bobby sands mural in Belfast

Sadly the extreme actions of a few small groups in Belfast has plunged the city back into the negative glare of the international media. Around the world, commentators have been queuing up to wring their hands about the state of the situation, resulting in what is a minority expression of discontent getting a disproportionate voice through the use of violence and hatred.

It seems a shame that for many people across the world, violence is sometimes seen as the only way to be heard. It is through violence that people feel they can influence things. It is through violence that people try to make those in power sit up and take listen. And yet there is another overlooked aspect of Belfast that speaks of another means of expression: a creative, vibrant, daring rebellion against the status quo that screams out to be heard and yet, often, refuses to countenance the idea of violence. Welcome to the city of murals.

Belfast’s murals are justly famous. One of the more unusual things to come out of the Troubles, these vast paintings sprung up all over the city and covered entire walls with their political, cultural or artistic statements.

Of course, some of the murals also have a dark side. There are those, especially in areas near particular hotspots of religious and political tension, that are painted in support of various paramilitary support. For many, the paintings are not a symbol of hope but of the oppressive power of paramilitary control and the constant fear of violence, unrest and hatred.

That is changing, however. New murals are springing up all over Belfast, exploring new themes such as Irish history, culture and art. Messages of exclusion and division are being replaced by messages of peace and welcome. Some act as history books for tourists visiting the area, fulfilling a function that was traditionally reserved for stained glass windows in churches.

Belfast Mural

In this, they are almost acting as a barometer, reflecting the changing mood of the nation. After the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the paintings of guns disappeared in favour of paintings of the Beatles and other iconic images of Ireland. Of course, the politics didn’t disappear from all of the murals – but that’s a good thing: for better or worse, politics has formed part of this city’s history and it wouldn’t make sense for artwork to not represent that.

However, what the murals of Belfast show today is the same realisation that people in the Arab Spring have been sharing: the power of a strong image, the right set of words and bold, creative artwork can be every bit as important in the political process of change as any other means of interaction, and that visual protest captures the world’s imagination and support much more strongly than armed combat.