The Global Urbanist

News and analysis of cities around the world

From the whitewash of memory to the light of peace: commemorating Bloody Sunday

While all is not yet fully resolved in Derry, the city's efforts to remember the events of Bloody Sunday are evolving from keeping aflame old resentments to creating symbols of peace and reconciliation, as Samuel Burke discovers.

Samuel Burke

Samuel Burke

Cities: Derry

Topics: Place promotion, Arts and culture, Social conflict, Divided cities

Cities are often sites of collective memory. Layers of time permeate the surface of them, each part adding to an overall narrative that informs, and is indeed informed by, the inhabitants of the city. Certain places get ascribed special meaning by different groups. In this collective form memory is fluid, changing according to context and to the requirements of the group. This is especially true in instances of urban trauma, where memory can be highly politicised and contested.

The city of Derry in Northern Ireland has a long, complex and violent past. Situated near the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, it is a place where walls and barricades — both physical and metaphorical — have defined political and social life. Between 1800 and 1921 Ireland was ruled from Westminster until, in 1921, after a two year war, the Anglo-Irish treaty was signed. The treaty partitioned the country into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland, which remained part of the United Kingdom. Since the treaty, as before, the city has never experienced real peace and has been the site of much bloodshed. One event, however, stands out more than any other: Bloody Sunday.

In this collective form memory is fluid, changing according to context and to the requirements of the group. This is especially true in instances of urban trauma, where memory can be highly politicised and contested.

Early layers of whitewash

On the 30th of January 1972 a civil rights demonstration was organised in protest against the UK's internment without trial policy, which the British army had implemented in August 1971 to round up hundreds of suspected Irish militants. Around 15,000 men, women and children took to the streets to march from Craggan, through the Bogside and finally to the Guildhall in the city centre. The city centre was under the protection of the British armed forces who had erected barriers to prevent the rally from proceeding, sparking riots. As the main body of the march moved to Free Derry Corner — a boundary that marked the entrance to a nationalist estate from which police were "barred" — the British armed forces launched what they called an "arrest operation". The police operation ended in the shooting dead of 14 unarmed Irish Nationalists and the wounding of 15 others. This was the most devastating use of British force against a section of its own population since the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

The enquiry — the Widgery Report — set up in the aftermath of the killings was considered by many to be a whitewash. It accepted the British troops' narrative that "the first firing in the [Roswell Flats] courtyard was directed at the soldiers". The soldiers were exonerated and the British government refused to clear the names of the dead whom it accused of carrying nail-bombs and guns. The Widgery Report constituted an "official memory" of Bloody Sunday, subsequently adopted by Unionists and the majority of the British public. But this "memory" was not accepted by nationalist groups and what followed in the aftermath was a clash of memories, expressed in a variety of ways.

From memorialising to peace-building

Violent conflicts such as the ones experienced in Derry can have a profound impact on perceptions of local geography. To those involved a geographic split can arise in the collective imagination in which boundaries differentiate "ours" and "theirs". One of the most eye-catching and well-known expressions of this difference can be seen through the variety of murals that identify the killing zones. An obvious sign of a split between the nationalist and loyalist factions is the "you are now entering free Derry" mural, erected to represent the self-declared autonomous nationalist area that existed between 1969 and 1972.

Perhaps the most famous of the murals depicts Father Edward Daly escorting a wounded man through the gunfire waving a white handkerchief. This street art was, and for some continues to be, a way in which the community expressed memories and depictions of past events in the city's political and social history. The murals also served as a response to the officially sanctioned memory of the Widgery Report and was used to solidify memory in the minds of those involved.

The Bloody Sunday Initiative, established in the summer of 1990 to commemorate the events of that Sunday in 1972, was a turning point in the recent history of Derry. Until this time protest and anger had been focused inwardly, targeting local communities and those directly affected. For the first time since the bloodshed, protest was beginning to be focused outwardly, positioning the tragedy within a global context of peace building and reconciliation. The initiative marked the easing of violence and the creation of a safer place for tourists to visit.

For the first time since the bloodshed, protest was beginning to be focused outwardly, positioning the tragedy within a global context of peace building and reconciliation.

This change can be easily seen in the posters promoting the commemorative marches that took place every year after the events. The early posters used violent and resentful imagery and language. But as a dialogue between the British government and republicans was established, the tone of the commemorations changed to include struggles for justice in other corners of the world. The theme of the 30th anniversary was "one world, many struggles". The emphasis here is on inclusiveness and on the potential for Bloody Sunday to become a symbol of unity and healing. This is an important reworking of the memory of Bloody Sunday, a move away from the "us" verses "them" theme of past commemorations.

Things have moved on dramatically since the height of the troubles in the 1960s and 70s. Attitudes have clearly shifted from one of anger and resentment to one of peace-building and reconciliation. A major contributing factor to this was undoubtedly the publication in 2010 of the long-awaited second inquiry. This acknowledged the British Army's use of unreasonable force and exonerated those that were killed.

This shift in mindset away from confrontation to reconciliation has encouraged the development of projects that bring communities together that have previously been divided. In 2011 the Peace Bridge was opened linking the Unionist Waterside and the Nationalist Cityside area. Its aim is to encourage greater levels of cross-community integration and usher in a new period of peace and reconciliation for the city.

The easing of violence has also encouraged the growth in the number of people visiting the city. Today the murals glorifying paramilitary groups or commemorating people who have lost their lives in paramilitary or military attacks are major tourist attractions on many visitors' must-see lists. The council is restoring them as part of its strategy for revitalising the centre as it recognises that tourism is one of the main factors driving economic growth.

Memories of conflict are inextricably bound up in space. But these memories are fluid and capable of change. 41 years on from that tragic day in 1972 memories of it still shape the lives of the people of Derry and Northern Ireland and permeate the city's geography. But over time these memories have changed. They have moved on from the unrelenting anger of the 1960s and 70s to a more inclusive place in the global struggle for peace and reconciliation.

recently completed the MSc in The City at the University of Edinburgh and now works as a freelance writer and researcher in Berlin. He is currently resident researcher for Bomb Gallery, an artistic collective with the aim of establishing a temporary international art space in the city of Mostar, Bosnia and Hercegovina.