As Belfast riots, Northern Ireland’s second city tastes sectarian peace

October 16, 2013

(The “Hands Across The Divide” peace statue by a local sculptor Maurice Harron stands in front of a backdrop of the Waterside area of Derry City, also known as Londonderry, in this October 3, 2013 picture. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton )

While cars burned on the streets of Belfast this summer in its worst year of rioting for a decade, Northern Ireland’s second city of Londonderry was filled with tourists as its once bitterly divided population celebrated a stunning rejuvenation.

Some 40 years after Londonderry became the centre of the “Troubles” when British troops shot dead 13 people at a civil rights protest on what became known as Bloody Sunday, Catholics and Protestants watched calmly as some of the city’s most entrenched taboos were broken.

The transformation offers a striking example for the British province of how sectarian enmities can be overcome and holds lessons in particular for Belfast, a city where entrenched divisions have done much to undermine the progress made since a 1998 peace deal intended to end the long years of violence.

“It would be hard to destabilise this city at this point,” said Willie Temple, a pro-British Protestant in Londonderry who became an activist to defend his community at the height of the unrest in the 1970s. “People have seen the benefits of peace.”

(A mural displaying winners of the Nobel Peace prize including former local politician John Hume (top L) is painted on a wall in the Bogside area of Derry City, also known as Londonderry, in this October 3, 2013 picture. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton)

There has been tension in the city since Protestant settlers arrived from England and Scotland in the 17th century, adding the London prefix to the Gaelic name Derry as they consolidated their hold on the north of the country.

Catholics have continued to use the name Derry to show their resistance to British rule, but even that dispute has faded in recent years and many Protestants now use Derry in casual conversation.

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