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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Derry after the bomb: 'This will make us more resilient'

A car bomb and a series of hijackings have left residents angry yet determined not to return to days when fear stalked the streets, writes Kathy Donaghy

Jenni Doherty from Little Acorns bookshop in Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Jenni Doherty from Little Acorns bookshop in Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Shock waves: Forensic officers examine the remains of a car bomb that exploded outside the courthouse in Derry last Saturday. Photo: Margaret McLaughlin
Ciaran O'Neill from Bishop's Gate Hotel, Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty
Jeanette Warke from Cathedral Youth Club, Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

The CCTV footage shows a group of young people idling up Bishop Street in Derry's city centre last Saturday, taking their time and chatting as they walk past the court house. They looked like they hadn't a care in the world.

A short time later, just after 8pm, and just inches from where the group of young people had passed, the car bomb exploded, sending flames leaping into the night sky. The blast was heard all over the city, triggering shock waves in people's hearts and minds and bringing back many bad memories. It could have been much, much worse.

Shock waves: Forensic officers examine the remains of a car bomb that exploded outside the courthouse in Derry last Saturday. Photo: Margaret McLaughlin
Shock waves: Forensic officers examine the remains of a car bomb that exploded outside the courthouse in Derry last Saturday. Photo: Margaret McLaughlin

At her bookshop, Little Acorns, on Society Street, just off Bishop Street, Jenni Doherty is trying to grapple with what could have happened and the devastating consequences a few moments in time could have had.

She was working late and sorting out stock. While she usually closes her shop at 6pm, Doherty busied herself with small tidying jobs and was still there well after 7pm.

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A few Lego Star Wars figures lie scattered on a table in Little Acorns. She points to them as the final reason for her delay on Saturday night. As she was heading out the door to go home, she dropped the figures she was bringing with her for a friend's children and spent a few vital minutes picking them up and reassembling them. A short time later she heard what she calls an almighty bang.

She went to the front door of the building, where she met two police officers who told her, along with the manager of the Society Street Indoor market who was also still on the premises, to go inside to the back of the building. While police had spent the minutes after the bomb warning evacuating people in the area, Doherty believes nobody even knew they were there. And even though she knows she shouldn't, she can't help her mind from going down the "what if" road.

In the time she spent shut up inside the building, she received regular updates from friends and neighbours about what was going on. Her neighbours on St Columb's Court, a small terrace of a few houses on the other side of Bishop Street, had been evacuated. She was sent pictures from news sites of the burning car only a few minutes walk away. Doherty finally got back into her house on Monday evening after 5pm. One of her neighbours' windows had been blown in. It was easily and quickly fixed. Putting the events of Saturday night behind her will take longer. "I didn't sleep on Saturday or Sunday night. It feels surreal - I'm asking 'did I dream that?' Everything flashes in front of you," she says.

While she says the events won't make her think of moving, she is angry at those who want to take the city backwards. "This part of the city really is a community. It's a living, breathing part of the city, morning, noon and night. Since the City of Culture in 2013, this area has grown. All the buildings that were lying empty have been taken over. We've come so far. It's a very mixed community - of all nationalities, ages, creeds and backgrounds - who live in the city. We're taking the city back for positive reasons. This will make us more resilient but we are allowed to be angry," says Doherty.

Alien territory

Her business is one of a host of new and established businesses that have breathed new life into the area around Bishop Street. Cool indoor markets, antique stores, arts and craft stalls and galleries make browsing, shopping and stopping for coffee in Society Street, Pump Street and London Street a pleasure today.

While many city centres are feeling the pinch from online retailers, the traders in this part of Derry have found themselves at the centre of the city's creative zeitgeist and are dismayed at the events over 48 hours when a bomb and hijackings in the city harked back to the days of the Troubles.

When Bishop's Gate Hotel, a stone's throw from the courthouse on Bishop Street, opened its doors to the public in the summer of 2016, it was a radical departure from Derry's other hotels and bars.

It took an empty and rundown former gentleman's club from the 1950s and turned it into something that wouldn't look out of place on an elegant Parisian boulevard. On Saturday night, the boutique hotel was operating at full capacity. The rooms and restaurant were fully booked and the bar was busy with locals and visitors alike.

The hotel's manager Ciaran O'Neill says they were in normal Saturday night mode. When the call from the police came, he realised that none of his staff had ever been in this situation before. Under his orders, staff began working hard to find beds for guests before the order to evacuate came. He and his team took 184 people out of the building past the city's Protestant cathedral, hugging the ancient city walls, and into safety.

Ciaran O'Neill from Bishop's Gate Hotel, Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

O'Neill, a veteran of the hospitality trade, says what stands out for him was the faces of his young staff, many of whom are in their early twenties. This was alien territory for them, he says, and the fear of the unknown was etched all over their faces. "Sixty per cent of my staff are under 25. They have no perception of what I call 'baggage'," he says.

Getting back to work and normality is what O'Neill is prioritising now. "The last five years of reputation building has been ripped up. We have to start getting the message out again. If we're asked about safety, statistics show that Derry and Northern Ireland are the safest places in the world to travel and stay. In the hospitality business, we are glass half full thinkers - we believe in driving forward. It's frustrating, but we've been through much worse," says O'Neill.

Eamon Baker, one of the city's well-known community workers, questions calling what happened "a return to the dark days". He has a copy of the day's Derry Journal open in front of him which contains pictures of a PSNI reconstruction of the murder of Catholic policeman Michael Ferguson on Shipquay Street in the city centre in 1993.

"I remember that day. My son was with me, he was 11 years old, and a teenager I knew through youth work came running up Bishop Street towards us, agitated, almost shouting: 'There's blood running down Shipquay Street'. It's a horrific image," says Baker. "That's how dark those dark days were".

In his working life now, Baker heads up an initiative 'Towards Understanding and Healing' that enables people to tell their stories of hurt through the Troubles for therapeutic gain. Part of this cross-community storytelling initiative, which has its home on Bishop Street, is predicated on people compassionately listening to 'the other' and what he calls "mindsets being disrupted". It is by breaking down clichés about the Troubles and reaching out to those who are already being labelled "unreachable" that change can happen, he believes.

While Baker says he isn't keen to get into a hackneyed analysis about why people feel it's right to plant bombs, he says inter-generational poverty is certainly part of the picture. He also says that for some in Derry, politically-motivated violence may be part of their DNA. "It's not so long ago that Sinn Féin spokespeople would have been refusing to condemn violence," he says.

At Cathedral Youth Club in the City's Fountain area, the only remaining Protestant enclave in the city's west bank, Jeanette Warke, says there's been a lot of fear in the Fountain in recent days

Jeanette Warke from Cathedral Youth Club, Derry. Photo: Lorcan Doherty

A large interface wall with a steel gate separates the Fountain from Bishop Street and Jeanette says that it's been closed at night this week. While once the Fountain was a thriving area, its numbers have dwindled and now 420 people live here.

"As the stories about the hijackings kept coming, to be honest we were all very nervous. I thought to myself, are we really going back here again," says Warke, who was brought up in Bishop Street but left the area in a mass Protestant exodus from the city across the River Foyle to the Waterside area in the 1970s.

She recalls that she was 29 years old at the time and married with three children. She felt like her life had fallen apart, having been forced to leave the area she knew and loved. Now a widow in her 70s, she is proud of the youth club she leads and is proud of her community, even as she says they do feel under pressure.

Warke says that last July, for the full month, bottles were thrown over the interface wall into the Fountain every night. One night over 100 bottles were thrown in. She claims young people from the Fountain can't go 'down the town' because they'd be singled out.

However, despite the difficulties, she says great work is being done across all the communities in the city to better the lives of everyone. A number of neighbourhoods including the Fountain, the Bogside, Creggan, Brandywell and Bishop Street have come together to form a partnership called Triax to work together to overcome problems and Jeanette says they have worked together tremendously well.

"I've always been optimistic. I love this community and this city. I don't want to go back to the bad days. Last Friday, we had a gathering of the community representatives from the Triax area. There were about 30 of us here and everyone was so supportive. You would never have thought what happened the next day would happen," says Jeanette.

She says that when she saw the pictures released by the PSNI of the driver running away from the car he parked on Bishop Street loaded with explosives, she asked herself 'why', over and over again.

"That fella leaving that car will stick with me for the rest of my life. I thought 'have you kids of your own?' 'Have you a mother or father?' Those kids who passed by could have been blown up - it doesn't bear thinking about. I'd love to ask him what he was thinking and ask him 'is there nothing in your future that you see more positive than planting car bombs and knowing they can take a life?'," says Warke.

Eamon Deane, brother of novelist, critic and poet Seamus, has spent his life first as a teacher and later as a community worker in the city. The father and grandfather lives at Marlborough Street between Creggan and the Bogside and was one of the organisers of the Bogside Community Association.

He says that despite the setbacks and all the negativity about what's happened in recent days, Derry is a place of resilience and optimism. "We are hopeful of a better world that we will create for ourselves and our children," says Deane.

On the edge

As chair of the Foyle River Gardens project, Deane is excited to talk about a regeneration project that will transform two sites on the banks of the River Foyle into lush gardens with treetop walks. It's hoped the project will create 200 jobs and bring 400,000 extra visitors to the city every year.

"This is the real side of what's happening her. This city uniquely is on the edge of Europe, on the edge of the Republic of Ireland and on the edge of the UK. We are peripheral, but it's in the margins that you can be most creative," he says.

Local entrepreneur Connor Doherty says he doesn't understand the mindset of anyone who would want to drag the city back to a darker time. While Doherty admits the city has suffered neglect over the years and says there is growing frustration over Brexit, he says things have generally been improving and the city is a great place to live.

"New jobs are being created and people feel it is a place they can invest in. Every society has its problems. The people who are behind recent events are small in number. It's such a pity that this small cabal of people have put Derry in the news for all the wrong reasons," says Doherty.

As the city moved to put events of recent days behind it, plans were unveiled for a new mural in the city centre. This one won't be political or feature some important historical event. The faces of the Derry Girls from writer Lisa McGee's hit show for Channel 4 will be painted on the side of a prominent city centre building later this year.

The show has shone a spotlight on the city, its culture and its past and gained iconic status through making people laugh, putting Derry on the map and in the news for all the right reasons. It's something Derry people are rightly proud of, or as they say in Derry, "wile" proud of.

See a review of 'Burnt Out: How the Troubles Began' by Michael McCann

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