals and groups during Northern Ireland’s civil conflict, any fair assessment of the churches in Ireland and Northern Ireland will show that this type of reflection and action was not be found in any large quantities; it’s in even shorter supply since the ceasefires and thereafter. Church attendance continues to dwindle and the churches’ strong, vocal stand against violence has not helped them overcome their embedded place in Northern Ireland’s vast sectarian social construct, nor have they been particularly creatively dedicated to transcending it. So, I am not naive or ill-informed to such a degree to think that radical, grassroots social activism is about to burst forth from Ireland’s ecclesial structures.
Still, visions must be spoken out loud.
At the very least, could the Christians of Belfast- across the denominations- inundate Belfast City Council and the Department of Social Development with letters, phone calls, emails, tweets and Facebook pages, demanding they take action against this mural? Four simple words, over and over: ‘In God’s name, PAINT!’
Or, much further out on the edge, could a dedicated number of Christians in Belfast- clergy, laypeople, men, women and children from all denominations- after earnest reflection, planning, organising and prayer, be willing to vigil in front of this new mural, for an hour a day? What if local Christians in their hundreds showed up with paint and rollers and took direct action against the mural? Would our politicians and the PSNI guarantee their safety, both on the day of the action and afterwards? Having lived for many years in areas of Belfast where the police often did not respond to calls for help or assistance in the face of intimidation and threat- and when they did, it might be an hour or so later, with very little support given- I have my own doubts. But if political representatives and law-enforcement were indeed unable or unwilling to guarantee the safety of local people taking action in their own area against intimidating and threatening symbols, that opens up serious questions regarding our democracy and our rule of law.
Wherever our reflection and action take us, the people of faith must remember that the Gospel of Jesus will always be a Gospel of hope in the midst of a hopeless situation.
It is crazy and unreasonable, out of the ordinary and disrupting.
It is transformation of the status quo; it is new creations and all things made new.
It is the people of God, full of love, courage and the Holy Spirit.
It might be a dozen tins of paint. It is most certainly the people of faith- publicly united together in love, courage, determination and joy.
It could be the Good News for which many in Belfast wait...