Troubles legacy engendering ‘sense of hopelessness’
Derry weighed down by poverty, deprivation, joblessness and collapse of Stormont
Graffiti in the Creggan area of Derry close to where 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee was shot. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA
Easter is when republicans traditionally remember their dead. In Derry, Easter Sunday is marked in the City Cemetery.
The 1916 Proclamation is read, relatives and friends of fallen IRA volunteers lay flowers at the statue of the dying Cúchulainn which marks the republican plot and on Sunday the only colour came from the Tricolours flapping in the wind.
Many of the thousand or so present for the occasion have little or no memory of the Troubles but have seen the impact of violence through the death of journalist Lyra McKee (29) on Thursday.
Among those in attendance was Tiarnán Heaney (23), who held a bunch of flowers in memory of his uncle, Volunteer Denis Heaney.
“Twenty-one years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, there can be absolutely no justification for violence, no matter how much disaffection there is,” he says.
Across the road a dilapidated row of convenience stores, known as Creggan shops, hearken back to the past
“We have a phenomenal opportunity now for peace. Yes, it’s not perfect, but the answer to that is not to lift a gun, not to resort to violence, but to work towards a better peace.”
Yet on Thursday night, Creggan knew little of that peace.
Today there are flowers too in Fanad Drive, only a few minutes’ walk from the cemetery, where McKee was shot and killed by dissident republicans during rioting in the area.
The police believe the dissident republican group the “New IRA” was responsible. An 18-year-old and a 19-year-old arrested on Saturday were released on Sunday evening.
“I felt like it was the 70s down in the Bogside, dodging petrol bombs and bullets,” says former nurse Cathy Breslin. “Nobody wants this. The people of Creggan are peaceful people, they’re a great community, great community spirit.”
In Central Drive – the aptly-named heart of the area – some changes are easy to spot. There are many new facilities – a sports centre, a community hub, and a healthy living centre are all in modern, brightly-painted buildings.
But across the road a dilapidated row of convenience stores, known as Creggan shops, hearken back to the past. According to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, in 2017 the so-called Super Output Area (SOA) of Creggan Central – which includes only part of the estate – was ranked as having the 10th-highest level of multiple deprivation in Northern Ireland.
Conal McFeely, development executive with the Creggan Enterprises social economy project, was born and raised in the area and has spent 40 years working in community development in the area.
He points to numerous factors for the challenges faced here – a legacy of underinvestment leading to poverty and deprivation, educational underachievement and high levels of long-term unemployment as well as youth unemployment. These combine to create “a growing sense of hopelessness”, he says.
“Clearly there’s a problem for lots of young people of isolation, marginalisation and feeling completely abandoned. There are very low levels of aspiration.”
Among the outworkings of this, according to McFeely, are mental health difficulties, a high suicide rate and the abuse of legal and prescription drugs, all of which he believes is exacerbated by the legacy of the Troubles.
“There is a massive growing disconnect,” he says, “among young people who feel the police and justice system is against them, they feel the local political structures are against them, the community structures are against them.”
Documentary-maker Sinéad O’Shea has experienced this first-hand. The director of the documentary A Mother Takes Her Son to Be Shot, she spent five years making the film in areas like Creggan, and says she was “frequently shocked by how ongoing the conflict was for most of those people”.
‘Heroism and purpose’
“I met young people when I was there who literally wanted the Troubles back, who saw it as a time of heroism and purpose,” she recalls. “They don’t have any employment prospects and they feel very left behind by the peace process and that the Good Friday Agreement hasn’t really given them much.
“There’s just such a horrific irony that these are the people who killed Lyra McKee because she had identified the connection she had between her and them.”
In a 2016 article for The Atlantic, McKee wrote about the “ceasefire babies”. “We were the Good Friday Agreement generation,” she wrote, “destined never to witness the horrors of war but to reap the spoils of peace. The spoils just never seemed to reach us.”
While many in Creggan would agree, the numbers who actively support dissident republicans are small. Police put the total number of dissident republicans across Northern Ireland at several hundred, with a hard core of no more than 50.
They say they speak for the people. They do not speak for the people. They have no right to say that
The election of local man Gary Donnelly, then a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Movement, as a councillor in 2014 is often cited as an example of the latent support for dissident republicanism, or at the very least disillusionment with established political parties. In Creggan there is much speculation as to whether or not he will retain his seat in the North’s council elections next month.
“I have called on these people to throw their hat into the ring,” says Kevin Campbell, a Sinn Féin councillor and former mayor of Derry. “Step up, and let’s see your support.”
Others point out that politicians cannot absolve themselves, particularly given there has not been a powersharing government at Stormont for more than two years largely because of disagreement between the main unionist and nationalist parties.
Rally for peace
“I’ve been frustrated at times when you hear people putting all the focus on local communities and saying it’s their fault,” says McFeely. “The Creggan community is not responsible for the collapse of Stormont, it’s not responsible for Brexit, and all the stuff that flows out of that negativity.”
On Friday, McFeely was among the people of the area who stood with politicians, community and church leaders at a rally for peace.
Also present was parish priest Fr Joe Gormley, who was adamant that dissident republicans are not welcome.
“They say they speak for the people. They do not speak for the people. They have no right to say that,” he said.
“They are self-appointed dictators and they have no respect for human dignity. The only thing they’re concerned about is their own narrow political agenda, their own egos, and their own little puffed-up power struggle.
“You look at any of the murals round here, they’re about the glorification of death, and this is perpetuated by these myths of glorious death.
“It corrupts and it takes good people’s lives, lives like Lyra’s.”