Why Derry? How a City that’s continually held back became a Dissident Stronghold…

Just two hours before this year’s Good Friday – a time of year which holds clear associations with peace and progress in this part of the world – a talented young journalist was murdered on the streets of Northern Ireland by Dissident Republicans. The murder has been widely condemned, and has sent shock waves through a British and global media that had mistakenly believed this part of the world had completed its transition towards peace.

Amid the intense media coverage the murder sparked, one question went largely unasked. And put simply, that is – why Derry? Dissidents may represent only a very small rump of modern day nationalist and republican opinion, but their presence is by no means restricted to Northern Ireland’s second city. They also have a noticeable presence in Lurgan and West Belfast – yet it is in Derry where they appear to be at their strongest and most active. July last year saw five consecutive nights of rioting in the city, with petrol bombs, bullets and improvised grenades directed at the police. It was the worst disturbances the city had seen for decades, and the finger of blame was pointed at the New IRA. Then in January a car bomb exploded outside Derry’s Courthouse, with a group of teenagers who had walked past just a short time earlier having a lucky escape. And now Easter has seen the murder of a journalist as shots were fired at armoured police landrovers.

It is important to reflect on why these isolated incidents of republican violence have been focused specifically in Derry – because it is starkly at odds with the overall direction the city has taken in recent times. Derry has long been placed at the centre of Northern Ireland’s difficult history. It was the location where the first sparks that lit the fuse of the Troubles ignited in the late 1960s. It was where the tragic events of Bloody Sunday unfolded in 1972 – fuelling those Troubles for significantly longer than they would otherwise have endured. And the city and county of Derry contributed half of the ten men who died in the 1981 Hunger Strikes. Yet despite being steeped in the history and brutality of the Troubles (and still bearing many physical and psychological scars from it), Derry is regularly held up as a model of peace and reconciliation and an example to the rest of NI on how to resolve differences. Tremendous work has been done within the city over decades to patiently unpick and resolve complex inter-communal issues. Despite Derry being subject to the most blatant sectarian vote-rigging up until Londonderry Corporation was abolished in 1972, for example, the nationalist-controlled council which replaced it opted from the start for voluntary power-sharing – being the first council in NI to rotate its mayoralty between nationalists and unionists (as it still does to this day). Throughout the Troubles, the two Apprentice Boys of Derry marches every year were a regular source of division and conflict in the city. Yet for two decades tens of thousands of loyalists have marched through the almost entirely catholic Cityside of Derry twice a year without any real incident or opposition. Contrast this with the turmoil that has afflicted parades elsewhere in NI up to recent times (e.g. Belfast’s Twadell Avenue protests, which continued until 2016). The tolerance shown towards loyalist parades taking over Derry’s city centre twice a year is simply unparalleled within Northern Ireland, and came about after years of careful dialogue and mutual respect on both sides within the city. When Fleadh Cheoil na h’Eireann – the world’s biggest celebration of Irish music – was held in Derry in 2013, the Derry-based organising committee proactively sought the inclusion of the protestant community. The Apprentice Boys headquarters was included as an events venue, and loyalist flute bands also took part in events – with Ireland’s oldest (The Churchill) featuring in the closing ceremony. It was the first time in the Fleadh’s 62 year history that anyone had even thought to include music from Ireland’s loyalist tradition, and flute bands have been invited to participate in the annual event again since. And when it comes to football – an arena marred by much division within Northern Ireland – Derry has similarly strived for inclusivity. Derry City FC are located in the resolutely nationalist Brandywell area, play in the Republic of Ireland’s league and are generally considered a ‘catholic’ team. Yet it is extremely rare to see Irish flags displayed by home fans at the stadium. Instead, the club’s fan culture has for years deliberately focused on their red and white colours in a conscious attempt to eschew the sectarian symbols that are commonplace at other stadia throughout the North. The club itself even banned the display of national flags a number of years ago – something which would be unheard of within the Irish League. And even the last great shiboleth in Northern Irish football – that Brandywell Stadium is unsafe for certain teams to visit – has been laid to rest this season as a result of the traditionally-protestant Institute FC taking up residency there without issue. These are changed times indeed on Foyleside.

None of this is to suggest that Derry is a problem-free poster child for a shared society – because it isn’t. The city continues to face some key challenges, as those living there are only too aware – not least the extent of physical segregation between catholic and protestant populations/neighbourhoods. But the distance which Derry as a whole has travelled to get to a place of relative peace and mutual understanding is arguably greater than any other city in NI. And it is this which makes its emergence as a hotspot for Dissident Republican activity all the more incongruous.

No single reason will explain why Derry has become the place where violent republicanism is making its last stand – but one factor undoubtedly plays a greater role than is being acknowledged. And that is the fact that, twenty years into Northern Ireland’s Peace Process – whilst Belfast undergoes an economic boom and tourists flock to the Titanic, Giants Causeway and Dark Hedges – Northern Ireland’s second city is being increasingly left behind. Last year I wrote a three-part series for Slugger O’Toole and the Derry Journal entitled “Why is Derry so Poor, and Why is Nothing Being Done About It?”. It provided a comprehensive analysis of the numerous indicators which show that Derry is an economic and social outlier within Northern Ireland and the UK. I won’t repeat its litany of statistics here, but would instead recommend that anyone who wants to genuinely understand the breadth of economic and social challenges facing Derry should read it.

One economic indicator which I will focus on here, however, is unemployment. Derry has suffered one of the highest rates of unemployment of any UK city for some time – especially amongst young people and males, and particularly for long-term unemployment (almost half the city’s claimants are classified as ‘long-term unemployed’, vs a 33% NI average and a 31% UK average). Until recently three Northern Ireland constituencies regularly featured in the UK’s Top 10 for unemployment: Belfast West, Belfast North and Foyle (Derry). This has changed recently, however, with the two Belfast constituencies experiencing a sharp decline in their unemployment rates :



– Foyle :                                  8.1%

– Belfast West :                     6.8%

– Belfast North :                    4.8%

– East Londonderry :            4.8%

– West Tyrone :                     4.4%

– Northern Ireland :               3.5%

– UK :                                      3.4%

As can be seen, Northern Ireland’s unemployment is broadly in line with the UK average. That represents a remarkable turnaround in barely a decade, with NI going from the top of the UK unemployment charts to nowadays ranking lower than Scotland and many English regions. In contrast Foyle continues to be one of the worst places for unemployment in the whole of the UK – with a claimant count almost two and a half times higher than the NI average. The second worst location for unemployment here – Belfast West – has a claimant count 20% lower than Foyle, whilst the third worst (Belfast North) is a full 40% lower. Furthermore – Belfast North has benefited from a 20% reduction in its unemployment over the last 12 months, whilst Derry has faced a 7% rise. And the two constituencies which neighbour Foyle are also in NI’s Top 5 for unemployment (East Londonderry and West Tyrone). It is therefore clear that whilst the Northern Ireland economy as a whole continues to converge with the rest of the UK, and whilst the worst locations for unemployment in the east of the province continue to improve at pace, Derry is being increasingly left behind as an isolated and increasingly unique exception.

The contrast is even starker when you consider youth unemployment. Belfast has seen huge reductions in its 18-24y old claimant count over the last year, whilst Foyle has barely changed :


March 2019 vs March 2018 :

– Belfast North :                    – 33.3% decrease.

– Belfast South :                    – 11.5% decrease.

– Belfast West :                     – 10.0% decrease.

– Belfast East :                      – 7.4% decrease.

– Northern Ireland :               – 2.0% decrease.

– Foyle :                                  – 1.4% decrease.

In real numbers, this means that there are 310 fewer young people unemployed across Belfast today than there were a year ago, whilst Derry has seen a parallel reduction of only 10. When you factor in that a third of children in Derry are being raised in poverty and 43% receive free school meals (vs a 31% NI average), you can start to understand why there is a marked sense of hopelessness amongst a large portion of the city’s young. In a 2017 youth survey within the city, a staggering 95% of respondents stated that they saw no future for themselves within Derry. 40% indicated that they expected to have to leave to find work, with a further 21% expecting to leave to secure a University place.

The second article in the ‘Why is Derry so poor?’ series last year looked at what I believe are the various reason for the city’s poor economic performance. Many are structural, and the result of a lack of investment over a prolonged period of time. Derry remains the only city on the island unconnected by a motorway or dual carriageway. And despite being the fourth biggest conurbation on the island, it has the lowest Higher Education provision of any of the 14 towns and cities with degree-awarding institutions. Roads and a University have been red hot topics within the city for over fifty years now – and despite an endless litany of promises and some progress of-late, neither have been fully addressed. So whilst Belfast contains pockets of serious deprivation, it differs from Derry in one key way. If you live in a deprived part of Belfast, there are still employment opportunities available within a few miles of your home. There is a good range of training and Higher Education provision – including two large universities – which can help make you more eligible to land one of those jobs. And there is relatively good public transport to help you physically get to work or training. The same simply cannot be said when it comes to Derry – where unemployment is high, training and HE provision are limited, jobs in neighbouring towns are also scarce, and the infrastructure required to access the limited opportunities that do exist is largely absent. It’s why the annual PWC ‘Good Growth for Cities’ report has ranked Derry as bottom of the UK’s 57 cities for economic well-being for every year that it has included the city. Derry’s position as Northern Ireland’s economic and social outlier is therefore no coincidence. It is the predictable outcome of a city being left without the basic ingredients it needs to prosper.

It is that context of wholesale neglect which I believe goes some way in helping to explain why Dissident activity is more pronounced in Derry than in other Republican strongholds.

Because it provides an environment that is ripe for exploitation and radicalisation. Fortunately, most people in life do not fall victim to criminal or extremist activities, no matter how difficult or hopeless their circumstances may feel. But there will always be a small percentage for whom such narratives prove intoxicating. And Derry’s economic situation arguably provides a more ready supply of such individuals than anywhere else in NI. Add the negativity around Brexit and the north’s political stalemate into the mix, and the Dissident narrative in Derry essentially writes itself. The greatest recruiting sergeant for violent republicanism within Derry is the fact that an impressionable minority there feel that they and their city have been left behind, and that they have nothing to lose.

Nowhere within the tide of media coverage which followed the murder of Lyra McKee where these particular dots joined together. Lyra herself had written about the lack of a Peace Process dividend for young people in Northern Ireland, but within that didn’t focus specifically upon circumstances in her adopted home town of Derry. And a couple of Guardian journalists commented upon issues within the Creggan Estate in particular, but not Derry overall. And whilst they mentioned that Lyra had described herself as a child of the peace process, they didn’t acknowledge that the neighbourhood in which she was shot was in contrast a child of Northern Ireland’s sectarian history. The Creggan Estate was built in the 1960s at a time when Derry was a gerrymandered city. The unionist-controlled council rigged the electoral system to ensure they retained a majority on the council, despite comprising a minority of its population. Twenty council seats were allocated across three electoral wards in the city – not on the basis of population, but on geography. As a result 8,800 protestant voters (primarily spread across the North and Waterside wards) elected a total of twelve councillors, whilst Derry’s 14,500 catholic voters (largely crammed into the South Ward) could only elect eight. At the time that Creggan was built the planning fashion across Europe was to address inner-city overcrowding by transferring people to new edge-of-town housing (e.g. Rathcoole Estate on the outskirts of North Belfast). But that would’ve upset the delicately crafted electoral maths within Londonderry Corporation. So over-crowded Catholic families were instead decanted from the Bogside to a new housing development built on a windswept hill which overlooked their old homes – despite other sites around the city being markedly more suitable for housing. And so was born Creggan Estate, a child of the sectarian governance that blighted Derry prior to the Troubles.

Much has changed for the Creggan Estate since the sectarian circumstances which gave rise to it in the 1960s. But as a place where in 2019 almost two-thirds of children are born into poverty, it still has its problems. It would be a mistake however – as the few journalists who’ve probed the issue have suggested – to look upon the Dissident phenomenon in Derry as an isolated Creggan issue. Instead, there is a ready tinder of lost opportunities, unfulfilled dreams and neglected lives in communities right across Derry. The Dissidents know that, and are exploiting it in the most cynical fashion. Since Lyra McKee was murdered they have rightly been rounded upon from all quarters – but it could so easily have been a different story. What if someone in or around the rioting this April or last July had been knocked down by a police landrover, for example? In those sort of circumstances it could well have been the security forces bearing the brunt of public outrage. I would even go so far as to suggest that this may be part of the Dissident strategy – to stoke up anger and engineer confrontations in the hope of provoking a heavy-handed police response, leading to unintended consequences. The PSNI didn’t give them what they wanted on the night Lyra was killed, as they stayed instead in their landrovers and essentially ‘absorbed’ the impact of the rioting. Which made the act of shooting at an armour plated vehicle all the more futile.

To conclude – unless you subscribe to a view that there is something inherently bad or violent within Derry and its people, then there is a need to understand why it is proving to be such a unique harbour for Dissident Republican activity. Indeed – it is only by seeking to understand such a problem can it genuinely be tackled. Derry is unique for being the place in Northern Ireland where violent Republicanism continues to be most active, two decades into the Peace Process. And the city is also unique for the level of economic and social deprivation that it faces, and the absence of the ingredients and opportunities required to help address it. The connection between these two exceptionalisms needs to be genuinely considered and addressed by those in power. Yet there is no recognition within officialdom of Derry’s status as an economic outlier. The statistics are there for all to see, and are doubtless well known within both politics and the civil service. Yet they have elicited neither commentary nor policy action in response. Twenty-one years on from the Good Friday Agreement, this is unacceptable. Northern Ireland’s second city should not be being left behind as an economic and social outlier. Tackling Derry’s chronic hardship and historical underinvestment is the right thing to do for Northern Ireland, full stop. But I also believe it would do more to undermine the Dissident Republican narrative than any number of traditional security force measures are likely to achieve on their own. Particularly as each just offers Dissidents the opportunity they seek for a confrontation with unintended consequences. Until the tinder that Dissident elements hope to catch light with one of their sparks are removed, their flame will continue to burn in the minds of a small but impressionable minority with little to lose in one of the UK and Ireland’s most disadvantaged cities.

Subscript : It has taken three attempts over eight months to write this article – from the time of the July rioting in Derry last year, to the murder of Lyra McKee at Easter. What has prevented completion on those previous occasions was concern at the response it would provoke. Some will seek to dismiss this article as providing excuses for Dissident activity (it does not). Others will brush it off as just “Derry whinging” (as if there isn’t sufficient weight of evidence for people there to justifiably complain). Others still just don’t want to hear the fact that Northern Ireland’s second city has been cut adrift from the rising tide of post-Troubles prosperity. But I believe that each significant outburst of Dissident activity in Derry makes the case for this article stronger, and proves that the issues and questions it raises can no longer be brushed aside. Why is Derry the one place where Dissident Republican messages and methods appear to have gained most ground, and why is no-one in the media or in politics pondering this question? I believe that Derry’s unique level of neglect and deprivation provides part of the answer, and that the dots can remain un-joined no longer. Unless we begin to understand what is making Derry a Dissident hotspot twenty years into the project for peace, and call out the reasons as we see them, we risk seeing further such activity blighting the city and Northern Ireland for many more years to come.

Derry Cityscape – HDR” by “Derry Cityscape – HDR” is licensed under “Derry Cityscape – HDR

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