Exploring a little “peace” of Derry – the regeneration of city and community!

A project supported by the European Union’s PEACE IV Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB).

Over 40 members of local cross border cross community groups were part of a Monaghan Community Network study visit to Derry/Londonderry from 30th November to 1st December 2018, funded by Peace IV. The cross community engagement project included a visit to the Siege Museum of the Apprentice Boys, the Walls of Derry, the Peace Bridge, a visit to the Museum of Free Derry, the Apprentice Boys “Shutting of the Gates” parade, and a visit to Martin McGuinness’s grave. There was free time for participants to explore other historic buildings and areas of the city in order to learn and appreciate elements of other cultural and historical backgrounds, and to learn to promote respect, rather than just tolerance – some of these included areas where the participants would have not felt comfortable enough to visit previously.

Why Derry/Londonderry, a place where residents themselves can’t even agree on what to call the place? A number of initiatives in the city to overcome parades, conflict and legacy issues have led to an innovative conflict resolution project called “The Derry Model”. This conflict transformation and peacebuilding “warts and all” project was based on a number of breakthroughs pioneered in the city which included the city council’s decision to share power in 1973, agreement reached over contentious parades between the Apprentice Boys and the Bogside residents group in 2000, and on the Bloody Sunday justice campaign and subsequent British government apology.

Located within the walled old town, the Siege Museum artifacts, video and interactive media tells the story of the “Apprentice Boys” was positively biased towards this side of the conflict but nevertheless explains well that perspective, but the Free Derry museum provided an opposing perspective with a similar level of bias. Given the reconciliation process and seemingly current harmony, some found the obvious biases a little discomforting, but worth seeing to get an understanding of near recent history and conflict.

Good fences make good neighbours? There was time to walk the historic walls – created from stone, but also from attitudes! Bias (real, implicit, and imaginary) and its companion, distrust, impact upon the fair administration of justice in a community. Our diverse group shared conversations about the walls, and how divisive they have been shaped by prejudices, suspicion and hate, and how they too have helped to promote tourism and economic recovery by drawing people to the city.

The “giant handshake” that is the Derry Peace Bridge was another important landmark in the weekend itinerary, making a physical and political connection between a once bitterly divided city. The S shaped structure is made from 2 “arms” heading in opposite directions, symbolising the unification of two opposing communities on either side of the Foyle river, the Catholic Bogside, and the Protestant Waterside. A difficult bridge to design considering the segregated religions are almost identical in dogma and theology– however the concept of connecting communities at times was not just difficult – it was near impossible.

The later workshop continued the peacebuilding theme – and international singer and songwriter Patsy Cavanagh and his brother Peter provided a lovely opportunity to network with music, singing and dancing – many of the songs also reflective of the themes like emigration which shaped our history. Many of these ballads evoke nostalgia, the pain of departure, exile, the love of the homeplace  and at times bitterness and loss – very few of them celebrated the joy of new opportunities, new cultures, or an improved life experience – a reminder to us all of the importance of understanding, integrating, and welcoming new communities and cultures who live among us.

Parades and emblems are an important part of the culture of the city, and traditionally were an area of conflict. However, the Apprentice Boys march showed an example of peaceful cross community cooperation, brought about by groups from across the city working together to get agreement and compromise on the parade. One notable thing about both the Free Derry museum and the parade was different “noise” – the noise of confusion, violence and fear in the multi media presentations of the museum, and the “noise” of triumphalism, drums, colour and pageantry of the parade.

It seemed strange to visit a cemetery of an IRA commander as part of a peacebuilding tour, and indeed, like some of the earlier events, it was difficult and uncomfortable for some participants. However, Martin McGuinness, from the Republican Bogside traded arms for the ballot box and served as the First Minister of Northern Ireland from 2007 to 2017. During his tenure, he was part of notable and memorable gestures of reconciliation, including a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II and taking part in a toast to the Queen at Windsor Palace. Tentative steps in the hope of adjusting to a new and optimistic reality.

A notable and opportunist event of the weekend was the visit of Bishop Donal McKeown to our group before we departed from the hotel. A distant relative of a few of the participants, Bishop Donal is the successor of Fr Edward Daly (and later Bishop), who was involved in civil rights protests and appears in a famous photo of Bloody Sunday escorting a group carrying a mortally wounded young boy. Bishop Daly was noted for his efforts with others to promote Catholic/Protestant harmony, and he and Bishop James Mehaffy are remembered as two of only four “Freemen” of Derry, for their critical role in the life of the city.

It was a busy weekend – and valuable in terms of networking, socialising, and getting to know and understand new people who may not share our culture. There was a forum for dialogue and shared learning, and the whole weekend provided the vehicle to encourage participation and allow like minded participants to build trust and healthy relationships, in a formerly torn city that is an example of “bottom up” community transformation. A culture of dialogue where concerns and fears can be aired is the catalyst for understanding and peacbuilding, and it is a good lesson to take away and apply in our own cultures and communities. Click on images to enlarge…..