Guns return to Belfast murals amid rising Catholic-Protestant tensions

August 15, 2011

A woman walks near a Loyalist mural on Newtonards Road in East Belfast July 21, 2011/Cathal McNaughton

When graffiti artists painted over a huge mural of Northern Ireland’s soccer heroes with two armed men in balaclavas this summer, police in east Belfast took notice. Within weeks the area had descended into its worst sectarian rioting in a decade, the latest stark reminder that 13 years of official peace has failed to remove political violence from Northern Ireland’s streets. Despite the success of a political marriage between once bitter Catholic and Protestant rivals in the local parliament, there are signs that radicals on each side are stepping up their use of violence to push divergent agendas.

“First came the murals and then the petrol bombs,” said Arthur McDonald, 70, a Catholic whose estate was attacked by a mob, which police said was orchestrated by Protestant paramilitaries. “It’s the only way they can get recognition.”

Neither the street violence from disaffected Protestant loyalists, so-called for their loyalty to the British Crown, nor gun and bomb attacks by dissident Catholic Republicans, who want a united Ireland independent of Britain, are widespread enough to threaten the stability of the province. But they are dashing hopes that the historic peace deal could end strife on the province’s troubled housing estates.

Since 2006 the number of so-called “peace walls,” diving Catholic and Protestant areas, has increased from 37 from 48, as the police try to dampen sectarian violence.

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