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The `art ... of politics'

The murals hit you in the face the moment you turn the corner ... a constant reminder of the divide. They will not win any prizes for brushwork, but the message is unmistakable, with no room for subtlety. But the larger picture is also about a story of all our societies as people cope with conflict and division, says KALPANA SHARMA.

A wall painting about Shankill road.

SO the black cab turned out to be red. Driven by Billy, "a Protestant married to a Catholic, from Brazil". In Belfast, it is better to know where you stand. And what you want. "Do you want the cultural tour or the political?" he asked. "Political," we said in unison. Having settled religion and stated our preference, we set off. Billy was taking us on a "political" tour of Belfast, the divided capital of Northern Ireland. It was a tour like no other tour that I have ever been on.

As we drove in his spacious black cab painted red (these are the old London cabs that now dot the streets of Belfast, used for mini-tours or as mini-buses), Billy gave us a potted history of The Troubles that had dogged Northern Ireland for 30 years. And true to his Protestant leanings, he first took us to The Shankill, the Protestant-dominated neighbourhood that is still home to several of the paramilitary groups that sustain a low-level of violence with their Catholic counterparts.

The murals hit you in the face the moment you turn the corner and enter Shankill. They will not win any prizes for brushwork, but the message is unmistakable. The sides of the row houses host these murals. Here a memorial for a dead Protestant, there a depiction of a historic event — the battle led by Oliver Cromwell against the Catholic church — and another taking a swipe at the Sinn Fein and its commitment to the peace process. There is no room for subtlety in these murals either.

... and the Protestants take a swipe at the Sinn Fein.

We drive past a ghastly depiction of the Queen. She would have distanced herself from it had she seen it. The artist was clearly not an expert in portraiture. I get out of the cab, laughing at the mural and pull out my camera to take a shot. "Get in, get in," shouts Billy, looking worried. I do, but am puzzled. "Why the hurry?" I ask, given that I had taken my time taking pictures earlier. We are now in the "border" area, with the Catholics living just a street away. Young Protestant boys hanging around the street were watching me as I tried to shoot. And Billy noticed their expression. He said, "They would think you were laughing at the Queen and that would be enough provocation for an attack." So a land where there is supposed to be a political peace, a state of war continues on its streets. And it shouts out from murals on both sides of the divide.

The next stop on our "political" tour has to be the Catholic area, the famous Falls Road. Here the murals also tell a story — one depicting Bobby Sands who went on hunger strike in the Maze prison and died. The mural proclaims, "Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular role to play. Our revenge will be the laughter of our children." There are many murals saluting armed and hooded Irish Republican Army soldiers, murals declaring solidarity with the Palestinians, with a young Turkish hunger striker ("she was inspired by Bobby Sands", reads the caption), and another equating the new police force set-up since the Good Friday agreement with the hated Royal Ulster Constabulary, who the Catholics hold responsible for most of the human rights violations. And Bombay Street boasts of a mural against "de-commissioning", which requires paramilitaries on both sides to lay down their arms. This is one issue on which both extremes are united.

Billy whizzes past these murals without giving us time to linger. His caustic remarks make his own politics and biases very clear. At the same time, he acknowledges that his shattered windscreen, which he has patched up, is the work of some Protestant youth who lobbed stones over the high wall dividing their area from the Catholic. He just happened to be in the way.

Supporting the Turkish hunger strike...

In both the Protestant and the Catholic areas, the presence of these lurid murals acts as a constant reminder of the divide. The political agreement has clearly not altered people's fears, suspicions, anger, sorrow. But one wonders if a brush of white wash on these walls would help erase some of the pain. Surely, waking up each morning and seeing these works of Belfast's unique "political art" must serve to preserve and revive memories. That is the object of the murals in any case. But neither side is considering replacing them with something less divisive. "In your lifetime, do you envisage these murals being taken off?" I ask Billy. "Not in mine," he says without hesitation.

If not in his lifetime, then when? That is the story of all our societies as they cope with conflict and division.

No one will take the first step. Few recognise the simple gestures that could pave the way for a change. The problem is complex, we are told, so even the ordinary, everyday things, are not done.

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