The Value of Representation in Transition : a Case Study of Political Murals in East Belfast
Isler, Kirima (2015)
Master's Programme in Peace, Mediation and Conflict Research
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Despite the undeniable progress achieved in the seventeen years since the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a significantly divided society. Tensions surrounding socio-political representation and expression in public spaces have continued to contribute to political instability and underline the fact that there are yet unresolved issues from the peace process; the extent to which the future will be socially inclusive remains to be worked out. This present research examines political wall murals along the lower Newtownards Road as a way of looking at the dynamics of social and political relationships within the current peace process, of their re-definition, as well as the effects of various strategies in working towards a 'shared future'. This line of inquiry questions how, in the context of transition, shifting frames of representation and communal belonging are being negotiated, and with what consequence. Photographs of the murals, and interviews with practitioners in community development, and academics in the field constituted the primary data. An interpretive analysis of the data was conducted through qualitative methods grounded in contemporary peace research. This analysis is conducted in three parts: the murals as cultural artefacts and coded texts; the murals in terms of both the processes involved in their production and the relationships that develop through them; and the mural as a site of political encounter, involving political strategies. The findings indicate that the social and governmental organizations included in this case study produced the murals as a means of establishing and legitimizing their public position in the changing context of transition, where, as the mode of conflict shifts from one of violence to one of persuasion, social groups work to adapt to it. The analysis of these displays, and of the processes behind them, demonstrates how relationships of power are being negotiated and re-structured, and identifies how the people they claim to represent are thus being imagined and 'positioned'. These imaginings are significant in that they are potentially constitutive, and may inform the basis on which the organization relates to the local population, as well as the ways in which they connect those who constitute their local to the current political order. Considering that the question of political representation is inseparable from questions of political participation, the observations that emerged through the analysis pointed to the need for further research on the fragmentation of civic culture in Northern Ireland, and suggest that excavating differing notions of 'the public' would serve this purpose well.