It’s 50 years since Bloody Sunday, but sectarian tensions are running high


Show caption Flags, including that of the Parachute Regiment, flying in Drumahoe, 24 January 2022. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Opinion It’s 50 years since Bloody Sunday, but sectarian tensions are running high Susan McKay The old divides are closing, but the flags in Derry show that some unionists are in no mood to move on Sun 30 Jan 2022 13.17 GMT Share on Facebook

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The road I grew up on in Drumahoe, on the outskirts of Derry, has been on the news lately, and not in a way that makes me proud. Journalists stand at its junction with the main road from Belfast, pointing up at the purple flag of the Parachute Regiment fluttering high on a lamp-post. They explain its significance at this time of year: it was paratroopers who killed 13 unarmed civil rights marchers in the city on Bloody Sunday in January 1972. Family members of those killed have talked about the pain the flying of these flags causes them. Politicians, including some unionists, and even the Parachute Regiment itself have called it “unacceptable”.

The flag flies because there are some in the unionist community who want to show that not everybody is mourning the dead of Bloody Sunday as its 50th anniversary is marked in Derry this weekend. It is a show of disrespect. Drumahoe has been flying this flag for years, as has the village of Newbuildings on the main road into Derry from Dublin. I saw one that had a sign pinned underneath it featuring the crosshairs of a gun – a warning to anyone tempted to remove it. In Drumahoe there are always union flags and Ulster flags flying, and sometimes there are also Scottish, Israeli and paramilitary flags. They stand like a weird forest. After the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985, “Drumahoe Says No” was daubed on a wall along the main road behind our house, the white ghosts of its letters lingering on the red brick for years after it was painted over.

Houses in Drumahoe are in demand. Lately a few developments have been built of the kind described as “exclusive”, which in estate agent language means expensive. Once the earth is cut for the foundations, however, flags appear and put a different slant on “exclusive”. Their message is: houses for Protestants. When we sold our old family home last year, someone plastered an Ulster Defence Association bulldog sticker on the for sale sign.

A woman who lives in one flag-festooned estate near Derry told me that her area is actually quite “mixed”, meaning people from both Protestant and Catholic backgrounds live there. She said most did not want the flags but they remain because everyone knew the men who put them up. They were aggressive and had paramilitary connections.

Some people simply cease to notice these territorial markings. My mother once took a photo of my daughter in her garden. She was up a tree with a large union flag on a lamp-post behind her, apparently sprouting from her head. When I said it was a pity about the flag, my mother said, “What flag?”

It used to be called triumphalism, this flaunting of Northern Ireland’s Britishness. Now it looks more like desperation. When the state was set up in 1921, unionists felt secure. But the Good Friday agreement is based on power-sharing, and unionism has lost its majority at Stormont. A census to be published this year is expected to show that there are more Catholics than Protestants – this is already so among young people. The May election could see Sinn Féin take the first minister role.

Under the old unionist regime, the nationalist majority in Derry was disenfranchised – now it is reflected in local and UK political institutions. The old binary is breaking down anyway. Young musicians who play in loyalist bands by day go to gigs in republican areas at night – music is the shared passion, not division. While some unionists are still militant about calling the city Londonderry, and some nationalists insist on Derry, for the most part people are amiably willing to use either or both. Long, hard cross-community work on parading has taken much of the strife out of the annual burning of the effigy of “Lundy the traitor”. (He was a governor of Derry who wanted to surrender the city to Catholic King James in 1689 rather than endure a siege.)

The campaign for truth and justice for those who died on Bloody Sunday led to the Saville inquiry. Its finding that those killed on Bloody Sunday were innocent, and the prime minister’s apology in 2010, led to attempts to prosecute some of the paratroopers for murder. Soldier F, as he was known, was to be tried in Derry. In 2019 senior DUP figures, including Gregory Campbell, who lives in Drumahoe and is MP for East Londonderry, along with local Northern Ireland assembly member Gary Middleton, posed under a banner that had the Parachute Regiment’s insignia on it along with the claim that loyalist Derry is “still under siege” and the slogan “No surrender”. The Soldier F case collapsed in 2021. This year, Middleton saw sense and called for the Parachute Regiment’s flags to be taken down.

The commemorations for Bloody Sunday this year included plays, exhibitions, debates and concerts. The Irish taoiseach attended. It has been gracious and dignified. People from all communities were invited to join a walk along the original route of the march on Sunday. Unionist leaders were also invited, but none came. It looks bad.

Last week Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader and MP for the constituency, called at Westminster for an apology from the British army for coming to Derry to “murder” civilians. He was heckled by the DUP MP Sammy Wilson. That looked bad, too. As a Stormont election looms, the DUP, humiliated by the Brexit debacle and by the prime minister, is poking at the deep old roots of sectarianism.

Those who put up the Parachute Regiment’s flag are full of incoherent rage. They believe Protestant civilians killed by the IRA have not been given the same attention as those who died on Bloody Sunday. They want recognition for “the exodus” that saw many Protestants effectively driven out of the city side of Derry by the IRA during the conflict. They feel betrayed and neglected by unionist leaders who have taken their support for granted and done little to improve their lives. One man told me that those responsible are “giving two fingers” to everyone else. “They’re saying – we can do this and you can’t stop us,” he said.

Susan McKay is an Irish writer and journalist whose books include Northern Protestants: On Shifting Ground

This article was amended on 4 February 2022 to say that pending census results are expected to show more Catholics than Protestants (rather than to show an overall Catholic majority) in Northern Ireland.