Londonderry? Derry? The Maiden City? Stroke City? The UK’s new city of culture has a unique problem. Regrettably, our citizens do not agree on what to call the place.
So what’s in the name for you? How can we ever resolve an issue which, like the flying of flags and the display of emblems, strikes such a political and cultural raw nerve with so many people?
What to call Northern Ireland’s second city has haunted many like me who work in the media business.
I have lost count of the number of times when I suspected that I had offended one person or another by referring to Londonderry or Derry.
Faced with this embarrassing dilemma, one verbal escape route is to refer to “the North-West”. Another is to talk about “The Maiden City”, while a third option is Gerry Anderson’s “Stroke City.”
Although many have adopted Gerry’s whimsical Stroke City, it is not an alternative to a proper name. It is an anonymous appellation and no substitute for the three historic place names, Londonderry, Derry or the gaelic, Doire, meaning oak grove.
I can understand why Stroke City or Maiden City remain in vogue because the use of Londonderry or Derry in mixed company can be akin to stepping on a concealed landmine.
Everyday conversation throws up the most difficulty. The art of using either Londonderry or Derry is in knowing the background of those to whom you are speaking.
The rule of thumb applied in many newspapers, such as this one, and in broadcasting, is to refer to Londonderry in the first instance and Derry thereafter — a convenient compromise as far as the formal reporting of events in the city is concerned.
Which brings me to 2010 and how we are to describe the UK’s new city of culture? I suspect even many unionists say Derry if only for the sake of convenience of speech. Londonderry is a mouthful. Derry is a lot simpler.
That said, Londonderry cannot be air-brushed away. Officially, the full place name exists on most maps of the world and has done for centuries.
Legal documents of the past 400 years bear testimony to the permanency of the name. Legislation or royal prerogative would be required for permanent change and all attempts to date have failed.
The legal position was clarified by Mr Justice Weatherup in 2007 when he gave his judgment in a judicial review brought by Derry City Council.
The council argued that the royal charter naming the city Londonderry in 1662 was superseded by modern day local government legislation, and that the renaming of the council in 1984 to Derry had effectively changed the name of the city.
However, the judge found that the city officially remained Londonderry by virtue of the 1662 charter. No change could occur without further legislation or royal prerogative.
Politically, Northern Ireland is a very different place today than it was in 1984 — never mind 1662. It could be said that the gates closed by the 17th century Protestant apprentices at the Siege of Derry have been re-opened at Stormont.
In the new climate of power-sharing what is to be gained from pursuing what is bound to be a divisive campaign to change the formal name?
And since consensus is the basis upon which the Stormont Executive exists, how could agreement ever be reached on a name-change?
We are reminded regularly by one of Derry’s most famous sons, Martin McGuinness, that equality of citizenship is at the heart of that Executive.
If there is a single place name in Ireland which symbolises the fundamental cultural span between the Planter and the Gael it is the word Londonderry — 11 letters which encompass four turbulent centuries of our history.
Those who are intent on changing the city’s formal name should think again, if only because the people who made the UK’s city of culture the success it is today came from such diverse backgrounds. No one community has had a total monopoly on the city’s cultural development.
Let’s stop worrying, or feeling offended because someone in company has just referred to Londonderry or Derry. We are speaking about a unique place, where the cultural waters of this island truly meet and run as deep as the Foyle.
If you want to say Londonderry, say it. If you want to say Derry, say it.
As a symbol of the new Northern Ireland, a new Ireland, the city of culture has a golden opportunity to unite its citizens. The age-old quarrel on what to call the place is futile and sterile.
What is Derry to me, may be Londonderry to you. Or vice-versa. Does it really matter?