Public Media Arts Hub

Street art, politics and violence intersect in Northern Ireland


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Walls have a deep history in Northern Ireland.

Belfast has been the scene of violence between Protestants and Catholics going back decades. It also has a tradition of street artists making murals with a message.

Malcolm Brabant reports.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Malcolm Brabant: This is the Catholic Ardoyne district of Belfast, formerly a stronghold of the Irish Republican army, or IRA, still outlawed as a terrorist organization.

Two artists are memorializing 15-year-old Danny Barrett, in the hope of getting justice, 40 years after he was killed.

Micky Doherty: There's no sort of political alignment. It's just a group of friends, family and friends, who were with Danny on the day.

They just wanted something to remind them, because they feel that nothing's ever been done for him. And when people come into this area, and they come round and see this, they are going to ask questions: Well, what's this about, you know? And then they're going to be told.

This was about a young lad who was sitting on his garden wall, doing absolutely nothing, and a British soldier decided to shoot him dead.

Malcolm Brabant: That account by former IRA man Micky Doherty lacks context.

Danny Barrett's death happened after the IRA opened fire at British soldiers. There was a military observation post on this building nearly half-a-mile from Danny's home. A police witness claimed he saw smoke from a weapon. The soldier, whose identity is unknown, insisted that he fired at a gunman.

Isn't there a danger that new murals like these raise tensions between Catholics and Protestants?

Micky Doherty: No, but it doesn't -- it doesn't contribute to sectarianism. Sectarianism has always been here. Sectarianism is inbred in the people. I bring my kids up not to be sectarian. The Protestants suffer just as much as we do.

Malcolm Brabant: Doherty was one of scores of Republican prisoners released in 1998 as part of the Good Friday peace agreement that ended a 30-year-long conflict in which 3,500 people were killed.

The murals on the Protestant side of Northern Ireland's religious divide are less sentimental and more militaristic. This honors three paramilitaries killed during the conflict with the IRA. They belonged to the Ulster Volunteer Force, still designated as a terrorist organization.

Belfast's Shankill Road is the citadel of Protestants implacably opposed to the Republican goal of a united Ireland. The Protestants are also known as loyalists, or unionists. Protestant mural artist Mark Ervine walked us across the dividing line.

Mark Ervine: My father was formerly incarcerated for terrorist activity on behalf of the Ulster Volunteer Force.

So, I'm just leaving the Shankill and enter no man's land. Now, you're in no man's land. And the set of gates just in front of me are the Falls.

Malcolm Brabant: Entering the Catholic Falls Road area, enemy territory during the Troubles, Ervine passes one of his murals on the peace wall separating the two communities.

Despite pressure from men of violence, Ervine refuses to touch paramilitary themes.

Mark Ervine: See, I'm sort of quite split about the paramilitary murals. I see them as a marker of where we have come from, like the starting point. We're moving on from there. Some of them, not all of them, should be kept. I certainly don't think we need to do any new ones.

Malcolm Brabant: The subject matter of many of these murals comes from a bygone age, before peace in Northern Ireland was brokered.

But the sectarian divisions that they highlight still remain. The paramilitary groups may have disappeared from view, but they still wield enormous influence, especially in socially deprived areas like this one.

Fired up by militants, Protestant youths went on the rampage by the peace wall last in the spring, echoing the violent choreography of their elders. They object to a clause in the British government's Brexit deal with the European Union. Known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, it effectively creates a border down the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from England, Scotland and Wales, and placing Northern Ireland under the customs rules of the European Union.

Loyalist activists, like 19-year-old Joel Keys, argue that the protocol undermines their Britishness.

Joel Keys: We do want to fight this battle politically. We do not ever want to see a return to the violence that existed last century. But, fundamentally, this is kind of a red line for us.

Malcolm Brabant: Loyalist pipe and drum bands are rehearsing for this summer's so-called marching season. It's a time of tension, because, in the past, they have insisted on parading through Catholic areas.

Watching with concern is Danny Devenny, another former IRA-man-turned-artist. His signature mural celebrates Bobby Sands, considered a martyr by the IRA. Sands died in jail 40 years ago, after going on hunger strike to protest against being treated as a criminal, instead of a political prisoner.

Danny Devenn: Bobby was probably the least sectarian. Look at his writings. You understand where he's from. He's probably looking. He's directing us towards the future we all want to build.

Malcolm Brabant: How concerned are you about the mood in Northern Ireland? Are you afraid that violence is going to return?

Danny Devenny: As we have seen, they were out on the streets, creating their protests and fighting with the police. But they were very eager to take their threats and violence to people like my community, small nationalist ghettos. So, of course I'm fearful.

Malcolm Brabant: On the right side of the peace wall, there are Catholic homes. Reflective material on the roofs isn't solar paneling. It's armor plating to prevent missiles crashing through the tiles.

Northern Ireland's peace accord featured during yesterday's discussions between President Biden and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Convivial optics disguised Johnson's discomfort, caused by America's top diplomat in London complaining that Britain's handling of the Brexit deal was inflaming tensions.

Last night, loyalists showed their displeasure by marching down the Shankill Road. They are angry that President Biden appears to be siding with the European Union and disregarding their viewpoint. They burned this banner by the peace wall as a reminder that, in their view, being under European Union jurisdiction is a step towards uniting Northern Ireland with the republic to the south.

As he paused, painting his latest work of art, Mark Ervine warned politicians to beware the consequences of the Brexit deal.

Mark Ervine: Britain and Europe need to be very, very careful, that they don't reignite the tinderbox.

I think President Biden could do a lot of good things for the people here regarding commerce. But I really think he should keep his nose out of the politics. I don't see him as an ally or a friend.

Joel Keys: People are really frustrated.

I would hope the unionists and the loyalists wouldn't engage in violence. But the other side have made very clear that they are prepared to use those tactics to get what they want. And so we have to keep that on the table as a means to defend ourselves, if it is necessary. And we will do so.

Micky Doherty: Our young people need to step back and just say, if they want to riot, let them riot.

But I tell you now we will have people on the streets. We will have our community workers on the streets. We will have our local representatives on the streets at the interfaces stopping young people.

Malcolm Brabant: Every evening, the peace gates separate Belfast's Catholic and Protestants until morning. If the worst happens, this could be a front line once again.

Mark Ervine: More than once, where the peace process, if you use a boxing analogy, has been stunned and rocked, but never went down.

And I think this is just another one of those moments. I think we have come too far to want to go backwards. I don't think anybody wants to go back, most normal, sane people.

Malcolm Brabant: But one Belfast newspaper warned that intemperate words have a habit of creating a dangerous momentum. Some people here also believe the murals don't help either.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in Belfast.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.