Take a tour of Belfast's eeriest works of public art.
Among the first things you’ll notice as you walk around the working-class neighborhoods of Belfast, Northern Ireland, are the murals. In the areas around Shankill Road or Falls Road, buildings are coated with vibrant and violent depictions of paramilitary men clad in black, clutching RPGs or assault rifles, their faces obscured by balaclavas. Today, they seem out of place with their surroundings. It’s not unusual to see small children playing in front of towering pictures of men toting submachine guns.
These works of propaganda are remnants of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, the 30-year conflict between Catholic republicans (a minority that wanted to see Northern Ireland unified with the Republic of Ireland), and Protestant unionists (a majority that wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom). Concentrated in sectarian neighborhoods, these works of art make it clear where Northern Ireland’s political and religious boundaries lie.
The pieces are disquieting, to say the least. A mural in a republican neighborhood may honor people who were killed, while a mural in a unionist neighborhood one mile away may honor the people who did the killing. A handful of works openly refer to “the enemy”—people who may live just blocks away. Contrasted with their surroundings, the murals evoke an awkward dissonance: Today, downtown Belfast is vibrant, bustling, and safe, while the murals harken back to a time when the city was anything but.
Now, it’s a popular tourist activity to hop inside a black cab and tour Belfast’s paramilitary murals. Here are a few highlights on the trip, along with a timeline of the terrible events that brought them to life.
1. WILLIAM OF ORANGE WAS A UNIONIST HERO.
In 1690, the Protestant William of Orange, seen here riding a white horse, defeated King James II of England, a Roman Catholic, at the Battle of the Boyne. The victory would help guarantee Protestant control of the English Crown—and establish the tensions that would lead to the Troubles centuries later. The date of William’s victory, July 12, is a public holiday widely celebrated by unionists.
2. PROTESTORS LAUNCH THE DERRY CIVIL RIGHTS MARCH.
On October 5, 1968, republican civil rights demonstrators—who were protesting systemic housing and voting discrimination against Catholics—marched in Derry, Northern Ireland, and headed toward a road declared “out of bounds” by the minister of home affairs, William Craig. Violent skirmishes erupted after police confronted the protestors with water cannons and batons. This mural, painted one year later, marks the boundary of the republican neighborhood of Bogside.
3. PARAMILITARIES RISE IN NORTHERN IRELAND.
The civil discord emboldened paramilitary groups, which had been gaining power throughout the 1960s. In 1966, a republican group had bombed a statue of Britain's national hero Horatio Nelson in Dublin, and the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, was blamed. Around that same time, the unionist Ulster Volunteer Force, or UVF, declared war on the IRA. “Known IRA men will be executed mercilessly and without hesitation,” the UVF stated.
4. NORTHERN IRELAND'S PRIME MINISTER RESIGNS.
In 1969, Northern Ireland’s prime minister, Terence O’Neill, began seeking ways to make concessions with republican civil rights organizations. The UVF and other unionist paramilitaries, which opposed the civil rights movement, bombed power and water lines, leaving much of Belfast without water. O’Neill soon resigned, unrest escalated, and paramilitaries on both sides flourished. (This republican mural in the neighborhood of Ballymurphy memorializes members of the Cumann na mBan, a women's paramilitary group, who died in the ensuing years.)
5. THE FIRST 'PEACE WALLS' APPEAR.
For years, the Protestant and Catholic residents of Belfast’s working-class neighborhoods had been relatively integrated. The threat of increased violence scared many residents into moving into self-selected enclaves, which they protected with temporary walls. With Belfast becoming increasingly segregated, the British military arrived and began erecting its own “peace walls” to separate the conflicting neighborhoods. Originally intended to be temporary, some of these barriers have now stood longer than the Berlin Wall.
6. MASS INTERNMENT EMBOLDENS THE IRA.
When the British military came to Northern Ireland in 1969, both republican and unionist residents greeted their arrival as a stabilizing force. That attitude soured in 1971 after the military conducted a series of raids intended to capture Provisional IRA militants, who had been staging attacks on the army. (The Provisional IRA split from the original IRA in 1969.) Nearly a dozen Catholic civilians were killed, and more than 340 people—many of whom were later found to have no ties to the Provisional IRA—were arrested and jailed in internment camps without trial. Rather than decrease the power of the Provisional IRA, the events increased republican support of the group, especially in raided neighborhoods such as Ballymurphy, seen here.
7. BAR BOMBINGS INCREASE IN THE EARLY 1970S.
The early 1970s were bloody, with both sides often bombing bars and cars. In 1971, UVF fighters, depicted here on Newtownards Road in East Belfast, killed 15 people after bombing McGurk’s Bar, a pub frequented by Catholics. By the end of the Troubles, the UVF had killed more than 500 people.
8. DIVISIONS WIDEN ON BLOODY SUNDAY.
On January 30, 1972, approximately 10,000 republicans took part in a civil rights march in Derry. Arriving at a blocked road, some demonstrators began to riot, reportedly throwing stones at soldiers standing in the way. The army responded with rubber bullets—and then with real bullets. Thirteen demonstrators died. The army called it self defense; the protestors called it murder. The newspapers simply called it “Bloody Sunday.”
9. THE SUSPENSION OF PARLIAMENT SPARKS OUTRAGE.
In March 1972, the British government suspended Northern Ireland’s parliament and imposed direct rule from London. The decision outraged unionists, who staged strikes that crippled public transportation and power supplies. Here, a mural of the unionist UDA (Ulster Defence Association) displays the Red Hand of Ulster, a heraldic symbol of Northern Ireland, as well as the paramilitary’s motto, Quis Separabit (Who Shall Divide Us?).
10. THE ULSTER FREEDOM FIGHTERS ARE OUTLAWED.
Another prominent paramilitary group was a UDA splinter called the Ulster Freedom Fighters, or UFF. Outlawed in 1973, it would be responsible for more than 400 deaths, most of them Catholic civilians. Like the Provisional IRA and the rest of the UDA, it is recognized by the United Kingdom as a terrorist group.
11. BRITISH COLLUSION SOWS DISTRUST.
During the Troubles, some members of the British military colluded with unionist paramilitaries, providing them with weapons, intelligence, double agents, and assassination targets. A 2012 report by Sir Desmond de Silva, a barrister and war crimes prosecutor, showed that, during the 1980s, “85 percent of the UDA’s ‘intelligence’ originated from sources within the security forces.” Such activities sowed even more distrust toward police and troops.
12. KIERAN NUGENT BECOMES THE FIRST 'BLANKET MAN.'
Before 1976, most jailed republicans were considered political prisoners and did not have to wear prison uniforms. When that rule changed, Kieran Nugent, pictured here, refused to be labeled as a convict and opted instead to wear blankets. “If they want me to wear a uniform they’ll have to nail it to my back,” he said.
13. BOBBY SANDS STAGES A HUNGER STRIKE.
In 1981, Bobby Sands, a leader of the Provisional IRA and a prisoner serving a 14-year sentence, spearheaded a hunger strike with other republican prisoners. While on strike, he ran for a spot in parliament—and won. His eventual death (as well as the death of nine other prisoners) from starvation sparked an outcry and convinced the IRA’s political wing, Sinn Féin, that it had a shot in the political arena. Today, dozens of republican murals commemorate the hunger strike of 1981.
14. THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT IS SIGNED.
In this republican mural, a Provisional IRA fighter holds an RPG-7. Many of the IRA’s heavy weapons and explosives had been donated by Libya's dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Thousands of guns had also been smuggled in from the United States. One of the hallmark achievements of peace negotiations, which occurred in 1996, was a provision to strip all paramilitary groups of these arms by 2000.
15. PARAMILITARIES SLOWLY AGREE TO LAY DOWN ARMS.
Peace did not come automatically. Just months after the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Provisional IRA militants detonated a car bomb at a market in Omagh, killing 29 people. The group would not decommission all of its weapons until 2005. Meanwhile, the UVF would not finish destroying its arms until 2009. The UDA and UFF, pictured above, confirmed that it had destroyed all of its weapons in early 2010.
16. BRITISH TROOPS FINALLY WITHDRAW.
In 2007, the British Army closed its military operation in Northern Ireland, ending the longest deployment of troops in British military history. At the height of the Troubles, there were approximately 27,000 soldiers occupying the region. This mural once stood in the republican bastion of Falls Road.
17. THE TROUBLES TAKE A MENTAL TOLL.
By the end of the Troubles, paramilitary troops had killed more than 3600 people and physically injured 50,000. The trauma of the conflict has caused widespread psychological damage. Today, Northern Ireland has the highest suicide rate in the UK. According to a 2015 report by Ulster University, “nearly half of all severe mental health cases in Northern Ireland can be attributed to the Troubles.”
18. SOME SAY PARAMILITARY MURALS SHOULD BE COVERED UP ...
In recent years, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland has spent millions to remove the most militant murals in the region, replacing them with images of Belfast’s cultural icons (such as the builders of the Titanic) or athletes (such as soccer star George Best). “Young children walking past masked gunmen has an impact on the local community,” Anne Ward, the Arts Council's community development officer, told The Atlantic.
19. ... AND OTHERS THINK THEY SHOULD BE PRESERVED.
As sectarian murals slowly disappear, Martin Kemp, professor emeritus of the history of art at Oxford University, has wondered whether it’s a positive development. "My instinct as a historian is that these are some of the most important public images of our time," he told The Independent. "People should see what they can do to preserve them.”
20. HUNDREDS OF MURALS REMAIN.
Hundreds of sectarian murals are still spread across Northern Ireland. As Simon Kuper wrote in the Financial Times, “horrendous as they are, they are also a quintessentially Northern Irish form of folk art.”