Sinn Fein recently produced a round- up of Uncomfortable Conversations intended by promote reconciliation. With that in mind, is dropping the “London” prefix from the official name of the traditional city within the boundaries of the newly expanded local government district, really one we need to have again? Particularly as it’s doomed to failure. In a local government sense Londonderry may be said not exist any more , just as the old six counties don’t either. And just as “Belfast Co Antrim” is so often used, although defunct since the late 19th century, when Belfast and Londonderry became county boroughs formally outside the counties. But of course these terms exist emotionally as strongly as ever.
Sinn Fein’s initiative is part of its campaign to embarrass the SDLP over which one is the better nationalist, in advance of next year’s elections. Sadly, it usually works. And no doubt it’s always tempting to wind up Gregory Campbell. It also exposes the uncomfortable fact that a place’s identity is not wholly in its own hands and rests in eponymous imperialist London – unless a court were to reverse an earlier ruling and decide otherwise.
The move is surely out of kilter with modern Derry’s real interests, after years of gentle mockery by the late Gerry Anderson, a maiden city patriot if ever there was one. It comes at a very odd juncture in Derry’s recent history. Since the UK City of Culture, the new stroke city coinage of Derry/Londonderry despite being cumbersome, has really caught on as a positive statement of cross community respect . Why not throw in “Doire” as well?
The highly experienced and patient readers’ editor of the Belfast Telegraph Paul Connolly gets it right with a policy also followed by the broadcasters. In the old days, there was always one exception at first mention. Somehow, “Londonderry IRA leader Martin McGuinness “ wouldn’t have sounded quite right.
The reasons for letting the hare sit are surely more than adequate for everybody. The “London” traditions have shrewdly been adopted as a marketing strategy for tourism. Without it, Derry‘s visible history would be largely confined to Free Derry Corner. What is the tourist supposed to think, visiting the splendid tableau of the city’s stormy history on show in the Guildhall, if it ended with the information that the association with London, so strongly part of the its selling appeal and now comfortably absorbed by history, had been dropped from the city’s name after three hundred years?
This is not like Kingstown or Queen’s County whose Irish names were obliterated. It embraces usage by unionists who would never dream of saying to each other: “Are you going into Londonderry today?” And “ Derry “is the term for the Apprentice Boys, the first Presbyterian Church and the pre-Plantation traditions of the Church of Ireland.
The plan to raise the issue is tedium in spades and almost certainly futile if it leads to a petition to the Privy Council, which in effect means the British government. Instead the overwhelmingly nationalist majority can continue to claim maturity and magnanimity despite 50 years of unionist gerrymander, if they really want to go there, after nearly 50 years more. The issue is a poor paradigm for their wider project, as it’s almost certainly a loser. Too often, Sinn Fein are schizophrenic in their public attitudes. They should work harder to decide which mind they want to adopt. Do they respect the Unionist tradition or not?
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