The future's on the wall

A COMPANY which includes former loyalist prisoners is transforming the face of murals.

Former lifers Edmund Courtney and Richard Long, who were released under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, are working alongside Walter George and community worker Mick Boston to create a new cultural look to former paramilitary wall paintings.

The men, all from Newtownards, formed the company Muraltec a year ago and now find they have a queue for their services.

They got together in response to a need they had identified of re-imaging and maintaining murals.

Mr Long and Mr Courtney completed degrees in art while serving sentences at the Maze before their release in 1998.

The team encourages residents to come up with ideas when it comes to replacing murals, often indulging in brainstorming sessions at which ideas are presented to the local community, which in turn gives its views on what they would like.

"We have to find out what everyone wants first, they give us an idea then we go away to research it and come back with some ideas and sketches for them to see," said Mr Courtney.

One of their recent projects was transforming two murals at the harbour in Portavogie beside the award-winning Quays restaurant.

The previous murals at the site had included a UVF badge insignia while the transformed murals feature a picturesque scene from the old harbour and George Best in action on the football pitch.

Frances Adair, owner of the Quays restaurant, said the new murals had improved the image of the whole village and boosted business.

He said: "I would say it has improved business for the restaurant, it has certainly improved the image of the whole village."

Mr Adair, whose customers include visitors from Great Britain and the United States, added: "Visitors have always asked about the murals but now we are really proud to explain the subjects of the murals and to talk about George Best with them."

The next mural on the agenda for the group is at Queen Street in the Movilla Estate, Newtownards.

There are currently three murals which depict UVF gunmen, but Muraltec, after consultation with the community, is planning to paint a scene from the Ulster Tourist Trophy race which used to pass through the town.

Mr George said: "We went round the whole area to let everyone have their say, we actually had a completely different idea for that mural but it didn't work out.

"So then we thought of recreating a scene from the Tourist Trophy race to replace the current mural and over 92 per cent were very happy with it."

The Tourist Trophy races ran from 1928 to 1936 on a road circuit between Newtownards, Comber and Dundonald.

The event ended in 1936 after a crash in which eight spectators were killed.

Muraltec has also transformed murals in the Bowtown estate in and plans to move on to the Glen estate.

David McNarry, UUP Assembly member for the area, welcomed the positive contribution the group was making to the process of moving on.

Referring to the paramilitary background of some of those involved, he said: "As we move forward as a society we must accept that people with a past now have a future and these people have left that past behind them.

"They must be encouraged to work for the community, as Muraltec are doing.

"I welcome the change in the landscape, it is only for the good and an improvement."

Muraltec has worked alongside the police in Newtownards, who described the group as "an organisation which gives ex-prisoners the opportunity to become involved in removing political murals from communities and replacing them with more cultural/traditional scenes".

Community policing officer Sgt David Lindsay said: "We have advised Muraltec on the importance of normalisation and removing political emblems from communities.

"Our vision, and that of Muraltec, is of communities which are open to all and embrace a multi-cultural ethos."