John Downing: Absence of Derry big political leaders, like Hume and McGuinness, leaves the city with ‘a vacuum within a vacuum’
The infectious comedic charm of ‘Derry Girls’ had almost lulled us into reviewing the “Troubles” in that charming city by the River Foyle in a much more benign way.
The comedy formula for the popular Channel 4 television series is the tried and trusted one of “Tragedy + Time.” But now we learn with a jolt that, while Derry had more than its share of tragedy, time has not mended the deep fractures in a still badly broken society.
When we stand back from the senseless killing of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee in Derry late on Thursday, we see a number of clear underlying factors. First is a certain surprise that nobody has been seriously hurt or even killed before by the reckless antics of a minority of wrong-headed and evil fanatics.
There have been several near-misses in Derry in recent times. On Saturday evening, January 19, a car bomb described by police as “crude and unstable” was set off in the city centre.
No thanks to the bombers that nobody was killed or seriously maimed. The explosion happened close to a hotel, several bars, and opposite a youth club where people were getting ready for a charity quiz evening.
It happened on a Saturday evening when people were out enjoying themselves in a city where people are renowned for their ability to party and enjoy life. Investigations into that incident, and the killing of Lyra McKee, focus on a group called the ‘New IRA’, a self-styled dissident group who want to take us all back to our murderous past of fear and suffering.
These, and other yob groupings, deny the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which was a beacon of hope for the “Derry girls’ generation.” These so-called dissident paramilitaries are of course facilitated by the absence of normal political activity.
The second underlying factor is that the power-sharing apparatus at Stormont has been idle for 27 months at a time when the North faces huge issues associated with Brexit. The Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin are equally culpable here for their failure to do grown-up politics, and find the necessary compromises to overcome their major differences.
It is further ironic that the Good Friday Agreement inadvertently cements the power of both the DUP and Sinn Féin in a cross-community government. And all of this is compounded by the absence of any nationalist voice in the London parliament at a time when the DUP has huge leverage due to the tight numbers.
These problems afflict not only Derry but other communities still in ferment across the North. The mainstream politicians failures to do mainstream politics facilitates the crazies who want to revert to the bomb and the bullet to achieve their deluded aims.
But Derry has another difficulty right now: an absence of very strong local political leadership from which it benefitted in the past.
Happily, the architect of the peace, John Hume, is still with us. But age and illness mean he is no longer active on the streets of his beloved home town.
Incidents such as this also remind us just what a loss Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness is two years on from his untimely death at the age of 66. The former Derry IRA commander had morphed from an enthusiastic participant in street violence, into an effective advocate for tolerance and peace.
Derry does have a band of active and sincere politicians, including SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood. But it misses personalities of the stature of a Hume or a McGuinness at a time of ongoing crisis.
The only potential for hope is that Lyra McKee’s death can serve as a rallying point. There was a curious moment at Martin McGuinness’s funeral on March 23, 2017, when DUP leader Arlene Foster received welcoming applause as she entered the church.
The DUP leader’s attendance and the mourners’ response were a signal that things can be different, and that most people want a different Derry and a different, peaceful Ireland.