“Derry/Londonderry” is either an expression or stalemate or a statement of intent to create a truly shared future. The UK City of culture bid should help decide which it really is. Outwardly, the Jerusalem of Ulster where I grew up over half century ago has survived far better than I could have hoped. The physical layout is still the perfect metaphor for Northern Ireland’s sectarian divide. Proud citadel towers over huddled masses in an area below obligingly called the Bogside. But within the citadel, all has changed utterly. People like me no longer exist. The citadel is an empty shell.
Our house within the walls was ringed by Church and State: the magnificent late Georgian courthouse; Irish Society House, the local base of the City of London livery companies; the Deanery and the old Bishop’s Palace, both paid for out of Presbyterian and Catholic tithes to the Established Church. And at the summit, the Planters’ Cathedral whose stones still speak eloquently of the great royal and English colonisation project of Ulster. The Bogside is 400 yards and a world away.
In my childhood the curfew bell, one of five bells personally donated by Charles 1, still rang out symbolically across the walled city. Does it still? Catholics in at nine in the morning, Catholics out at nine at night. Even in the late 1950s, Cardinal D’Alton’s motorcade was banned from the walled city. On Oct 5 1968 the Civil Rights challenge to the ban sparked the entire Troubles. Straight away the old order began to topple. In the following decade Mr McGuinness and friends blew it all away.
The flames have long since died down but the embers of sectarianism can flare up still. Last August, a portrait of the Earl Bishop Frederick Hervey was stolen from the cathedral and set alight on top of a Bogside pile along with a Union Jack, in imitation of a loyalist bonfire. It was a calculated and sinister reminder of where the power lies. Condemnation was universal and too much shouldn’t be made of it but it points to serious unfinished business. In our time it was the besiegers who won. Today Derry folk talk a great reconciliation game but social life is nearly as separate as Cold War Berlin’s. The Fountain, Derry’s Shankill, has been reduced to a tragic little ghetto where the people cling on to the last patch of historic territory. Something has to change.
Enter the Ilex regeneration project. In an inspired piece of social and physical engineering, work has started on the Peace footbridge spanning the Foyle from the waterfront behind the Guildhall to the Protestants of the Waterside. The city centre will be linked to the parade ground of the old Ebrington army barracks, where a new public space the size of Trafalgar Square is being created for big events or just hanging out. Fingers are crossed for a positive cross community response.
One obstacle should be cleared away. Will the name change nonsense ever end? I’m surprised how strongly I feel about it. Leave Londonderry alone and call it Derry as much as you like. Republicans can’t have a monopoly of parity of esteem. Will the politicians match the ambition of Ilex with a real drive for a warmer relationship? Grand projects alone won’t produce nirvana.
Behind the Derry experience lies a fundamental question. The city’s 80:20 Catholic/Protestant ratio is shared with the island of Ireland as a whole. Is it substantial enough to bring new life to an old world, or has the population slide passed the point of no return? The Derry project is a big test of practical pluralism, of whether heritage can be embraced for the common good or whether it will hang around our necks like a millstone and blight our future.
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