Read the walls for signs of peace

BELFAST — The British Army map of Belfast shows green for Catholic enclaves, orange for Protestant areas and white for mixed districts.

But for many years you didn’t need this map when driving around the city to know the affiliation of ghetto areas you were passing through.

Gabled walls on working-class houses showed murals depicting armed paramilitary figures. These marked out the tribal territories.

Pavements edged in red, white and blue identified loyalist Protestant streets. Those in green, white and orange signified nationalist Catholic areas.

During the summer months the territorial boundaries still sometimes become the scene of confrontations, when Protestant Orange Order parades pass by Catholic areas with bands and banners to celebrate the victory of William of Orange over the Catholic King James in 1690.

When one of the first Orange parades of the “marching season” passed by the nationalist Ardoyne district in north Belfast on Friday, June 19, some thugs threw missiles, injuring three people.

It was a minor skirmish compared to the violent rioting of previous years and it could have been worse but for the presence of nationalist stewards, who have tried to ensure calm in recent years as part of the peace process.

In the aftermath, Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, called on the Orange Order to make its contribution to peace with a declaration that in the future “it will no longer seek to force parades through Catholic areas and risk bringing violence on to our streets.”

Addressing a Sinn Fein commemoration at the grave of Wolfe Tone, an icon of 18th century Irish republicanism, in Bodenstown in the Republic of Ireland, he said it would only affect a few of the hundreds of parades held annually.

But the Orange Order accused McGuinness, a former IRA commander, of failing to understand how parades were an integral part of Protestant culture.

It claimed the 214-year-old order was working to make them “more family-friendly and welcoming, particularly to tourists.”

Belfast remains a bitterly divided sectarian city, and to Catholics the parades will always smack of triumphalism.

However, the stated aim of the Orange Order to make their marches less confrontational is an important step toward a stable society in Northern Ireland.

Another step is the decision this month of the two main loyalist paramilitary groups, the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), to begin putting their weapons beyond use, 15 years after their declared ceasefire.

The process is being monitored by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, headed by retired Canadian general John de Chastelain, who will make a report in August on its progress.

The loyalist paramilitaries have been under pressure to disarm since the IRA decommissioned its weaponry four years ago as a preliminary step to its political wing, Sinn Fein, entering government.

The UVF was the most lethal of these underground terror groups, killing some 500 of the 864 mostly Catholic victims of loyalist violence between 1968 and 1998.

The wall painters of Belfast are also playing their part. Their murals have become less threatening during the recent years of peace.

Many of the most militaristic on both sides have been toned down or replaced with cultural images. The most threatening I saw on the loyalist Shankill Road declared “Prepared for Peace, Ready for War.”

Pictures of hooded loyalist killers holding rifles are slowly being replaced with portraits of Belfast sporting heroes such as soccer legend George Best and snooker champion Alex “Hurricane” Higgins.

In nationalist ghettoes the once ubiquitous Provisional IRA gunman has all but disappeared from gable walls, replaced by figures from Irish nationalist history such as James Connolly, executed after the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin.

In fact you can see how things have changed for yourself. There is now a website with a map of the murals for the benefit of tourists, for whom the gables of Belfast provide one of the curiosities of western Europe’s intractable conflicts.

There are red icons for loyalist murals and green for nationalist, and their numbers are almost matched now by blue for neutral.

More on Northern Ireland:

The ground truth from Belfast

 Fear returns to Northern Ireland