What can Derry teach Belfast?
That has been a frequently asked question after parades resulted in riots in the latter, but in a spirit of reconciliation in the former. In addition to the City of Culture year and host status for the Fleadh Cheoil, Derry also hosted the main Apprentice Boys demonstration for the County of Londonderry this year. It is quite possible that the majority of spectators were from a broadly Nationalist background.
Time will tell if it is any more than synthetic, but certainly Derry’s cultural transformation is a good news story. Wednesday two weeks ago, my wife and I struggled to get a table from among the array of gloriously situated riverside restaurants on the Cityside near the new Peace Bridge. Ebrington, a barracks in which my father was based when he had his most awful moment during the Troubles (a bomb attack on him killed his 19-year-old photographer in 1974), has been turned into a wonderful pedestrian zone and concert venue. The city’s infrastructure is slowly improving too, with an upgraded railway line, Project Kelvin and new dual carriageways. You cannot but think that a proper road link to Belfast and extra University places would give the city a real chance of becoming a Mittelstand economic hub.
Why, then, is everything which is happening in Derry seemingly good news, and everything in Belfast seemingly bad news?
Well, it has to be said first of all that, in 2013, it is a bit easier to do community relations in Derry. The Cityside is almost entirely Nationalist and Catholic; and the city possesses almost nowhere which could really be described as “mixed” residentially (Kilfennan on the Waterside is perhaps the only district where mixed living is really commonplace). This is not to say that bitterness isn’t there, but it is relatively easy to be kind to the minority when it is small enough.
However, one other difference is worth at least considering. Derry does not appear, any more, to have such a developed gang culture as Belfast (particularly its “Loyalist” areas).
Gang culture? In Northern Ireland we tend to call them “paramilitaries”. Nevertheless, this gives them a political prominence they have not remotely earned. We should call paramilitary groups what they would be called anywhere else – “gangs”. Once looked at from that point of view, it instantly becomes apparent that one of the biggest things holding back inner-city communities in Northern Ireland is its gangs – and these are strongest on the “Loyalist” side.
There are certain truths about gangs everywhere. Gangs, of course, warp everything because they mean people are given positions in the community that they have not properly earned. Gang leaders can become the only prosperous people within the community in which they operate, meaning role models for kids in those communities are gangsters – they are the only ones driving the flash cars after all. Instead of seeking out education and a career, youngsters (particularly boys) seek out a route to the top of the gang. The Rule of Law becomes difficult to apply because policing becomes subservient to gang leaders, and precisely because the Rule of Law doesn’t apply (and in any case, education is undervalued) no sensible investor will bother with that community thus leaving the cycle to continue.
I could of course be wrong here. Maybe there are well developed gangs in Derry? Maybe even the absence of gangs would make little difference in the key areas of education and working role models? But I am left wondering…