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Derry: a city still haunted by rigid segregation and poverty

Flowers at the spot where Lyra McKee was shot in Derry. Brian Lawless/PA Wire

There has been an outpouring of grief and an unusual united political front in the city of Derry, Northern Ireland. It has come following the death of journalist Lyra McKee, shot dead in the Creggan area of the city the night before Good Friday.

Twenty-one years earlier, after the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was signed and Northern Ireland witnessed a general decline in political violence, it was widely hoped that this would lead to economic growth – the so-called peace dividend. The argument ran that 30 years of conflict had retarded the growth seen in other parts of the UK and Ireland, and that a rapid catch–up would accompany peace.

In Derry, where the seeds of economic underdevelopment were arguably a cause and not a consequence of the conflict, the peace dividend never materialised.

Derry’s economic underdevelopment stems partially from its geography. The 17th century origins of Londonderry – the colonial prefix added in recognition of the efforts of the livery companies of London in establishing the new walled city – lay in its strategic location during the Plantation of Ulster. But this importance was undermined over the next centuries, as Derry quickly began to stagnate.

Today the city’s official name is Londonderry, while the local council is called Derry City and Strabane District Council. Nationalists refer to the city as Derry, viewing the “London” prefix as a colonial imposition, while unionists view the prefix as an important part of their identity and have resisted attempts to officially rename the city as Derry.

The Partition of Ireland in 1922 severed the border city from its economic hinterland, and decades of sectarian regional policy, particularly after World War II, saw the city overlooked in favour of Greater Belfast. Gerrymandering of electoral boundaries led to the maintenance of a unionist controlled City Council, despite a large Catholic (and nationalist) majority. In response to grievances associated with unionist misrule, Derry was at the centre of demands for civil rights, and it is often viewed as the place where in October 1968 the Northern Ireland Troubles began. In 1972, the city was the location of perhaps the most notorious event of the entire Troubles, when British Army troops killed 14 unarmed civilians.

Global economic restructuring dealt another blow to the city, decimating its shirt making industry and swelling the unemployment statistics, which continued to grow despite British investment in the public sector during the period of direct rule from Westminster between 1972 and 1998.

City of Culture

After 1998, there was no obvious sign of an economic boom. Faced with chronic economic underdevelopment, it was decided that Derry – that least British of “UK” cities – should enter the competition to become UK City of Culture in 2013. Derry’s winning bid centred on two bold claims: first, it would serve as a catalyst for culture-led regeneration and economic transformation, and second it would galvanise the peace process and aid conflict transformation within the city.

In preparation for 2013, Derry underwent an extensive physical beautification. The city’s Guildhall received a makeover, while Shipquay Place was fitted with water fountains to evoke European plazas. The riverfront became the epicentre of regeneration, with a new “Peace Bridge” uniting the symbolically Catholic Cityside (West Bank) and Protestant Waterside (East Bank).

In a further act of cultural encoding, the Peace Bridge’s eastern terminus connects to a former British military base at Ebrington, which was reconfigured as a cultural centre. Throughout 2013, the cultural programme concentrated heavily on this regenerated corridor, showcasing the city’s “new story” (as the programmers dubbed it) through major events, and giving a big boost to tourism.

The Peace Bridge in Derry was built in 2011 in preparation for it becoming the UK City of Culture. Madrugada Verde/Shutterstock

Deeply divided

But beyond the river and outside the city walls, a different picture emerges. The Creggan estate sits on a hill high above the city centre, and higher still on indices of unemployment and multiple deprivation. Official statistics reveal that five of the ten most deprived localities in Northern Ireland are located within the Derry and Strabane district council area. While 2013 and the city’s ambitious regeneration masterplan, The One Plan, promised jobs and economic growth, by 2014 Derry had actually climbed to the top of the UK unemployment claimant league table.

Poverty bites hard in the city. Derry has the fourth lowest life expectancy in the UK and tops the league tables for disability, morbidity and self-harm hospital admissions. Youth unemployment is extremely high – despite Derry having some of the top-performing grammar schools in Northern Ireland, 43% of the working age population have only low level or no formal qualifications.

The city also suffers disproportionately from brain drain as the highest achievers leave and go to university elsewhere. The dismal local economy – itself a legacy of historical sectarian regional policy and deindustrialisation – offers little incentive to return. For those left behind, the options are limited to low-paid service sector jobs, or life on the dole.

The 2013 programme offered some symbolic examples of unification, but as my research has shown, in terms of key measurements Derry remains deeply divided. The overwhelmingly Catholic Cityside is the location of Northern Ireland’s most ethnically homogenous neighbourhoods, including the Creggan estate. It is also the location of the Fountain, the sole Protestant neighbourhood remaining on the West Bank following out-migration and depopulation in the last few decades of the 20th century, known locally as the “Exodus”.

The Fountain estate is surrounded by a cage-like security fence which separates it from adjacent Catholic neighbourhoods, and a mural at the entrance recalls the Siege of Derry (1688-9), as well as the apparent immutability of centuries of segregation: “Londonderry West Bank Loyalists Still Under Siege – No Surrender.”

The Loyalist Fountain estate on the largely Republican West side of the city. Peter Doak, Author provided (no reuse)

Elsewhere on the Cityside, in the nationalist Bogside area – where Bloody Sunday happened – and in the Creggan, where McKee was shot dead during rioting, dissident republicans continue to operate. Bombs, shootings and punishment beatings are more than a memory in Derry. Emboldened by Brexit and the possibility of the hardening of the Irish border, and infuriated by the decision to prosecute only one soldier for the Bloody Sunday murders, dissident republican activities appear to be increasing.

In a place where poverty and worklessness are commonplace, dissident republicanism offers a sense of meaning to some young people who are alienated from the 1998 vision of power sharing, peace and prosperity – none of which have materialised in Derry.

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