Kevin Curley: Sector projects help to address a troubled past

Charities involved in reconciling people after conflict could learn a lot from practitioners in Derry, writes our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

One of the best things about retiring from full-time work is the opportunity it has given me to step outside my usual comfort zone. I had always wanted to visit Derry, Northern Ireland's second city. The shooting dead of 13 men (a 14th died later from his injuries) by British Army soldiers on what became known as Bloody Sunday in January 1972 affected me deeply when I was a student in York. Two days after the incident, our student demonstration against the conduct of the army was my first experience of occupying the streets for a political cause.

On my recent visit, I stayed in the Bogside in Derry for two days and visited the memorial to the demonstrators who were killed. I was shocked to learn that six of those who died were aged 17. On walls near the memorial, murals have been painted celebrating, among others, Bernadette Devlin, the prominent republican and former MP, Raymond McCartney, one of the 1980 hunger strikers, and Annette McGavigan, the first child to be killed in the Troubles.

I asked Gerard Deane, director of Derry's Holywell Trust, if giving so much prominence to past events only made reconciliation more difficult, but he thought not: "Issues from the past need to be addressed if healing is to be possible. For some, murals and memorials are part of that process."

The Holywell Trust is one of 11 Derry organisations that make up the DiverseCity Community Partnership. Their work is focused largely on addressing the legacy of the city's violent past. Projects include the use of storytelling by former combatants and victims, and the Theatre of Witness, where people tell their personal stories through stage productions.

Different approaches

The partnership has opened an impressive new community building in the heart of Derry that hosts discussions on different approaches to reconciliation.

I listened to a talk by Jackie Huggins, an advocate for the indigenous people of Australia. She emphasised the value of big symbolic gestures such as the apology made in 2008 by Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia, for the forced adoption of aboriginal children by white families in the 1960s. Some Derry activists disagreed about the value of such gestures, saying that the apology made in 2012 by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, for the "unjustified and unjustifiable" killings on Bloody Sunday had changed nothing.

Deane said big challenges to peace in Derry remained. "There is a continued and possibly growing influence of dissident paramilitaries and a sense that disadvantaged people remain marginalised and have limited experience of any peace benefit," he said.

Other charities involved in mediating between competing groups or reconciling people after some sort of conflict could learn a lot from practitioners in Derry. For me, spending two days there was about being challenged to view events through the eyes of others. In England, we have a stake in the future of Ireland, just as we share responsibility for its troubled past. It's worth spending some time trying to understand its recent history, and there's no better way of doing that than to go to Derry.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser

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