In the 22 August issue of the Observer, Henry McDonald writes in his column how “murals still glory in the Troubles and thereby fail to tell the truth”. He calls for anti-mural murals, to be done in a
meta-realistic style, to “depict what it is actually like when someone rakes packed bookmakers with gunfire”:
A spectre is haunting Northern Ireland. The spectre of memorialism. The ghosts of the Troubles seem to appear around every corner and at every mini-memorial garden in cockpit areas such as north and west Belfast.
Of course, in the inverted moral universe of post-Troubles Ulster some dead are more equal than others. The memorials dotted around the Falls, Shankill, Shore and Andersonstown Road are dedicated solely to masked men and women, toting big guns or standing solemnly to attention. The paramilitary fallen have become immortalised in commemorative plaques on the walls near where they were gunned down or captured. And there is hardly a week without some commemoration, large and small, involving middle- to late-aged greying men who gather to remember some dead comrade or other.
The exponential growth in memorials and the ceaseless commemorations are perhaps inevitable, maybe even vital to the peace process, in the absence of war. To borrow from Karl Marx again, for the ex-paramilitary sitting twiddling his roll-up commemorations and memorials rather than religion are the ultimate opiates. In short, it keeps them busy and their minds off the utter futility of the last 35 years of struggle.
A veritable industry of conflict-nostalgia is booming in places such as west Belfast, where taxis and bus companies charge the curious and the ignorant tourists to see all the hot spots of the Troubles. Indeed, terror-tours appear to be the only arm of Ulster tourism booming in our washed-out summer. Last Wednesday morn ing, for instance, en route along the Falls Road for a funeral at Milltown Cemetery, I noticed a party of European tourists huddled together in the driving rain trying desperately to take some snaps of a new block of republican murals stretching from Northumberland to Dover Street. All along the famous arterial route from central Belfast to the cemetery there were knots of anoraks gawping as the wind and rain lashed the handiwork of the republican mural artists. In Milltown itself, a black taxi took three tourists to the IRA plot where generations of republicans have come to commemorate the Easter Rising or bury comrades, even while all around them loved ones were burying their dead.
The nostalgia industry has become such a central element in republican’s post-conflict existence that Sinn Fein fights to preserve every historic building or artefact from the Troubles. Last week the party’s North Antrim MLA, Philip McGuigan, repeated the demand that the Maze prison be retained as a museum on the lines of Robbin Island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated.
The British Government’s preferred option is to use the vast space as the site for a new national sports stadium. The choice is clear: a 40,000 capacity state-of-the-art sports ground housing the Northern Ireland soccer team, Ulster Rugby and maybe the GAA, or even more terror tourism on a grander scale.
There is, of course, virtually no space on the walls afforded to that category of the Troubles’ dead who vastly outnumber both the paramilitary and state forces – the civilians. Which is where the Turner Prize should come in. Controversialist artists wishing to win the Turner should take heed of this advice: given the absence of civilian victims from the iconography of the Troubles, perhaps it is time for a series of anti-mural murals. These alternative images would follow the same agit-prop style of the republican and loyalist murals but with one sig nificant difference: they should be meta-realistic. That is ,the anti-murals should depict what it is actually like when someone rakes packed bookmakers with gunfire.
In this case the painter should show in grim detail the bodies lying across the bookie’s floor, the terror in the faces of those still alive, the blood, the gun smoke. Such images should be tinged with a dark sense of irony and incongruity. Bombastic militaristic slogans taken directly from the paramilitary lexicon should be emblazoned above pictures of what the business of killing and maiming entails.
You can imagine the furore the anti-mural murals would provoke in certain sections of the community. The realistic and gory portrayal of paramilitary murder gangs carving up their victims in the back of some foul loyalist drinking den, or the effects of a car bomb on human bodies that are charred, shattered and eviscerated would draw criticisms over taste and decency.
Is it genuinely the decent thing to shield from what was really done not only the generation that survived the Troubles but, more importantly, the next generation that will be drip-fed a sentimental, sanitised version of events? Is it tasteful to allow the suffering of thousands to be written out of oral, visual and written history?
The anti-mural mural project is a challenge to any artist, local or international, to produce work that has the potential to both shock and inform. Whoever takes it up will also be doing this society an important moral and intellectual service.