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Artist Learns the Pitfalls of Crossing Political Barriers

May 3, 1989

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (AP) _ Louise Walsh tried to teach the Belfast City Council about art, and instead learned about the pitfalls of trying to work with all parties in Northern Ireland.

The 26-year-old artist’s first commission - a bronze sculpture commemorating the red-light past of downtown Belfast - proved too much for the city’s Protestant elders, and it expired in a political wrangle that fractured normal Protestant-Catholic lines.

Councillor Rhonda Paisley, daughter of Protestant firebrand Rev. Ian Paisley, liked it. So did Lily Fitzsimmons of Sinn Fein, the party that supports the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Irish Republican Army.

But other councillors protested that prostitutes were being glorified and sainted mothers insulted, or that the statue had been hijacked by IRA supporters.

″I thought I’d done so well,″ said Miss Walsh who, dispirited by the whole experience, found solace at the Crown, a grand old gaslit pub near the place where her sculpture was to stand.

Miss Walsh, a native of County Cork in the Irish Republic, envisioned a bronze sculpture of two women, one 7 feet tall and the other a bit shorter, both chastely dressed.

The working-women theme would be expressed by making one figure out of balls of wool, knitting, a scrub brush and clothespins, and the other out of sewing machines, telephones, cash registers and typewriters.

She got her first inkling of trouble when councillor Frank Millar reviewed a model.

″I was told,″ he said, ″that the figure showed the women’s breasts, but I couldn’t say. It was made out of old bits of tin and my eyesight’s not so good.″

Millar’s opinion counted because he chaired the Parks Committee, which would review the proposal. Sensing danger, Miss Walsh decided to take her case to every party on the committee.

″I was innocently - I mean, quite genuinely - trying to explain to people it was not a glorification of prostitution,″ Miss Walsh said.

She said she told the committee the sculpture aimed ″to comment on women’s work: both badly paid and unpaid. The 10 worst-paid jobs in the United Kingdom are jobs traditionally done by women,″ and such pressures could drive some women into prostitution.

One councillor who agreed was Mrs. Fitzsimmons, who saw it as ″a tribute to working-class women.″ Miss Paisley, herself a painter, also praised it.

This uncommon agreement between a Paisley unionist committed to Britain, and an IRA supporter pledged to driving Britain out of Northern Ireland, was more than Belfast headline writers could resist. At that point, as the Belfast political journal ″Fortnight″ put it, ″unionist knees jerked.″

Millar’s committee concluded that most people would see the sculpture as a memorial to prostitution and an insult to working women - his mother among them - who ″despite poverty retained high moral standards.″

That set the stage for Tuesday’s battle in the council hall, whose aisle separates 51 Protestant and Catholic councillors into two arrays of factions which feud with each other as well as within themselves.

Hard-line Democratic Unionists like Miss Paisley sit with more moderate Ulster Unionists like Millar, plus two Independent Unionists, one Protestant Unionist and one Progressive Unionist. The Catholics are divided among the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, its avowed enemy Sinn Fein, and one member of the radical left-wing Workers Party.

A half-dozen members of the Alliance, the only mixed Catholic-Protestant party, fit in where they can. Protestant councillors have been known to blow rape whistles to drown out Sinn Fein opponents, or to toss coins at each other as ″Judas″ gestures.

Tuesday’s session was mild by these standards, with Miss Paisley excoriating Millar as well as Mrs. Fitzsimmons ″who sits with the IRA-Sinn Fein scum.″

″I congratulate Louise Walsh for her work because it has exposed the stench of religious hypocrisy surrounding the arts for too long,″ Miss Paisley said.

″I would prefer,″ said Ulster Unionist Jim Kirkpatrick, ″to see a statue of women bringing up children alone due to the murderous activities of Sinn Fein.″

Former Lord Mayor Sammy Wilson of the Democratic Unionist Party said the debate ″has been full of cant and hypocrisy, and has more to do with people looking for a cheap election gimmick.″

Whatever Rhonda Paisley thought, Millar said her father had joined three other ministers in signing a letter opposing the sculpture.

″The letter made it quite clear it was opposed to the erection - that was the term they used - of the statue,″ Millar said.

A motion to support the statue, and condemn Sinn Fein in the bargain, failed 22-13.

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