How different is Derry? Dan Keenan in the Irish Times and Steven McCaffery in the Detail are right to celebrate the huge success of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann under the broad banner of UK City of Culture. McCaffery draws an appropriate conclusion from the inclusive flavour evident in the Fleadh and the whole year so far. What a turn round for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann as well as community relations in our time.
The Fleadh is an Irish event and will inevitably have a greater appeal to nationalists. But perhaps unionists, suspicious at the calls for the increased expression of Irish cultural identity in Northern Ireland, can glimpse how that can sit side-by-side with loyalist traditions without eroding British identity
Official figures confirmed that close to half a million people poured into stroke-city for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann – the annual pilgrimage of the Irish traditional music scene which drew to a close last night.
It is the first time in its 60 year history that the iconic event has come north of the Irish border and for that reason alone it was always going to be a big occasion.
But its importance to the wider political picture is that this quintessentially Irish celebration of identity and tradition was conducted under the banner of UK City of Culture and with the symbolic inclusion of members of the unionist community.
The headquarters of the loyalist Apprentice Boys was one of the venues, loyalist flute bands were included on the programme of events, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland pipe band was there.
And there was a huge Scottish contingent – nothing new for the Fleadh with its worldwide Celtic connections, but nevertheless providing another bridge to unionism’s Ulster-Scots tradition.
Just before the week-long Fleadh kicked off, thousands of Apprentice Boys took part in their biggest annual parade, which passed off without incident in the city.
Governor of the Apprentice Boys Jim Brownlee said that over the years people have learned to work together on issues such as parading and that dialogue has brought positive changes.
Lessons can be learned from Derry-Londonderry, even though there are no simple or easy answers to the problems facing the peace process.
McCaffery is right to acknowledge the absence of simple or easy lessons. While I yield to none at my satisfaction with developments in Derry, a few points of context should be added.. A City of Culture programme with the investment and tremendous effort that’s going into it can’t happen every year . Derry will revert to a more mundane existence. I look forward to the legacy debate,
Second, remember that Derry has an 80: 20 Catholic majority with the Protestants living mainly on the east bank of the Foyle. This is quite unlike the patchwork and pressure points of Belfast. The prods quit the west bank in the storm of the IRA campaign on the 1970s. They are now in terms of sectarian strengths, basically harmless.
You can if you like depict Derry as the Jerusalem of unionism but with the Arabs as the protectors of the holy places. It was local opinion that ensured the return of the siege flag stolen from St Columb’s cathedral last week. A portrait of the Earl bishop was similarly stolen and returned a couple of years ago. These sinister little acts together with attacks on the sad little Fountain ghetto behind its own high wall, and paint spatterings on the expensively restored Apprentice Boys Memorial Hall and First Derry Presbyterian Church, are perverted gestures designed to show that the planter tradition survives by nationalist permission . They are part of the rejectionist republican strategy such as it is, and are generally deplored. While the dissidents’ capacity for malignity can’t be written off, it’s great to see how they’ve contained in the city this year so far.
But these pathetic acts also serve as reminders that the nationalist majority have become the protectors of the unionist tradition in the city – as they should be, being the large majority. Active resentment at the gerrymander of another age seems to have disappeared. A lot of blood and water has flowed under Craigavon Bridge since. It’s a sign of maturity and self confidence that nationalists including Sinn Fein have embraced the heritage, restored Guildhall and all.. This is good community relations and sound economics too, because the sites are a tremendous tourist asset.
Londonderry then, is a success story. But it is not Belfast.
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