Northern Irish Town Goes Cultural to Shake Image of Bombings

Art Seeks to Displace Bombs as Center of Troubles Gets Cultural
A woman walks past a mural in Derry, Northern Ireland. Photographer: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

If Shona McCarthy had one wish, it would be that peace will come to the Northern Irish city of Derry next year when it becomes the U.K. City of Culture. Dissident republicans have different ideas and they’ve already bombed her office twice.

“This could be great for the city,” said McCarthy, chief executive officer of the Derry Culture Company 2013 Ltd. “Of course you take the bombings seriously, but this event could end this image of Derry as a town of bombs and bullets. It could be a real watershed. That’s what excites me.”

The region’s leaders want to use the festival to bolster the region’s peace and spur investment, while dissidents want to end the province’s U.K. link by reigniting a conflict that claimed 3,500 lives before largely ending in 1998. In July, two dissident groups, the Real Irish Republican Army and Derry-based Republican Action Against Drugs, a vigilante group, said they were uniting to become more effective.

“Derry isn’t part of Britain, this is a disgrace,” said Gary Donnelly, a spokesman for the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, the political wing of the Real IRA, that killed two British soldiers in 2009. “Republicans will oppose it for sure. There is a section of this city that gives its loyalty to militant republicanism.”

Two bombs were defused in Derry today by a British Army bomb squad, Northern Ireland police said in an e-mailed statement. The devices were found in the Strand Road area of the city and police are still attending the area.

Bombs, Shootings

Dissidents have also killed two policemen since restarting their campaign in 2009. In 2010, they bombed an Ulster Bank Ltd. office in Derry and last year they attacked a branch of Banco Santander SA in the city. In the 12 months through March, they shot 11 people in Derry, compared with 33 for the whole of Northern Ireland, according to police statistics.

Two masked men entered the city of culture offices in Derry in October 2011 and planted a bomb, causing extensive damage, police said at the time. It was the second attack on the offices, which have now moved to a different part of the city. McCarthy said the move is unrelated to the attacks.

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, the city’s former IRA commander, is backing the festival and said the dissidents “can’t win.”

Dissidents split from Sinn Fein and the IRA in 1997 because they opposed moves toward peace and their campaign is centred on Derry where British troops were first deployed in 1969.

Derry, a city of about 84,000 people with an 80 percent nationalist majority, is also where British troops shot dead 13 unarmed Catholic civilians in 1972, an act which a 2010 official report said exacerbated the violence that dominated the region until an IRA ceasefire in 1994.

Queen’s Handshake

In June, McGuinness shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II in Belfast, the first time a senior Sinn Fein member has greeted a member of the Royal Family. McGuinness, whose Sinn Fein supported the IRA for more than three decades and whose party still wants a united Ireland, said it was designed to heal divisions. For some in Derry, McGuinness’s home town, it meant little.

Close to the community center where Donnelly gave his interview, six-foot high graffiti reads: “Ireland unfree shall never be at peace - support the IRA.” A nearby row of shops is where dissident republicans bring young people, deemed guilty of petty crimes, to be shot in the legs, said Darren O’Reilly, a local youth worker.

Unemployment in the city is at almost 9 percent, the highest in Northern Ireland, and deep divisions remain within the community. There isn’t even agreement about the city’s name, with Catholics preferring Derry and Protestants favoring Londonderry. When a bridge linking the mainly Protestant waterside of the city to the cityside opened earlier this year, it was marred by bomb alerts.

Dissident Support

“The dissidents will react to the U.K. city of culture year with the only thing they have, violence,” says Pete Shirlow a politics professor at Queen’s University Belfast. “Derry is one of the few places where some people are listening to the dissidents. The reality is they have very little support anywhere in Ireland.”

The 2013 City of Culture program, which will see Derry host the all-Ireland traditional music festival as well as the Tate Modern prize and produce new plays, promises to shake off this violent image of the city as well as bringing in about 2 million visitors and 40 million pounds ($64.7 million) of revenue, said McCarthy.

Still for Donnelly it is an opportunity to “show Northern Ireland isn’t normal.”

“Armed resistance is 100 percent legitimate,” he said. “We are still ruled by Britain. This is an attempt to make people believe Derry is a part of the U.K. It will be resisted.”

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