Ahead of its screening at Washington’s Capital Irish Film Festival in the Northern Ireland Shorts programme on Sunday, Adam McPartlan had a few questions for David Dryden and Eileen Walsh, co-directors of Together in Pieces, a new film documenting the fluctuating backdrops of Northern Ireland. The infamous murals that have plagued both communities are being painted over into something more positive.
Why this movie? What drew you in about this story, and why do you think it needed to be told?
The historic city walls in Derry are being used as an unsanctioned political billboard for dissident republicans or factions of a republican nature. The graffiti on these walls stands tall in large white letters overlooking a predominantly Catholic area of the city, the Bogside, the immediate area where Bloody Sunday took place. The graffiti reads ‘END INTERNMENT’ or ‘UK NO WAY’ and more recently a commemoration to the death of the radical socialist Paddy Bogside.
As Eileen Walsh and myself both live and work in and around Derry, we wondered why these messages were left up and not removed, especially considering their inciting nature and the negative social influence they bring to an already highly politicized area. We wanted to know what visitors and locals felt about this graffiti. Walking past it either for the first time, or every day, we wondered if it was right that children, teenagers and adults of either denomination be exposed to these messages in a publicly shared space and what effect it has on creating a peaceful future.
It seems that this low-level sectarianism is being ingrained into the minds of the city’s youth by this type of graffiti. Young people are especially easy targets for politicization and getting to them young is the best way to perpetuate a divided society. This is something that the majority do not want so we questioned why we are still being bullied by these slogans. The city’s youth haven’t a chance.
About how many groups are there? Aside from marking their territory, what is it these groups, like the RUC, want to do or hope to accomplish with their graffiti?
There are a multitude of groups from both Republican and Loyalist factions; IRA, INLA, UVF, UDA and UFF, being the main ones.
Often graffiti will tout ‘We haven’t gone away’, which seems to denote that despite the peace agreement, these paramilitary groups are still a threat, which ultimately is showing defiance to any political ground made in Stormont, advocating a righteous refusal to partake in joint talks based on a sense of entitlement of land or beliefs in a united Ireland. Often political parties such as Sinn Fein (now in government) are considered ‘sell outs’, particularly by dissidents opposed to the peace process. The graffiti, maintained predominantly in urban areas, is a finger up to the establishment and the police force which serves them.
It is also important to realize that it is also very much perpetuated due to the memory of past tragedies. It can be argued that these deaths are being used to incur sympathy and a vote for a group’s cause; ‘Remember the 14’.
It could be that the graffiti sets out to embed a sense of political unity within the community. Historically persecuted under British rule and its police force the PSNI (formally the RUC), this idea is perpetuated. These public adverts serve as a show of strength for people whose alternative views have no political representation and who feel like their identity is being eroded away.
Some of the graffiti is a clear show of strength and defiance, for example, by writing over the Derry walls, which themselves are a symbol of Protestant plantations in Ireland. Graffiti is left on these walls because the local council can’t get workers to clean it up for 2 reasons: they will be attacked, and, also, if cleaned up, the graffiti goes straight back up.
Some graffiti has included a twitter address ‘#32CSM’ so there are clear goals to direct people online.
The graffiti often is clearly intimidating, and is there to deter residents from neighborhoods close by from entering or to make them feel unwelcome. It also serves to antagonize the police force which is still seen by many to be an occupying force.
Why do some kids who graffiti not understand what the IRA is, even today? Are they unwilling to know?
There is a complete systematic failure to educate children about the Troubles. It is an area of history not taught at schools. Schools are largely segregated, and this is a big problem. Any education children get often will be from family and people in the (ghetto) neighborhoods first. They will hear stories and obviously form opinions.
These opinions are also coloured by the history of partition itself, as well as by their political landscape, and the murals, sectarian graffiti, lack of social opportunities and high unemployment they see every day in their neighbourhood.
Children are politicized from an early age without seeing the bigger picture or getting to hear opinions from other sides. Our film proves that their opinions change quickly when exposed to less bigoted versions from open minded elements in society.
Michael Doherty talks about the losses the Protestants are experiencing. What are the losses they are dealing with? Why are they experiencing these losses, especially in these times? Why do the Catholics not recognize or understand the losses of the Protestants?
Michael Doherty was a hugely interesting interviewee with a wealth of personal experience through his years of work in peace and reconciliation. In Together in Pieces he talks about the sense of loss felt by Protestants through the Peace Process. He talks about how many Protestants feel a sense of isolation and abandonment through the loss of many things that they hold dear.
After partition, Protestants in Northern Ireland held the majority of seats in government, and with this came massive inequalities in economic, cultural and political representation between Catholics and Protestants, with the majority of Catholics living in poverty. Since the Troubles and the peace agreement and official recognition of these inequalities, these issues are still being addressed today.
The changes that have been taking place have been equal representation in government, so loss of the Protestant majority in government, and room for Republican parties such as Sinn Fein, who, were up until 1994 held to British broadcasting voice restrictions.
The loss of the RUC (Royal Ulster Constabulary) – a Protestant majority police force, is mentioned in the film. The RUC has been replaced by a new police service, the PSNI (Police Service Northern Ireland) and this strives to have equal representation from the Catholic community.
Cultural and social changes; On December 3rd 2012 Belfast City Council voted to limit the days that the Union Flag (the flag of the United Kingdom) flies from Belfast City Hall. This sparked violent protests from Unionists.
After so many years of inequality, Catholics feel like the balance is only being set equal now for fair representation in Northern Ireland. So for this reason, Catholics don’t understand Protestants’ sense of loss (at the flying of the Union Flag, the RUC, etc.). They don’t see this as a loss – instead they think that things shouldn’t have been this way to begin with. Protestants are feeling their identity being eroded away, as these great symbols of their culture that once featured dominantly in the landscape are gone.
More importantly there is a lack of public education about these issues and little opportunity or interest in getting people to talk about these issues. This means neither side is ever fully informed about what is actually going on with the peace process. The media perpetuates this situation and too often is more interested in representing negative narratives, rather than reporting on any real change.
In the film, Michael recognises the problems caused by the segregated education and housing systems in Northern Ireland and thinks that the two communities (nationalist and loyalist) don’t understand each other and don’t live together, co-existing in the same place in parallel worlds without actually living together.
In what way(s) do you see the landscape of Northern Ireland changing? Politically, culturally, etc.? Is it becoming more radicalized or open-minded and accepting?
Northern Ireland is becoming more multi-cultural with large Indian and Chinese communities already established and this trend will continue to grow despite the social issues. There will be no substantial changes to society between Catholic and Protestant communities unless the issue of segregated schools is addressed and until the so called ‘peace walls’ are removed.
Also political parties are not trying hard enough to work together – they are actively not working together on many issues, and the public cannot understand why they are doing this. This is setting a terrible example for our society and is perpetuating the division and misunderstanding.
The overwhelming problem is the high unemployment rate in Northern Ireland. If people have jobs and something to work for in society they will feel more accepted socially. And as they mix with other people from different backgrounds, there will be less chance of them wanting to get involved in radical movements.
There is still a sense of frustration that things are moving too slowly. People now want politicians to focus more on real issues like the economy and jobs, more on the issues that unite people and less on the issues that divide.
The brightest hope at the moment in Northern Ireland for young people is from graffiti art workshops. City centres are increasingly the focal point for artistic graffiti murals. This colourful street art not only helps to brighten up city centres, making them more welcoming. It also helps to combat anti-social graffiti, helping to change the attitudes of people living there, while also uplifting mindsets and allowing more creativity into mainstream society.
Do you think the “graffiti movement” ferments these changes, embodies or reflects them, or both?
Graffiti art is non-political by definition. This philosophy is upheld by most artists. This is a great starting block to base the movement from and to help initiate positive social change, especially in a country so fundamentally divided by politics. Young people here are tired of this political division.
Walls will reflect what you put on them into the mind of the viewer. Similarly, what is in the mind of the artist who paints is projected onto the wall – if the message is positive, then one cannot help but be filled with a positive vision. If the message is negative however, the viewer will be filled with negativity. It sounds very basic but this visual stimuli has a profound effect on one’s mental health. It is primal, and it is proven to be the catalyst to changing mindsets.
The Capital City Film Festival runs 3 – 6 March 2016