Belfast Telegraph

Derry Protestants' west bank exodus 'needs recognition'

Research: Prof Niall Gilmartin
Research: Prof Niall Gilmartin
Donna Deeney

By Donna Deeney

The mass exodus of thousands of Protestant people from the west bank of Londonderry should receive proper recognition, a leading academic on displacement has said.

Professor Niall Gilmartin, from Trinity College Dublin, claimed that up to 10,000 Protestants felt so unsafe in their homes that they packed up and moved or were intimidated out.

It is estimated the number represents 90% of the Protestant population living on the west bank of the Foyle who fled over an approximate four-year period.

Mr Gilmartin was a panellist discussing the exodus at an event in the city organised by New Gate Fringe festival.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Gilmartin said the scale of the exodus of Protestants from Derry surprised even him.

"I am doing a large research project into displacement throughout the Troubles in general with both Catholics and Protestants," he said.

"There has been very little written about people who have been displaced, which is surprising given the number.

"Officially between 1969 and 1974, 60,000 people in Belfast alone were displaced and the figures in Derry fluctuate from between eight and ten thousand Protestants who left the west bank through fear or actual intimidation.

"I knew there had been some movement of Protestants, but I had no understanding of the scale of it and no understanding of the real palpable frustration of the Protestant community in Derry that this isn't being acknowledged and in some incidences it is being denied.

"What happened in Derry, however, is pretty typical of what happened in other places and that there was a collective sense of vulnerability, so there might have been one incident of intimidation but that ripples out into the wider community," the academic added.

"There was no Bombay Street moment in Derry, it was a slow incremental movement of people, particularly in the aftermath of Bloody Sunday when the IRA campaign really took hold.

"What happened to the Protestant community in Derry should be considered trauma and it should certainly be on the spectrum of victimhood, but the lack of acknowledgement compounds the sense of victim hood and trauma."

People Before Profit councillor Eamonn McCann, who was also on the discussion panel, said acknowledgement of the exodus was important because it was a key element in shaping the city as it is presently.

He added: "I was taken aback by some of the numbers of people who left the city, but the research suggesting there were thousands of Protestants who left their homes and fled across the river is a very important factor in the history of Derry.

"I don't think it has been given proper acknowledgement and in fact there are people in Derry who flatly refuse to believe it happened, but when you talk to people who were part of the exodus it is clear they felt intimidated.

"What happened in Derry happened over four or more years and because it was slow it wasn't noticed as a dramatic event, but it needs to be acknowledged by the people who write the story of Derry.

"It is one of the major events that has shaped the Derry of today and that needs to be acknowledged by everybody."

East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell said it was vital that the story of the exodus came from those directly impacted.

"Recognition and acknowledgement of this has to be widespread and what is most important is that the people who were affected get to tell their story in whatever way they are comfortable with," he said.

"What they are resentful of is that someone else gives an interpretation of what they went through.

"The people who moved know why they moved and it wasn't to get a better house, it was because someone put a petrol bomb through their window and said 'get out'.

"People are very keen that there is some form of permanent reminder - whether that is audio visual or a museum piece, but it is important it is done in a way that the people who suffered get to tell their story."

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