Peace Project in Derry City: A Bridge Over Troubled Water?
Saturday 25th June 2011 represented an extremely important day in the evolution of Northern Ireland’s once troubled and divided Derry City. Once the scene of arguably the most publicised event in Northern Ireland’s troubled past, Bloody Sunday, the ‘Maiden City’ has come a long way in the past twelve months.
Looking back to Tuesday 15th June 2010, the families and loved ones of those innocently killed in the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings, where members of the British Army opened fire on unarmed civil rights protesters, killing thirteen unarmed civilians, received the vindication they so passionately fought for in the thirty-eight years since that fateful day. Lord Saville’s much anticipated report officially confirmed that the victims were unlawfully killed, leading to an unprecedented apology from David Cameron. Exactly one month later, Derry was named as the UK’s City of Culture 2013, an achievement that is to generate millions of pounds of investment in areas that have been largely underfunded in recent years. Derry, like the entire Northern region appeared to be moving forward in leaps and bounds.
To cap a historic year in Northern Ireland’s second city, Saturday 25th June 2011 saw the grand opening of Derry’s ‘Peace Bridge’. The completion of this historic project sees the traditionally unionist Waterside area connected with the traditionally Nationalist Cityside area, providing a new link between divided communities. The opening ceremony was celebrated by thousands of people from both sides of the community, smiles strewn across the faces of all those in attendance.
The bridge in itself is a work of art, but what it represents is much greater. It completes Derry City’s progression from a paramilitary hotbed during the troubles, to the shining example of modern – day, peaceful Northern Ireland. In a recent meeting with SDLP MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly) for Foyle Mark H. Durkan, I asked him what the peace bridge represents to the people of Derry. He responded by saying “For Derry, indeed for the entire North, the bridge is a symbol of peace. It represents the end of division and shows Derry as a united city that is committed to moving forward and not backwards. The enthusiasm and the ‘feel good’ factor surrounding the opening of the Peace Bridge, has highlighted to the World the determination of the people of this city to continue to stand up for peace and progress.” When looking at Derry City’s achievements and progression in recent times, it appears to paint a very clear picture that Northern Ireland has put its troubled past behind it. As the people of Derry are now standing side by side, looking to a peaceful future, surely, as the opening of the ‘Peace Bridge’ would suggest, it marks the beginning of a whole new era in Northern Ireland.
If the events in Derry over the past twelve months, epitomised by the opening of the ‘Peace Bridge’, suggests that all is now well in Northern Ireland, events in Belfast five days previous certainly suggest otherwise. On the night of Monday 20th June 2011 sectarian violence erupted in East Belfast, trouble that was to continue into a second night. Over these two nights Belfast witnessed some of the most severe rioting it has seen in many, many years. While one part of Northern Ireland was looking to a shared future, another was making a return to “the dark days of the 70s and 80s” as one local resident aptly described it.
It is reported that sectarian tensions reached breaking point in the Short Strand area of the city, a Nationalist enclave in a predominantly Unionist area, after a gang of up to 100 hundred masked men, said to be members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), entered Nationalist housing estates and began to attack cars and properties. This then led to counter violence from members of the Nationalist community, resulting in two nights of prolonged violence and rioting. While glass bottles, bricks, stones and even petrol bombs have become standard armaments in sectarian riots over the years, undoubtedly the most worrying aspect of these riots in particular was the return of the sound of gunfire ringing out on the streets of Belfast.
It is widely acknowledged by the authorities within Northern Ireland that a very real threat to the peace process remains in the form of dissident republicans, who have been responsible for a number of attacks in recent months, including the murder of PC Ronan Kerr of the PSNI. However it is also widely believed that these faction groups receive little public support and do not represent the feelings and emotions of the majority of today’s population, therefore the sustained riots in East Belfast came as a shock to most. Most but not all that is. In the wake of the riots, community workers and local residents have made it very clear that the violence witnessed was not simply a spontaneous, one-off event, but rather the result of months of underlying sectarian tensions that have at best; been overlooked, and at worst; been blatantly brushed underneath the carpet by authorities and politicians alike.
While it is now widely recognised that it was the UVF that instigated the riots in East Belfast, it is also believed by many that this embodied a measure of desperation, simply representing a cry for help. While republican voices are heard in Stormont through the words of Martin McGuinness and his colleagues in Sinn Fein, many loyalists feel that their views, and more importantly their needs are being brushed aside due to their lack of political representation. It is now more than ever that our representatives must learn to be pro-active rather than reactive. Northern Ireland’s top politicians must engage with those communities who feel oppressed, who feel hard-done-by and who feel as though they have been left behind in the peace process.
So while recent events in Derry City, and various other areas throughout Northern Ireland, represent a region that is moving forward together in an attempt to leave behind its divided, troubled past, the recent trouble in East Belfast offers a stark reminder that while progress has most certainly been achieved, the journey to peace is still not yet complete. Full political engagement with all sectors of Northern Ireland’s still somewhat divided community is the only option that offers a realistic and sustained path to a more peaceful region. Therefore our elected representatives and political parties, having recently successfully completed their first full four year term in local assembly for over 40 years, must act fast and act decisively in order to ensure that the regressive scenes recently witnessed in East Belfast do not become common place on the streets of Northern Ireland once again.
Posted on July 2, 2011, in Devolved Government, General, Northern Ireland and tagged Derry City, Mark H. Durkan MLA, Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Executive, peace, Peace Bridge, politics matters, riots, Stormont. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.