Derry/Londonderry: What's in a Name?

© CAIN (
By Zahbia Yousuf

It has been a curious few months for Northern Ireland’s second largest city. Recent events have awkwardly highlighted past hurt, present hopes and future dangers; spotlighting the turbulent journey Northern Ireland has travelled since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The release of the long-awaited Saville Report together with the awarding of UK City of Culture, brought renewed hopes for progress for a city with a legacy of violence and conflict, only to be sharply reminded of its past with bomb attacks in August and October.

The Saville Report, released in June, was the result of 12 years of investigation into the killing of 14 civil rights marchers by British soldiers on Bloody Sunday in 1972. The report exonerated those killed, and found the soldiers guilty of "a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline". It ran to 5,000 pages and 10 volumes, and reportedly cost GBP£191m to produce, but for the families of the victims it was a much awaited reprieve for their loved ones – finally acknowledging that the marchers killed that day had been unarmed and had been shot upon without warning or justification. Truth, justice, accountability – all ingredients in post-conflict processes to bring about reconciliation and healing in divided societies. The awarding of the city of the title of UK City of Culture 2013 affirmed this optimism for leaving the past behind, and a sense of regeneration. The city, the place for much of the violence and division that characterised the Troubles, also boasts two Nobel Prize winners, John Hume and Seamus Heaney. It was hoped that it could be the latter cultural and artistic achievements that would shape the city’s future and propel the city into international attention bringing investment, both artistically and economically. The award was even acclaimed by Republican politicians, who had previously rebuked the inclusion of "UK" in its title.

However, the celebratory banners adorning the city betray the optimism that the legacy of division has been put behind it. The debate over the name of the city has not been laid to rest, with "Derry/Londonderry" being the official title for the award. Furthermore, the yearly Orange marching season, beginning in June, brought with it escalating violence. This saw co-coordinated violence throughout nationalist areas of Northern Ireland during demonstrations against Orange marchers. Violent clashes erupted across Belfast, and in Lurgan, County Armagh. In the Bogside area of Derry, youths clashed with police throwing petrol bombs and other missiles. The summer also saw an upsurge in dissident Republican violence, both in the city and across Northern Ireland. The central police station in Derry/Londonderry faced two attacks, with a 200lb bomb exploding there in August. The city had been full of tourists – a nearby hotel had been packed with Americans, lured by the promotion of the city as one prospering from peace. More recently a similar sized car bomb exploded near in the city at the beginning of October. This followed an assessment by the British security services in September that raised the possibility of a dissident Republican attack on the mainland from "moderate to substantial" – meaning that authorities believe there is a "strong possibility of an attack taking place".

It is thought that the renewed violence is a result of co-operation between three factions opposed to the peace process - the Real IRA, Óglaigh na hÉireann (which claimed responsibility for the Strand Road blast) and the Continuity IRA (thought to have been responsible for a bomb attack against a police station in Craigavon). It is difficult to gauge the impact of such violence in terms of destabilising the peace process. In recent years unrest during the summer marching season has not been unusual and has been accredited to "recreational rioting". Furthermore, dissident Republicans have, since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, been engaged in low level attacks. However, there has been an increasing incidence of organised violence in nationalist areas, together with more organised methods of attack including targeted bomb attacks on individual police officers, with over 35 attacks this year taking place so far. It suggests a resurgence of dissident Republican force, and one with more sophisticated bomb making techniques and intelligence capabilities. The danger is that, in a repeat of the 1960s and 1990s Loyalist paramilitaries may feel under pressure to respond to attacks against Unionist communities, leading to a spiralling of violence that characterised the Troubles.

Rhetoric once again has revolved around whether talks should take place with the "men of violence". Whilst Sinn Fein has strongly condemned the attacks as a "disgrace to the people of Ireland", they have also argued for talks with dissidents, and have even suggested that talks are already taking place, though this has been denied by the British Government. The sticky position for Sinn Fein now is that, to their community, they appear to be on the wrong side of the political fence. It was only 20 years ago that heated debates over allowing Sinn Fein into political talks was raging in Westminster, and there is a sense that by sitting so snugly with Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party in Stormont, they have betrayed the cause they had fought for.

However, this is not the Northern Ireland of 40 years ago when the Troubles first broke out. The people have been through the pain of conflict, and the community support for renewed violence is relatively tiny compared to the widespread support enjoyed by the Provisional IRA during the Troubles. A survey in October revealed that 14 per cent of nationalists have sympathy with the objectives of groups like the Real IRA – though this does not translate into support for military action. Indeed the October bombing was followed by a peace rally in the city calling for an end to dissident republican violence. Furthermore, whilst dissidents proclaim they are still seeking a united Ireland, there are strong suggestions that financial motivations are stronger than political ones. Events such as the Saville Report and the City of Culture award reveal the desire and hope to leave the past to the past and look to a brighter future. The problem seems to be that it is a much more difficult and arduous task than was hoped or expected. Peace and conflict seem often to be two sides of the same coin. So what’s in a name? Quite a lot it seems.


9 November 2010


Photo Credit: CAIN (University of Ulster)