Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

The relief of Derry?

At time of writing the jury is still out as to whether the official name of the city in which I live should be Derry or Londonderry.



The problem is going through the motions of being thrashed out in court and, in the interests of passing the buck, I predict a reserved judgment.

But, before you raise your eyes skyward, let me say that I, personally, don't give a hoot one way or the other.

However, for the benefit of those who care about these things (and their numbers are legion), let us linger a while and ponder the arguments.

This is a typical Northern Ireland problem in that neither the appellation Derry nor Londonderry is widely acceptable within the confines of the city. Great minds have been taxed in a bid to secure a compromise.

It's a typical Northern Ireland problem. There is no solution. I'm not proud to say that I once, in a moment of madness, applied my own considerably less than great mind to the task at hand and came up with a version of the city's name that even today is used by the desperate.

But Stroke City doesn't please everybody, particularly health professionals who claim that it sends out the wrong message about the physical well-being of the city's inhabitants.

I used to sneer at this approach until I once discovered a book I had written (called Surviving In Stroke City) nestling in the medical section of a major Belfast bookshop.

Other minds have been at work recently allocating tens of thousands of pounds to the erection of stone monoliths on the outskirts of the metropolis upon which is carved the legend, 'The Walled City.' This pleases nobody, least of all tourists who, upon glimpsing these stark pillars, may still have no idea into which city they are transporting their tourist dollar or yen. The nettle remains, as always, ungrasped.

It's a tale of two cities and a battle between two tribes. Those who talk up the peace process often conveniently ignore the fact that Derry/Londonderry is now, for the first time in its history, completely segregated, slashed down the middle by the curiously ignored River Foyle. The happy clappers rejoice in the fact that sectarian violence is on the wane. They neglect to point out that this is because Protestants and Catholics rarely see each other anymore.

It's only fair to point out that a person using the name Londonderry in casual conversation was often regarded as a person going out of his way to make a crude political point. It was user-friendlier to say 'Derry' and many did just that. Those who did use 'Derry' may well have been making a political point, too, but it was less likely.

On the other hand, these were also days when the choice of using either 'Derry' or 'Londonderry' could have a considerable effect on a person's health.

Picture a lonely road in the dead of night.

A man is driving wearily home along country roads only to observe ahead the sinister outline of shadowy figures wielding bobbing flashlights. He stops and winds down his window€he has little choice. It could be a legitimate checkpoint. But maybe not.

One of the shadowy figure asks the driver where he is going.

The driver's continued presence on this earth may depend on the answer. If the interrogators are looking for a Protestant to work out on, a reply of 'Derry' may be enough to be granted a welcome gruff: "Off you go, then" . If it's bad luck to be a Catholic that night, a 'Derry' might just be enough to seriously spoil a man's night.

And that's why people with long memories take these things seriously. I fear it will be forever thus.

But the people of Derry/Londonderry have always displayed a highly developed sense of self-preservation.

During a particularly prolonged gun battle between the Provos and the Army in the Bogside one day many moons ago, a number of more or less innocent bystanders were caught in crossfire and took refuge behind one of the many functioning barricades. One of them had drink taken and, unable to take any more the clatter of wild gunfire, stood up and screamed in the direction of the terrified squaddies: "Go on! Shoot us all, you b******s!"

After an awkward pause, a small, frightened voice was heard from somewhere further along the protective barricade: "Speak for yourself, hi!€"

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