Some things change … at least visually

Sandy Row 1

Since my last visit, one of the most famous paramilitary murals in all of Northern Ireland was replaced with something … less paramilitary. Gone is the old Ulster Freedom Fighters mural (seen above) that for years welcomed visitors to the Loyalist stronghold of Sandy Row. In its place is a new mural (seen below) that still marks the neighborhood as Loyalist territory but does so through a less-menacing, more acceptable historical reference, King Billy, who passed through the area on his way to fight the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Sandy Row 2

In the nearly 20 years since the Belfast Agreement most of the paramilitary murals in Republican areas have been replaced with ones celebrating culture and heritage, or less problematic aspects of local history. Loyalist areas have been much slower to follow suit. East Belfast, in particular, continues to boast more than its share of menacing imagery.  Some traces still remain in Sandy Row, but they are fading, the paint chipping of the wall, and in some places splashed with graffiti.

The repainting of murals was part of a concerted effort at neighborhood renewal, an effort to rebrand Republican and Loyalist communities alike as progressive and inclusive. Unfortunately, like plastic surgery, changes like this generally only skin deep.

A dissident Republican voice on political change, political debate

Tony Catney
Tony “TC” Catney

I met Tony Catney, a veteran IRA volunteer and former Sinn Fein national director of elections, in February 2013 and spent two hours interviewing him as part of the research I have been conducting on the maintenance of the peace process in the years since the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Catney broke with the leadership of the Provisional Movement in 2005 in a dispute over political strategy and what he believed to be a climate within the movement which was intolerant of dissent and which deemed open debate over the movement’s direction illegitimate.  After Catney died in August 2014, I shared excerpts of the interview with The Pensive Quill, a widely read blog run by former IRA volunteer, prisoner and writer Anthony McIntyre, who after his release from prison earned a PhD in history from Queens University Belfast.  McIntyre, like Catney, is a prominent critic of Sinn Fein and its leadership.

On Saturday I will travel down to Dublin to attend the first Tony Catney Memorial Debate, sponsored by the 1916 Societies, on Republicanism in the 21st century.  In advance of that event, I went back to the transcript of my original interview with Catney and put together excerpts in which he talks about he believed the future of Northern Ireland looked like, the potential for it to once again erupt in violence, and the importance of open debate to bring about changes in Republican politics.  Those excerpts, along with an introduction by me and comments of my own to give context to Catney’s remarks and transition between topics, was published this morning at The Pensive Quill.

The essay is long, so rather than reprint it here, follow the link above to read it at TPQ, and then check out the earlier excerpts as well.

Memory, identity, and politics

IMG_1681On February 24, 1988, two members of the Ulster Defense Regiment were killed by a 200-lb IRA bomb detonated in the center of Belfast, where the Castlecourt Shopping Centre was under construction. A follow-up second bomb, intended for police and soldiers responding to the first blast, failed to go off and was defused by the army. Yesterday morning, 27 years after the event, an annual parade and memorial service effectively closed down access to the commercial center of the city for more than an hour.

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Running through airports

That works pretty well for me, not so well for my luggage. Thanks to a nearly three hour delay leaving Detroit, I had to make like Hertz-era OJ (not bloody-glove era OJ) and sprint through Newark’s lovely airport to make my connection to Dublin last night.


Alas my suitcase lacked the legs to make the dash from one plane to another, and so while I get to enjoy my first day here in Belfast (having caught the bus up from Dublin), all my stuff gets to enjoy a day in Newark.

Meanwhile I’ve settled into my somewhat spartan apartment near Belfast’s city centre and have a list of chores to accomplish today while I get my internal time clock to sync with the local time zone. In no particular order: sim card so that I have a local mobile number; bus pass for the month; groceries and toiletries so I can both eat and bathe; a pint at my favorite pub.