Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

By the most notorious square in the United Kingdom, two coaches drew up on a summer’s morning, and a group of teenagers stepped out. They did so with some trepidation. “See you at lunchtime,” said one girl to her friend, as the teachers split the kids into groups. “If we survive.”

These were history students from Dalriada Grammar School in Ballymoney, one of Ulster’s more genteel towns. The Troubles were largely a rumour even to their parents and, to them, not even a memory.

Most of them were Protestant, from families loyal to the Union with Great Britain. Yet here they were, on a school outing to Derry, standing in the heart of the Catholic Bogside, at Glenfada Park, the innocent-sounding scene of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972, nearly a quarter of a century before they were born. Some pupils were absent, their parents having refused consent.

Dalriada has been bringing its GCSE classes here for several years now, and this visit had been scheduled for a week earlier, June 15. It was postponed, because that was the day when the Bogside briefly resumed its old role as the centre of world attention, when the Saville Report officially declared what everyone in this district had known for 38 years: that the 14 protesters killed by the British Army were unarmed, and that the shootings were unjustifiable.

Half the students were led in to what is now the Museum of Free Derry to be greeted by John Kelly and Jean Hegarty, both of whom lost brothers that day. The dead boys were both 17, barely older than these nervy youngsters. Inside, they were shown the artefacts, preserved as holy relics: a bloody shirt, a bloody babygro, Father Daly’s white handkerchief, waved as he tried to lead an injured man to safety. There are two new additions: one is the 10 massive volumes of the Saville Report, sited alongside the feeble, discredited, pamphlet issued by the original inquiry under Lord Widgery; the other is a statuette, of which more later.

The other group did the outside tour first, past the famous Bogside murals, including the one showing a gaunt and bearded hunger striker from the 1980-81 prison protests. “It’s Jesus,” whispered one girl. “Shh!” said her companion. And they giggled. But someone else made the same point louder. “That’s RIGHT,” said their teacher, Vincent Doherty. “That’s the WHOLE idea. It’s propaganda.”

Doherty grew up nearby, in a mixed Catholic-Protestant family, and his presentation sounded admirably balanced – vivid too, since he had his own stories to tell. Other visitors to the museum might not have got such a nuanced view of Ulster’s complexities.

For Bogside is no longer a place to avoid. It is the centrepiece of Europe’s newest tourist trail. For decades, visitors to Ireland skipped the North with a shudder, and lurched from Dublin to Kerry and Connemara and back to sample the Guinness and the begorrah-and-begobbery of it all, to be sure. Twelve years after the Good Friday agreement, that is finally changing. A group of New Zealanders came into the museum just before the Ballymoney kids; they had arrived from Belfast and were doing Derry and Giant’s Causeway in the day. The trite comments in the visitors’ book give the flavour: they come now from Germany (“very interesting”), Virginia (“powerful, tragic, horrible”), Slovakia (“Tragedy. All we need is love!”) and everywhere else. As Vincent Doherty spoke, two open-top buses came by, carrying gawpers, as though this were Trafalgar Square or Princes Street.

Derry, Ulster’s second city, is pinning its hopes on the tourist trade. Perpetually neglected by the authorities in Belfast, never mind London, it is still deeply deprived, under-invested and under-employed; and the road and rail links are a disgrace. Several civic leaders were absent the day the Saville Report was released: they had gone to Liverpool to present their case for Derry to be named UK City of Culture 2013, a marketing-led award that would mean a bit to its rivals (Birmingham, Norwich and Sheffield) but a huge amount in these parts.

For peace, as Yeats said, comes dropping slow. In the last third of the 20th century, the world was dominated by three seemingly interminable disputes, all involving religious-based groups with an exaggerated belief in their own rectitude and seeking to maintain dominion over unruly neighbours. The outcomes have so far been very different. The Afrikaners were forced to cede defeat and have no prospect of restoration; Israel v Palestine has indeed proved interminable; Northern Ireland, no longer ruled outright by the Loyalists, is somewhere in between. Only the headbangers are still at war, but the mainstream leaders do not have peace; they have a truce – a robust truce, but frangible nonetheless. The underlying realities have changed very little. One can’t help noticing that “tourism” and “terrorism” sound awfully similar when spoken in an Ulster accent.

Derry remains almost wholly segregated in terms of both housing and education: the city’s Catholic majority lives mainly on the west bank of the broad and beautiful River Foyle, “Cityside”; the Protestants are now almost wholly confined to the east, “Waterside”. There is a pro-Palestinian mural on the Free Derry museum’s walls. Some Protestants, taking the East Bank/West Bank divide to its logical conclusion, fly the Israeli flag, and a few of their irreconcilables are said to shop in Coleraine, 30 slow miles away, instead of crossing the Craigavon Bridge. The bridge is marked by a peace monument, depicting two figures with outstretched hands, reaching across the divide, not quite touching.

Even the city’s name remains hopelessly contentious. Officially, it retains the 17th-century designation, Londonderry, with its echo of British domination; the local authority, Catholic‑led, calls itself Derry City Council, and is appealing to the privy council to get it changed. On road signs, the “London” is often painted out. Tourist brochures call it “The Walled City” or “The Maiden City” (because the walls were never breached). Official documents usually refer to Derry/Londonderry, leading the local broadcaster Gerry Anderson to rechristen it “Stroke City”. If it wins the City of Culture title, officials talk of using the slogan “Legenderry”, which would be nice.

For, though the enmities have been murderous and the divisions are still real, the city has a striking, almost rustic, good nature. Both sides agree that the hatreds were more muted here than on the eastern side of Ulster, partly because the old shirt factories that once dominated the economy were integrated, which the Belfast shipyards, for instance, were not. It is the largest place I have ever been where a stranger has nodded a good morning to me in the city centre.

Now the battles are largely symbolic, but they manifest themselves in strange, passive ways. In London, the pubs were packed for the crucial England v Slovenia World Cup tie. I watched it in Peadar O’Donnell’s bar, on the edge of the Bogside, with about a dozen others, all cheering Slovenia’s more convincing attacks but accepting their ultimate failure with the phlegmatic weariness that comes from centuries of being thwarted by the English. (They would have enjoyed England v Germany more.)

Paul Hilley, a young man from one of the Waterside’s Catholic enclaves, explained his allegiances to me. “Who are you supporting?” “Slovenia,” he said at once. “What if it were the Republic of Ireland v Slovenia?” “Ireland”. “Northern Ireland v Slovenia?” “Slovenia”. A Protestant later gave me the reverse set of replies.

The old no-go areas for police may have gone, but anecdotal evidence suggests a city where authority continues to be regarded with more than normal contempt. There is of course a thriving drugs market, but also a particularly rampant trade in bootleg DVDs.

Derry’s majority has traditionally been on the receiving end of power, exercised with malign intent, first from London and then from the Unionist-controlled parliament at Stormont, which ruled Ulster for the benefit of the Protestant majority for 50 years until Westminster imposed direct rule just after Bloody Sunday.

But the Loyalists never controlled the narrative. And they still don’t. Ireland was seen to be staging a romantic and just struggle for freedom. The Protestants, with their northern majority, refused to join the Irish Free State, not out of love for the English, but through mistrust and fear. Their case was very human, but short on nobility. And, in the current context, extremely low on tourist potential.

The vengefulness engendered by Bloody Sunday helped drive the Protestants off the west bank over to the Waterside (“ethnic cleansing”, the victims now call it). Just one tiny enclave remains, the Fountain estate, hard by the Bogside, though even the most stupid tourists ought to understand the difference, amid the red-white-and-blue kerbstones, Red Hand of Ulster flags, and the “No Surrender” and “Londonderry Says No to Derry” signs.

Here the peace seems very illusory indeed. The only amenities for the 400-odd residents are a primary school and a youth club, run by Graham Warke, who has logged 68 attacks on the estate this year, involving anything from bricks to petrol bombs. “There is no safe area to play on the Fountain,” he said. “Most nights now I’m taking the kids away from the estate to play football or cricket or go-karting. They can’t even walk to the shops because they’ll be chased back again. It feels like being in the Big Brother house.”

On the edge of the estate is William Jackson, unemployed like so many here, whose house, he said, comes under nightly bombardment from youngsters – aged eight to 16 – lobbing missiles over the security fence that protects the Fountain. “All I’ve ever known is Troubles,” he said. But, I said, it’s just kids, isn’t it? “Look,” he replied, pointing to the fence, “there are three or four rows of houses over there. Why aren’t they coming out and chasing their kids away?”

The formal Unionist line is an acceptance, if perhaps a grudging one, of the Saville Report. Jackson, like all the other ordinary Protestants I met in Derry, is appalled, not by the conclusions, but by the whole 12-year exercise: “A scam … a sham … a total waste”. Another raged: “We could have had a new hospital for that money.”

“Some people are living in the past,” responded Jean Hagerty back at the museum. “But isn’t this living in the past?” I said, gesturing at the bloody shirt and the other relics. “Yes, to some extent. But we have to make sure we don’t repeat our mistakes.”

The Jackson house marks by far the roughest of what are known as “the interfaces”. Just up the hill is the Derry Playhouse, housed in an old convent, where the remarkable artistic director Pauline Ross works with both communities. Last year, the Playhouse took a production called We Carried Your Secrets across the province, using non-actors, including ex-combatants, who had their own roles in the Troubles. Counsellors were on hand to help the audiences. This has now been turned into a documentary. “Grown men cried when they saw it,” Ross said.

She is one of the great enthusiasts for this beguiling place. “We have an incredible city,” she said. “We go right back to the 6th century. St Columba founded it. It’s always been a place of saints, of scholars.” She paused. “He was a warrior too.” And thus Derry hangs, between the United Kingdom and the Irish Republic, between peace and war, between sainthood and villainy, between City of Carnage and City of Culture.

The new statuette was delivered to the museum by the city’s Protestant church leaders in the wake of the Saville Report. It is a replica of the peace monument by the bridge. But in this version the hands are touching, very lightly.


Matthew Engel’s Dispatch appears fortnightly.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics mentioned in this article

Comments have not been enabled for this article.