Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

'Castlederg is a twilight zone. We have the most peaceful and the most violent history'

A peaceful Castlederg, but tensions are rising
A peaceful Castlederg, but tensions are rising

Castlederg is about as far away from an A road as it is possible to be in Northern Ireland.

The route from the south or east through Omagh takes you through winding roads that look as if they have hardly changed since the 1950s.

The town sits in the valley of the River Derg which connects the Foyle and Derry to Lough Derg, site of the pilgrimage island, linking the most confident nationalist city with the holiest part of Catholic Ireland.

And it is practically on the border, just seven miles from Castlefin in Donegal, which was a base for IRA activists who operated along old roads and lanes too varied and porous to be properly controlled.

Castlederg still competes in the popular imagination with Strabane for the title of most bombed town. It feels more Irish than British. It is laid out similarly to Donegal town.

The new war memorial in the Diamond, built just 12 years ago, is a modern sculpture, a floral engraving on a slab of grey stone, which looks a little like something you would see on a cereal packet.

There used to be a clock tower there.

Entering the town this week, if you didn't know it, you would think it was loyalist. The roads in from Strabane and Omagh are bedecked on both sides with Union flags.

Those flags are explained in different ways by the people you talk to. The barmaid in a pub at the bottom of the Diamond said they were erected to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme and will come down at the end of August.

A young man said they were put up before the Tyrone Fleadh in June to annoy nationalists.

They did go up early. Ulster Unionist councillor Derek Hussey told Strabane District Council at the time that he thought no one should take offence at the flag since it is the flag of the United Kingdom.

He doesn't recognise that some people genuinely feel uncomfortable with it.

The result was that thousands of people travelled from all over Ireland to enjoy Irish culture in Castlederg and found the place looking like a loyalist estate.

The relic of that fleadh now is a few strips of bunting, still up six weeks after it ended.

There is still a notice up announcing the Pride Of The Derg Flute Band parade in May, with another above it from Hamilton's Spar advising 'Toilets Available'. So Castlederg was bristling a bit about culture and division before the contention arose over the planned IRA commemoration parade this weekend.

This is not how many of the the people there want it.

The Protestant barmaid complained that "our ones" don't get marching at the top of the town, but she ddidn't want trouble. She had enough of that in the past when an IRA bomb at the post office brought down ceilings in her house.

She welcomes Catholic customers in her pub and insisted that relations were good.

"And in some of the Protestant pubs, there is only Catholics goes into them."

People in the street confirmed that they mix well, or at least that young people do. There were three young men standing at a bus stop in the Diamond – Todd, Ciaran and Eoin.

Todd described Castlederg as "a good enough ould spot".

He said: "We were living in the past but we're trying to move on and this is a peaceful town."

He said the parade will be "a bit of craic".

To clarify, he added: "There's people takes it seriously, but I wouldn't. Some of my Protestant friends mightn't be impressed, but that's their hang-up."

Eoin said: "It's an all right sort of town; it's pretty much our twilight zone. We have the most peaceful and the most violent history."

He said it was "quiet enough now, but recently, with the flags, it's been up and down".

He won't be at the parade: "I don't really go for that stuff."

Both said that Catholics and Protestants mixed well.

Ciaran said that the older generation were more concerned: "We weren't born in them times, like."

Another local, Michael, described himself as a republican. He said: "The fact we're not allowed to march around our own town is a disgrace. We don't ask for much; we don't march often and the one time we want to we're not allowed to do it."

He added he may not even go: "For the route they're taking, it's not worth going."

He said it was important for him to commemorate the IRA.

"What these men were going to do, it probably would have been wrong, but at that time it would have been the right thing to do and the fact that they are willing to put their lives at risk to free Ireland, I think they should be commemorated. And the people of Castlederg wanted to do this, and they're not allowed to do it."

Most people did not want to discuss the issue on the street with a reporter.

"I've a business in the town, so I'll say nothing," said one woman.

A bank clerk recoiled, as if the very question was an affront to her.

Three girls round the corner had little interest in the politics. Two of them were Protestants, one was a Catholic, and they were friends.

"This is a decent enough place," they said.

They won't be going near the parade.

"It's going to start rows. Everybody is chatting about it."

One of the girls added: "We're Protestants, so we don't want it in the first place."

The Catholic girl said she didn't want to argue about it: "The IRA's just a bit too far."

Like the boys at the bus stop, they insisted there were strong friendships in the town between young people of both traditions.

Everyone that would talk, and perhaps most who wouldn't, wants those relationships to survive this weekend's tensions.

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