Tensions bubble in Derry as Soldier F prosecution approaches
‘When politicians ratchet up the rhetoric, there are consequences,’ says community worker
At a bonfire in the Bogside, among the flags burned were those of the Parachute Regiment and an effigy of Soldier F. Photograph: Freya McClements
As the North marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Troubles last week, petrol bombs were being thrown at the police on Derry’s walls.
Just as in August 1969, when an Apprentice Boys parade was the match that set simmering tensions ablaze, this year’s march, on August 10th, ignited much that has long been smouldering beneath the surface.
As the Clyde Valley Flute Band arrived in Derry from Larne, Co Antrim, to take part in the parade, they wore Parachute Regiment emblems and a letter F on the sleeves of their uniforms. In Derry, of all places, this is deeply controversial.
Since the announcement in March that “Soldier F” is to be prosecuted for murder and attempted murder on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the former member of the Parachute Regiment has become a rallying cry for all those who oppose Troubles-era prosecutions in Northern Ireland.
Parachute regiment flags and banners supporting Soldier F have multiplied across the North, to the distress of the families of the 14 victims. The flute band’s wearing of the emblems, said John Kelly – whose brother Michael was among those killed on Bloody Sunday – was offensive and deeply hurtful not just to the relatives but to the people of Derry.
Yet in the Fountain estate – the last remaining Protestant enclave in the predominantly Catholic west bank of the city – DUP MP Gregory Campbell and others posed for a photograph underneath a banner with the Parachute Regiment logo and the slogan “The Fountain Supports our British Soldiers”, precisely, he said, to demonstrate the point that there was nothing illegal about showing support for the armed forces.
Criticism of police
DUP leader Arlene Foster would later accuse the police of being “heavy-handed and disproportionate” in their response; others criticised the police for allowing the band to march at all.
And last Thursday, when a bonfire was lit in the Bogside, among the flags burned were those of the Parachute Regiment and an effigy of Soldier F.
“That’s the problem with all of this,” said one community worker. “That band arrived from Larne, marches, goes home again, and it impacts on these communities and undermines all the good work that’s been done in the last 20 years.”
He talks of the “quiet diplomacy” on the ground in areas such as the Bogside that is often not reported; negotiations between youth workers and young people that has seen tyres removed from the bonfire, an agreement not to name individuals and a pledge to come and help in the clean-up.
“We are always very close to the brink, and with the greatest respect to our political elite, they’re not talking to each other. When they’re ratcheting up the rhetoric, there is always consequences.
“It’s working-class communities that suffer, and it’s the young people that react.”
In areas like the Bogside, or Belfast’s New Lodge – which saw a stand-off between police and young bonfire-builders the previous week – the issues remain those of marginalisation and alienation. Amid a lack of employment, lack of opportunities and lack of hope, new fault lines are emerging as young people who feel no connection to established political parties look instead to dissident republicanism.
There are challenges ahead. The Soldier F case is listed for court in Derry in September, and the report into the scandal over a renewable heating scheme, which led to the collapse of Stormont 2½ years ago is also due; the Brexit deadline of October 31st looms.
As the anniversaries of 50 years ago have passed, the debate has turned from the past to the future. Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, the former moderator of the Presbyterian church, Norman Hamilton, spoke of political failure and said Northern Ireland had “gone down the road of embedding low-level hatred in our communities. Everybody I talk to is angry, absolutely everybody,” he said.
“We are in a very bad relational place, and unless those relationships can be explicitly addressed and work done on those, then the institutions can’t deliver us.”