DERRY, Northern Ireland — Few cities are as caught between hope and history as Derry, the birthplace of the modern Troubles, but also the setting for ‘Derry Girls’, the lavish, wildly popular British TV series that explores the life of five teens like that describe bloody period came to an end in the nineties.
But now, after nearly 25 years of peace, residents worry that Derry’s hard-won profits are in jeopardy. Brexit has disrupted Northern Ireland’s fragile political and economic balance, while the British government appears determined to put the problems and legacy of sectarian violence in the past.
Two bleak rituals last week – a day apart and on either side of the River Foyle, which separates Northern Ireland’s second city – served to illustrate both Derry’s haunted past and uncertain future.
Within the town’s 17th-century stone walls, Amanda Fullerton joined with victims’ families by accusing the British government of halting investigations into murders during the Troubles, as the guerrilla warfare between Catholic nationalists and Protestant unionists is well known. Her father, Eddie Fullerton, was shot dead in 1991 by members of a loyalist paramilitary group.
The next day, a loyalist flute-and-drum band marched through the Protestant Waterside neighborhood to celebrate 31 years since the murder of Cecil McKnight, a former paramilitary commander. The Irish Republican Army, or IRA, said it was on Mr. McKnight was targeted as revenge for the murder of Mr. Fullerton.
Brexit has fueled passions in many such loyalist and unionist neighborhoods – preferring part of the UK – as it has necessitated complex trade deals with the European Union that union members say are driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and Ireland. the rest of the block.
“Entrepreneurs will always find a way to do business with each other,” said Jim Roddy, City Center manager of Derry, also known as Londonderry by union members. ‘But when you’re dealing with people’s identities, you end up in something you have no control over. The identity problem is so much deeper.”
A former firefighter and Derry football club chief, Mr Roddy, 62, has negotiated with groups on both sides to prevent rituals such as parades and bonfires from erupting into violence. While Derry’s reputation for peaceful gatherings is good, he said he was concerned Britain’s latest actions could fuel old animosities.
Identity problems are also exacerbated by the so-called legacy legislation proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, albeit in a different way. Intended to clear the cover of thousands of unsolved murders during the three decades of the Troubles, it would grant immunity from prosecution to people who cooperated in investigations conducted by a new independent Commission on Reconciliation and Information Recovery.
But that would mean no new criminal investigation into the murders, which has sparked fierce opposition from victims’ families on both sides. They say it would deprive them of their rights, especially in cases where British security forces or the police colluded with paramilitary gangs.
“We are our father’s voice, and we will not be silenced,” said Phyllis Kealey, whose father, Sean Dalton, was killed in 1988 by a bomb planted by the IRA. The Dalton family had long believed that the police knew that the house in which their father was murdered was booby-trapped and that they did nothing to prevent his death.
While the legislation, which the government hopes to pass this year, will affect a much smaller number of people than the post-Brexit trade rules, it is easier to understand and therefore more capable of igniting tension.
A small crowd gathered near Derry’s Guildhall last week to listen to the families of victims tell their stories behind a black and white banner that read: “No to UK Government Legacy Cover-up.”
The debate over unsolved murders especially haunts the police, who are still viewed with deep resentment by much of the public in Derry. For Marty Reid, the city’s police inspector, overcoming suspicions about the legislation is the biggest hurdle to rebuilding his department’s image.
“The inheritance issue is clearly a huge problem that is hurting a number of people,” said Mr Reid. “So it’s certainly important that we do careful policing regardless of what decisions are made in Westminster.”
For the city’s instigators, the Troubles legislation and trade rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are unwelcome caveats to a sales pitch that emphasizes Derry’s young population, affordable housing and location, giving it unfettered access to both the British and European Union markets.
“This city could be one of the jewels of Europe,” said John Kelpie, the district council director for Derry and neighboring Strabane. “We are seizing a golden goose opportunity and possibly killing it outright.”
Neither he nor anyone else predicts a return to the horrific violence that engulfed Derry in 1969 and marked the beginning of the modern era of the Troubles. In 1972, British troops killed 13 unarmed Nationalist protesters in a clash known as “Bloody Sunday”, which became one of the most infamous episodes of the conflict.
But according to Mr. Reid, paramilitary groups such as the New IRA, the Irish National Liberation Army and the Ulster Defense Association are still active in the Derry neighborhoods, mainly in the drug trade. The marching band that marked the death of Mr. McKnight commemorated, carried a flag with the Ulster Defense Association on it.
“With those groups around, there’s always the risk of things getting mixed up,” said Peter Sheridan, a former Assistant Commander of the Northern Ireland Police Force, formerly known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary. “Sectarianism is very much alive here, and that is the cause of violence.”
Some argue the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated tensions as the months-long lockdowns in Northern Ireland have created an echo chamber in which people spoke only to people from their own family or neighbourhood.
And yet, visiting Derry’s neighborhoods is finding a strange mix of clan-like loyalty and bourgeois open-mindedness. Mark Logan, 40, watched the protestant parade around the corner from his tattoo studio, which is next door to the house where he grew up. Mr. McKnight, he said, lived at the end of the street.
Although Mr Logan said he had a vague feeling that Northern Ireland’s protocol was hampering his ability to order pigments for tattoos, he confessed that he had little understanding of how it worked. In any case, he said, none of this should detract from the positive developments that had changed Derry since the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 agreement that put an end to the problems.
“There’s an odd patch of antisocial behavior here and there,” Mr. Logan said. “But Derry has done quite well to get past his past.”
Just down the road, developers are converting the former British military base, once loaded with guns pointed across the river, into a vibrant complex that includes a craft brewery, luxury hotel and offices for technology start-ups. Locals now sip a pint while gazing at the serpentine Peace Bridge, which crosses the river, linking Derry’s once belligerent communities.
Damian Heron, a local developer, has built a gleaming office tower in the complex and is planning another one next to it. Derry’s low rents, compared to those in Dublin and London, have lured financial firms like Axa and technology giants like Fujitsu.
Mr Heron claimed that no more than 5 per cent of businesses are actually affected by the protocol, which requires border controls on goods shipped from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland. (This is necessary to avoid reviving a border between the north and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU)
“There is a political agenda and an economic agenda,” Mr Heron said. “The politicians want to put them on the same track.”
Nothing has changed Derry’s image more than ‘Derry Girls’, a comical, profane, often moving account of five teenagers – four girls and a boy – as they navigate a world of everyday preoccupations in high school, but also one in which their school bus can be held up by a bomb on the bridge. The show’s creator, Lisa McGee, a resident of Derry, drew on her own experiences and those of her friends.
A huge mural of the cast painted on the side of Badgers Bar and Restaurant now attracts more visitors than murals of loyalist or nationalist martyrs. American tourists still flock to a large painted sign in Bogside, a large Catholic stronghold, informing visitors, “You are now entering Free Derry.”
Aisling Gallagher, a close friend of Ms. McGee, said the series accurately portrayed the Troubles rumbling in the background, even as the teens “go on with their way of life”. If anything, she said, that search for normalcy has only deepened in the decades since the Good Friday Agreement.
“A lot of people are just fed up with politics,” said Ms Gallagher, 41, who works for the city. “They’re just tuning it in unless it hits them directly. We just want to have some laughs and craziness,” she added, using an Irish colloquialism for the unspeakable joys of lively conversation, often with a drink at hand. .