These photographs, taken in February 2004, document the Northern Irish city of Derry-Londonderry, which, after decades of sectarian violence (known as “the Troubles”), has achieved peace.
The first glimmer of peace came on 10 April, 1998, when the main political parties on both sides of the divide signed the landmark “Good Friday Agreement”. That accord called for “an elected assembly for Northern Ireland and a cross-party cabinet with devolved powers” whereby the Catholic minority gained a share of political power in return for relinquishing their goal of a united Ireland.
Leaders of the new cross-party cabinet were Protestant Unionist David Trimble, elected as the first First Minister, and Catholic Nationalist John Hume as Deputy First Minister. That year, in recognition of their efforts in brokering this historic peace deal, they were co-recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.
After a series of false starts, lack of cooperation led to suspensions of the new Assembly, the longest from 14 October, 2002 until 7 May, 2007, and the return of direct rule from London. Finally, on 8 May, 2007, with the St Andrews Agreement, the Northern Ireland Assembly was reinstated. When staunch Unionist Ian Paisley sat down to share power with his bitter Sinn Fein rival Martin McGuiness, the incredulous world marvelled and cheered.
Derry-Londonderry traces its roots back to the 6th century when a monastery was founded there by St Columba. Ten centuries later, in 1609, King James I of England organized the “Plantation of Ulster”, which colonized the north of Ireland.
After the success of the Plantation, the King then had wealthy guilds of London build up the city of Derry (hence the title Londonderry) and erected a twenty-foot tall and twenty-foot wide wall around it with a circumference of one mile which would prove an inpregnable fortress during sieges to come.
Today, the city still struggles with its name. Although offically known as Londonderry, televison and radio presenters gingerly annouce the city as “Derry stroke Londonderry”, so it is often called “Stroke City”.
The Walled City
Walking along the top of the ancient wall provides a unique view of the original medieval city within. And outside the wall, the views of the surrounding environs include “Free Derry Corner”, which marks the entrance to the nationalist Bogside area, known as the “Birthplace of the Troubles”. The vigorously contested facts on the morning of 30 January, 1972, instigated the Provisional Irish Republican Army (Provos) into a long and bloody battle with the British, including the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), the British Army, and the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR). That day is known historically as “Bloody Sunday”. Now, in 2008, we await the results this month of the Seville Inquiry, which may help us to move beyond the tragedy.
A New Dawn
Today, with continued economic growth in the region (and the Irish Republic’s Celtic Tiger going strong), political tensions are subsiding.
And while the wall of Derry-Londonderry still stands, it no longer represents a barrier to peace. The conflict in this renaissance city today may well be about its name rather than past violence and troubles.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, John Hume said:
All conflict is about difference, whether the difference is race, religion or nationality. The European visionaries decided that difference is not a threat, difference is natural. Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein lies a most fundamental principle of peace—respect for diversity.
Now that peace has been achieved in Ireland, this model of successfully concluded negotiations is a positive example for other conflicts around the world.
Geraldine Sweeney is a photographer and writer in New York City. Originally from Ireland, she has travelled extensively throughout the world to photograph the beauty of the people and landscapes of faraway lands.