Derry Essays 2: A city on the border…

Derry is in the UK, true enough, but not only in the UK. The potential ‘UK City of Culture’ now stretches well beyond the boundaries of the state. Housing estates full of Derry commuters have sprung up in recent years on all the roads that stretch north, south and west of the city centre and across the nearby international boundary.

Some people jokingly refer to Golan Hill on the outskirts of Buncrana in Co Donegal as ‘Golan Heights’ because there are said to be so many ‘settlers’ from Derry living there. At the same time, the dominant nationalist civic culture in Derry stretches the ‘banal’ everyday nationalism that dominates south of the border across the border and into the heart of the city where symbols of Ireland are an ubiquitous feature of everyday life.

The dismantling of the looming military border checkpoints that ringed the city during the Troubles has facilitated the accelerating interpenetration of city and rural hinterland but Derry was always a cross-border city.

Derry has the odd distinction that it was a cross-border city for unionists as well as for nationalists. Some of the B-Specials serving in the Derry unit in the 50s and 60s headed back to homes across the border in Co Donegal after their day’s work defending that border while the City of Londonderry Grand Orange Lodge stretched out beyond the bounds of the city and beyond the outer bounds of the United Kingdom to include lodges in east Donegal.

One quarter of the Unionist members of the infamously gerrymandered Londonderry corporation of the 60s lived across that border, some of them playing a busy part in the life of north Donegal as well as that of Derry. A Derry that stretched out and over the border, beyond the confines of the UK, if not beyond the confines of the province of Ulster, has long been embedded in both unionist and nationalist civic cultures in the city, even if the Troubles gave many unionists strong reasons for turning their backs to the border.

This is not to say that the border of the UK is slowly dissolving at this far north-western edge. The border might be open now but open or not borders push people apart. In a masterly study of everyday life in divided Berlin, carried out just a few years before the wall came down, anthropologist John Borneman outlined how the two German states had created two distinct kinds of people in Berlin and in Germany as a whole. The creation of two distinct identities produced neither a securely separate national identity for the east German state nor loyalty to that state. But it did create a sense of mutual recognition and mutual identification between those with a shared experience of growing up in that state.

The Irish border might never lead to enthusiastic northern nationalist identification with the Northern Ireland state but it continues to push people on both sides of the border apart, a powerful inhibitor of shared action and shared understandings.

The border may be open, but identities and interactions are still structured by it, and divergent experiences of education, health services and a hundred other aspects of everyday life continue to widen the gap, even in the northwest of Ireland where Donegal and Derry sometimes seem to have melted together and the border to have vanished into the past.

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