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21st Aug 2019

This Place: Derry

In a forgotten corner of the UK, a city grapples with its politics and past

Oli Dugmore

A child with their face covered looks down the camera in Derry's bogside.

In a forgotten corner of the UK, a city grapples with its politics and past

The Irish border is one of the most central but also forgotten issues of modern British political history. Brexit changed that.

A hard-won and fragile peace on the island of Ireland is now threatened for the first time since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Infrastructure necessary to maintain the integrity of the border, if the UK leaves the EU without a negotiated agreement, would likely become a target for dissident republicans, they warn Oli Dugmore in Derry.

But others in the city are keen to emphasise that Derry’s bad old days are behind them and look to a growing community of progressive pacifists.

Paddy Gallagher is a spokesperson for Saoradh, a small republican party seen as the New IRA’s political wing – something they deny. “There are men and women that are willing and capable of carrying out acts of armed resistance against the British state,” he says. “Their focus would be the border.”

There are two faces to Derry’s recent history. One is the tragic murder of Lyra McKee by the New IRA, the other is the phenomenal success of TV comedy Derry Girls.

Siobhan McSweeney plays Sister Michael in the show. She uses her high profile to support women’s liberation movements and is promoting the upcoming Rally for Choice in Belfast.

Sheltering from the rain inside Derry’s Guildhall,  McSweeney says the “binary” view of Northern Ireland and its people is outdated. “In my personal experience there is a third community, who don’t identify as either. A community based on diplomacy, inclusiveness and non-violence.”

The city is wrestling with another anachronism beyond sectarian violence – Victorian laws prohibiting abortion.

When the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal its own ban on abortion last year, activists were already carrying signs declaring “The North is next.”

Westminster recently voted to impose a relaxation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland. 

The policy area is meant to be devolved to the Stormont parliament, but after power sharing collapsed there in 2017, British politicians have voted to liberalise.

Women in Derry are now hoping the Stormont stalemate continues and liberalisation becomes legislation.