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Fifty years on from Bloody Sunday, Derry is a city in transition

Moving on from the traumatic events of Bloody Sunday 50 years ago, signs of unity are growing in a forward-thinking and exciting city

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The EU-funded Peace Bridge

The EU-funded Peace Bridge

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A mural of Derry Girls in the city

A mural of Derry Girls in the city

First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Ebrington Square in Derry

First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Ebrington Square in Derry

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Rois Hutton, Thornhill College student.

Rois Hutton, Thornhill College student.

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The EU-funded Peace Bridge

Fifty years on from Bloody Sunday, the darkest day in Derry’s modern history, it is a city in transition and one that in time will inexorably rise.

Derry is home to the poetic majesty of Seamus Heaney and where once aspiring priest, John Hume, became an architect of peace.

It is a city of culture: past and present it has produced some of the finest musical talent in Ireland, maintains proud sporting traditions and is a place where the Irish Civil Rights Movement has its deepest roots.

In more recent times writer Lisa McGee, through her hit TV show Derry Girls, has put the city on the map for different reasons, showcasing our peculiar dialect and dry sense of humour.

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A mural of Derry Girls in the city

A mural of Derry Girls in the city

A mural of Derry Girls in the city

You don’t have to look far for signs of its troubled past, but similarly, symbols of unity are ever present in the shape of the Peace Bridge and its clasped hands across the River Foyle — connecting what is considered the mainly Catholic Cityside to the historically Protestant Waterside.

It is EU-funded projects in the Peace Bridge and Waterside Railway Station which have revitalised the quayside area and made it a recreational hotspot.

A full-sized university, as well as two sites once occupied by the Army provide the keys to unlocking the city’s potential.

These prime sites were viewed as a way of expanding the city centre and creating a more interconnected quayside; Ebrington effectively allowing the city centre to double in size.

Handed back to the city in the early 2000s, neither Ebrington nor Fort George have come anywhere close to maximising their potential.

Plans, however, are afoot for a health hub at Fort George that would occupy half the remaining space and last week the first and deputy first ministers appeared at Ebrington to announce a new hotel.

It could be the harbinger of hope at the former army barracks, bringing with it the opportunity to build a thriving economy on site and in the surrounding area. With that optimism lies the stark reality that 18 out of 30 buildings at Ebrington remain vacant.

Writer and economic expert Paul Gosling said trying to grow the economy in Derry is “incredibly frustrating” with the university issue top of the agenda. “Ebrington will look great and there is now real progress — but why has it taken 20 years?

“And most of the Fort George site remains empty. The core occupant will be a health facility, which is not what the city expected in terms of driving the city forward.”

He added: “City of Culture was superb, but has not provided the tourism impetus that was anticipated. And it has allowed some politicians to say — as one former senior minister did say to me — well you had City of Culture, so that’s it for now.

“What we are left with is the highest unemployment in the North, a lot of people in work on low wages and a skills shortage for many high tech businesses.

“Blame for this needs to sit with Invest NI for not focusing investment on where it is needed most and on the Department for the Economy for not changing the remit of Invest NI and not doing more to strengthen the skills base of the city.”

The Department and Invest NI have repeatedly disputed that assertion saying they are focused on delivering positive outcomes for all of the people in Northern Ireland, including the North West.

A review of Invest NI has been launched to provide an independent assessment of the organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness.

The university issue crops up over and over again because people are acutely aware that thousands more students will boost the entire local economy in shops, cafes, restaurants and bars.

It dates back to a controversial and highly contested move in 1965 when the Lockwood Committee announced NI’s second university would be built in Coleraine, noting that Derry — five times the size — had a population too small to service a university.

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First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Ebrington Square in Derry

First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Ebrington Square in Derry

Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

First Minister Paul Givan and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill at Ebrington Square in Derry

Addressing the press at Ebrington last week, Paul Givan and Michelle O’Neill failed to ease tensions over that decades-long grievance. Ms O’Neill claimed that Magee is “edging closer to 10,000” students when in fact numbers have decreased by close to 900 since 2015 and sit around 4,200 today [figure from Ulster University FOI response].

Meanwhile, Mr Givan stressed the need for investment in the Coleraine campus as well. A sentiment shared by his party colleague Dianne Dodds, who as Economy Minister, released a statement decrying the transfer of health science courses to Magee instead of Coleraine.

A new medical school and imminent health science courses are cause for celebration, quality courses which will ultimately aid recruitment in the local healthcare system.

A path to the promised land of 10,000 students has proven beyond elusive.

People have questioned whether anachronistic attitudes towards Derry still linger in the halls of Stormont and whether nationalist parties have the political aptitude to bring about change. As one astute local commentator put it: “Tectonic plates move faster than progress at Magee.”

Community relations is an area that has improved dramatically in Derry since the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Voluntary and community organisations such as Holywell Trust — in existence since 1988 — have fostered good relations between nationalist and unionist communities.

Gerard Deane of Holywell Trust said that over the last 50 years community relations has seen a “marked and obvious improvement” thanks to the efforts and sacrifices of those involved in the earlier civil rights movement.

“These hard fought for civil rights gains have been built on through the peace process and the many civic peace building and community relations programmes delivered in this city by people committed to creating positive change.

“We continue to be faced with the challenges of a structurally divided society and the legacy of continued under investment in infrastructure and projects in the North West.

“However, we are undoubtedly in a stronger position with our whole community recognising the benefits of working collectively for the good of everyone in our city.

“Looking forward, we must continue to work collectively to face up to the challenges arising from Brexit and the division that this has created between people. Also, supporting new community leaders on a cross-border basis will create a fresh cohort of people committed to supporting each other to realise the potential of everyone in this city.”

The local council also deserves credit for making the city a “vibrant cultural hub” and attracting visitors to enjoy internationally acclaimed events. These include the world-class Derry Halloween festivities, the Foyle Maritime Festival and the City of Derry Jazz Festival.

In 2013, the City of Culture year was a landmark time in local history, offering a new platform to showcase the city to a global audience and tell its story. More than one million people visited Derry during the City of Culture year — including an estimated 430,000 people at the first ever Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann to be held in Northern Ireland

The city’s longest running celebration, Derry Halloween, has grown and developed from a humble council run music event in 1986 involving a few hundred people, to a major on street celebration attended by tens of thousands of visitors.

At its peak pre-pandemic, numbers reached a record 140,000 people in 2019. The overall Halloween event enjoyed its biggest ever programme with over 1,200 participants taking part in over 125 events held in over 45 venues.

All proof the city is capable of hosting well-attended world-class events.

The freedom and equality its people enjoy today was hard-won. A non-violent protest in Derry on October 5, 1968, marked for many, the start of the Troubles. Thirty years later, the late former IRA chief Martin McGuinness acted as negotiator for Sinn Fein in a deal which finally secured peace for NI.

One of the darkest days of the Troubles, Bloody Sunday, forms a major part of Derry’s story. January 30, 1972, is a day seared into the consciousness of generations who have grown up in the city.

The massacre left 14 dead and 18 more injured. That day also defines the courage and resilience of Derry people in many ways: the Bloody Sunday families dignified 50-year fight for justice being the physical manifestation of that spirit.

The events of that day have reverberated through the city ever since.

Today, old scars are still visible. The council area features in five of the top 10 most deprived areas in Northern Ireland and one fifth of the top 100.

Rail, road and air links to the North West of the country are extremely poor.

Unemployment, an issue rife during the Troubles, has not been solved and the city lags behind other parts of the country. The claimant count in Derry and Strabane is higher than any other council area at 5.2%.

Data shows that deprivation is the biggest predictor of mental illness, and that is the main issue that drives poor mental health in this area.

Mental health issues are a lasting legacy of the violence people were subjected to during the Troubles. Under investment, as well as a lack of jobs and opportunities have led to inter-generational trauma, according to Mental Health Champion for Northern Ireland Siobhan O’Neill.

She said: “The evidence shows that there are high rates of mental illness in this area and in the Western Trust compared with the other Trusts. To address mental illness Derry needs equal access to a single regional mental health service, this service is outlined in the mental health strategy.

“In order to prevent mental illness we need jobs, investment, a reduction in inequalities, a more equal society generally and reform of the education system.

“I am asking people to support my call for the full implementation of the mental health and substance strategies and ask the political parties to commit to delivering the extra 34% uplift in funding for mental health that is required to deliver the strategy in full.”

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Rois Hutton, Thornhill College student.

Rois Hutton, Thornhill College student.

Rois Hutton, Thornhill College student.

Looking to the future, it is hoped that a £250m City Deal investment can be ‘transformative’ for the North West and that peace dividends can finally percolate down from privileged elites to younger generations.

One such young person is Year 14 student at Thornhill College, Rois Hutton. She said that Bloody Sunday feels “a lot more distant to her generation and less of a threat” as everyone her age was born after the Good Friday Agreement.

However, as a history student she studied the Troubles in detail alongside 100 young people. “We learned about Bloody Sunday and its place in the recent history of Derry and Northern Ireland more generally. That makes us 100 more young people who can help the city heal and move on from the horrible events of that day,” she said.

“Bloody Sunday still has the power to divide people in Derry, as on one side of the river there was graffiti condemning the soldiers during the trials while on the other side Parachute Regiment flags flew high on lampposts to celebrate what they did.”

Issues such as Brexit have a greater impact on how young people see the future, Rois explained. The lack of leadership shown at Stormont in dealing with bread and butter issues and policing have more impact on how they view the Executive.

“That is not to say we are not aware of the Troubles, nor that we are insensitive to the awful impact it had on countless people all around us. Hearing stories of the Troubles is something that comes with growing up in Derry, whether you want to hear them or not.

“It is vitally important that we do not forget the people whose lives were lost on that day in January 1972, nor the very many people affected by their loss.

“Perhaps the most important reason for remembering is that we learn from the past, and heal from it, and make sure that we never let anything like it happen again.”


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