I’ve haven’t been listening in but I bet euphoria and cynicism in equal measure are greeting the news of Derry’s selection as the first UK City of Culture . A sentimental pat on the back for coming out the Troubles. A bouquet of apology for Bloody Sunday. Probably, up to a point. A sense of guilt should be mutual. The bad old past lingers. The Bogside, Creggan and Shantallow contain stubborn seed-beds of republican dissidence and the wider problem of aimless youth; the Fountain still languishes.
Braced for failure, the promoters of the Bid were already taking comfort in the success of how it was conceived. As a joint project it compared well with the glorious University for Derry campaign of the mid 1960s, only this time, the appearance of a united community will have been a crucial factor in the outcome. Well done, Martin Mc Guinness, it can’t have been easy.
The judges (and indeed the Department of Culture Media and Sport in London) are taking a big gamble on the power of culture to promote growth of all kinds – investor growth and the growth of self confidence among the people who are supposed to be the main beneficiaries. The whole future of the idea of UK City of Culture will rest on what Derry can make of it. Birmingham, Sheffield or Norwich would have been much safer bets. Bigger, with far better infrastructure of all kinds, and yes, still safer.
Presentationally the Bid was brilliant. Boldly and defiantly, they hung their hat on Derry’s chequered and divided history. Seamus Heaney’s lyricism set the tone for the high flown rhetoric of the culture industry. At the same time, they seemed aware of the danger of falling into the Derry trap of self-referential complacency. They were right to think big and outwards.
Derry-Londonderry has plans to invest more than £200m in its infrastructure to create a national cultural treasure at Ebrington and pursue World Heritage Status for the City Walls. The year of culture will ultimately create over 3,000 jobs, double visitor numbers and reach out to communities across Northern Ireland, the UK, RoI and the nine million Diaspora worldwide.
Without even reduced government money, I assume the new high speed digital links to the diaspora will be humming. Make Declan Kelly a Freeman of the City quick – or better still Bill Clinton.
Now comes the hard part, delivery. Can they really stage Big Events like the MTV awards on the site of the old Ebrington barracks? Without shared experience with wider audience the project will be an anti-climax, worthy no doubt, but without impact. A tough call for a small town.
In culture, above finance and logistics ideas are king. In the dizzy eloquence of the Bid document, you can detect a serious purpose. What does “cracking the cultural code ” to investigate our communities actually mean? Can Derry really ” create a new story?”
Just possibly they might. No , I don’t know what the story is. That’s the point. It has yet to be written. If a convincing account can be conceived and a year of cultural ambition accomplished, it may achieve much for Northern Ireland’s morale at home and reputation elsewhere.
For inspiration, I was dipping into that remarkable compendium about Derry warts and all, The Derry Anthology , edited by Sean McMahon. It shows how the place has compelled fascination much of it appalled, down the ages. In his memoir extracted here, the former minister Richard Needham wrote:
Derry’s history is a roller-coaster of success and hope followed by failure and despair”
The energy behind the Bid suggests that the direction of travel for the roller coaster may be reversed at last.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London