It was a beautiful morning, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. The view from our room was over the Catholic Bogside area which looked peaceful enough today but has had a recent bloody and violent contribution to the Troubles. Indeed some historians identify Londonderry/Derry/Stroke City as being the very crucible of the civil war.
In the 1960s Catholic Derry considered itself to be suffering religious and political persecution and the city became the flashpoint of disputes about institutional discrimination. Despite having a nationalist majority the city was permanently controlled by unionists due to the partisan drawing of electoral boundaries. In addition the city had very high unemployment levels and very poor housing. Overcrowding in nationalist areas was widely blamed on the political agenda of the unionist government, who wanted to confine Catholics to a small number of electoral wards to effectively restrict their influence.
In August 1969 following the annual Protestant Apprentice Boys Parade Nationalists clashed with police in an incident remembered now as ‘The Battle of the Bogside’ which directly led to widespread civil disorder in Northern Ireland and the intervention of the British Army.
Worse was to come on Sunday January 30th 1972 when during a Catholic civil rights march thirteen unarmed civilians were shot dead by British paratroopers, another thirteen were wounded and one further man later died of his wounds. This event came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’.
This incident remains an open wound between the two factions and the British Army but the current official verdict was delivered by the Saville Commission which was published in June 2010.
The report concluded, “The firing by soldiers on Bloody Sunday caused the deaths of 13 people and injury to a similar number, none of whom was posing a threat of causing death or serious injury.” Saville stated that British paratroopers “lost control” fatally shooting fleeing civilians. The report states, contrary to the previously established belief that no stones and no petrol bombs were thrown by civilians before British soldiers shot at them and that the civilians were not posing any threat. Not the British Army’s finest hour!
Just outside the city walls and only a short walk from our hotel was the very place where the Bloody Sunday confrontation took place so walked down the hill from the fortress walls and saw three famous monuments, ‘You Are Entering Free Derry’, a message painted on the gable end of a row of terraced houses, long since demolished, the Bloody Sunday memorial itself and a third monument remembering the Maze prison notorious now for internment without trial, hunger strikes and the death place of the most famous hunger striker of all, Bobby Sands.
As in Belfast there are guided tours of the Bogside but we choose to do this by ourselves and although it felt quite safe on the busy main road I do admit to becoming uneasy whenever we strayed into the side streets where signs invited the British to ‘Get Out Now’ and others encouraged local people to join the IRA.
We weren’t put off by this however because we wanted to see the murals, works of urban art really and quite different from those in West Belfast. These were less political statements but a visual telling of the story of the Bogside troubles. The political statements were there too but these were smaller information boards which told a sectarian and one sided story.
I am glad that I walked down to see this but after thirty minutes or so I was happy to leave and walk back now to the old city.
There was still an hour to spare before our check out time and ninety minute drive to the airport so while Kim returned to the hotel I took advantage of these final moments by walking the walls for a second time and having visited the Catholic Bogside took a detour into the Protestant Fountains estate where I found the murals and the political slogans a great deal more sectarian and aggressive and I didn’t stay long.
Our drive back to Belfast International Airport was slow going but uneventful and eventually we arrive back at the Sixt car rental office. Now, if you remember my first day post about this trip to Northern Ireland you might recall that I had paid for fully comprehensive insurance and was confident that I had got everything covered.
A member of staff examined the car and satisfied himself that there were no bumps or scrapes, no chips in the windscreen and that the tyres weren’t flat and punctured, nothing that is that he could charge me for, and we turned to walk away but were staggered when he called us back and said that there was some sand in the carpets and that there could be a £60 cleaning charge. Now, I am not disputing that we had walked on a beach and transferred some sand from our shoes to the car but the quantity was minute and you really needed a microscope to find it.
“£60” I protested and almost choked and he defended this bit of daylight robbery with an explanation that this sort of sand was especially difficult to deal with. I noticed that there was funny smell and I remided him that I am Sixt Platinum custumer and he backed down and said not to worry because the quantity was on the margins of acceptability and he would not charge us this time.
Just as well because if he had I would have asked for the keys back and taken it to a vacuum machine in the next door garage and sucked it up myself for £2 no matter how difficult it might have been (not). In case he changed his mind I actually thanked him for not mugging me but I quickly returned to the car and wiped the steering wheel just in case there was a charge for removing fingerprints! These thieves will try anything to generate additional revenue.
So we made our way to the airport and the departure lounge and in the time we had to wait I started to think about the few days away and began to compare it with the previous year visit to Southern Ireland…