Two days in Derry
Since the Good Friday Agreement was signed, peace has been maintained in Northern Ireland. But now, after twenty years of progress, Brexit has got people thinking and talking about the border again. This August I spent two days in Derry watching the Bogside Republican Youth building a republican bonfire. It was a stark reminder that while the majority of people value peace; there are those who would see a return to conflict.
Looking out, over ordinary streets, it is difficult at first to get your head around the magnitude and reach of events, which occurred in the Bogside during the last century. The catholic neighbourhood, often described as a ‘war zone’ by those who grew up there during the Troubles, is situated in a valley below the old walled city. It is where the civil rights marches began in the late 1960s. Martin McGuinness grew up there. John Hume the founding member of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, now gravely ill, still lives there. Looking towards the border you can see the Brandywell Football Stadium and nearby, the cemetery where the victims of Bloody Sunday are buried.
I visited Derry in August. A friend in London arranged for a relative to show me round. Standing on the west wall, he pointed to where the British army had been stationed during the conflict and the headquarters of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, still guarded by a high metal fence. Here, he told me was where the Battle of the Bogside had begun, one of the first major clashes of the Troubles.
That was almost fifty years ago. It is twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Although Stormont is currently dissolved and the DUP and Sinn Féin are in deadlock, peace and relative stability in Northern Ireland have been maintained. That afternoon, we walked around the walls amongst sightseers and guided tours. On the double bastion, next to the cannon ‘Roaring Meg’, we met two children’s presenters in wigs, Hawaiian shirts and rain macs, filming with a camera crew. Beyond the grassy bank below, people wandered around photographing the ‘Free Derry’ wall and murals by The Bogside Artists.
Yet, paramilitary groups are still active in the area. Walking towards the Bishop Street Gate, my guide drew my attention to a growing stack of pallets, behind a corrugated fence, close to the modest looking Bogside Inn. The tri-colour was flying from the painted lampposts nearby. Graffitied on the fence were the letters ‘IRA, B.R.Y’, and the words ‘BRIOGAID DHOIRE 1st BATT’, and ‘SF/PSNI you are warned’.
Over the next two days, from the walls I watched the young men building the bonfire. On the first evening, from behind Durrow Park teenagers and children merrily bounced countless tyres towards the pyre. The bonfire was supposedly to mark the Catholic Feast of Assumption. Afterwards it was branded a hate crime by the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) owing to the boards placed upon it, with the names of police and prison officers murdered by dissident republicans.
Up on the Walls, my guide and I had met a man showing his daughter where he grew up. He’d asked about the activities below.
Then said, ‘Of course it’s not sectarian,’ with a wry smile.
‘It’s to celebrate the rising of our lady,’ my guide agreed.
‘More like tit for tat,’ the man said more seriously. ‘You made a bonfire, so we’ll make ours bigger.’
On the east walls, I later saw the parched earth where the Fountain Estate unionist fire had been a few weeks before to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne. Beyond the site, painted on the wall were the words ‘Londonderry west bank loyalists still under siege. NO surrender.’
The two men reminisced about their childhoods in the Bogside.
‘You’re a little young,’ the man had said ‘but I was a teenager when the hunger strikes were on. It was a dark time. Then I thought it was normal. But it was a dark, crazy place to grow up.’ He nodded to the youths below. ‘What’s going on down there now,’ he said, ‘is the equivalent of child abuse.’
‘You have to wonder who is behind it,’ my guide agreed. ‘Who is organising it? Somebody is giving them ideas.’
Since the peace agreement was signed there has been sporadic violence in the Bogside. According to newspaper reports, the New IRA were behind the recent riots and petrol bombs in the run up to the 12th of July celebrations, when the police and protestant community were attacked. My guide explained, ‘There are still people who believe we should be fighting a war.’ But then, to put the disturbances into context he reminded me how the Bogside had been during the Troubles. He suggested the recent violence was mainly driven by self-interest and turf wars. ‘It’s really, really important to remember,’ he said, ‘that any flare-ups are from a small minority. Media focus on the bonfires and other events misses the experiences of most people. The rest of the community don’t support or want it. It was local people, not the police, who stopped the rioting in July.’
From the walls, a hundred yards away we could see an alternative more congenial bonfire being built by the community, to provide an alternative focus. The next day, as the young men removed the corrugated fence from the controversial site with a sledgehammer in preparation for the evening’s activities, a group of youth workers set up a huge water slide on the opposing bank for local children.
But despite their efforts, the atmosphere was tense. As I walked down the hill towards the bonfire, some of the young men were standing in the middle of the Lecky Road taking selfies. One man picked up his girlfriend posing in front of the pallets and flags. I met an Italian photographer there. He’d tried to talk to them the night before, but said they’d been out of it and ‘really, really angry.’
The purpose of my visit to Northern Ireland was to research people’s views on Brexit and Europe. Most I spoke with said the uncertainty created by the referendum result was already a disaster. As one man in Belfast put it – ‘After twenty years of progress, Brexit has focussed people’s attention on the border once again.’
Standing on the Walls you can see the hills of Donegal. The border is just a few miles away and surrounds the Bogside on three sides. The deadline for the Brexit negotiations is fast approaching, but it is still unclear what the plan for the border is. Nearly everyone I spoke with felt the re-introduction of a hard border was untenable. People feared, even if it were avoided, any camera or device set up to monitor the boundary would become a target. In the worst case, as my guide warned, the re-introduction of border guards or a military presence would add fuel to the existing violence and occasional flare up currently limited to a few extremists and disenfranchised young men.