Derry City Council (it changed its name 20 years ago) voted this week to begin a process of changing the name of the city, once the proposal has been equality-proofed and if it is passed by a referendum of its population.
The proposal would then go to the Department of the Environment and thence to the British government for royal assent.
The city’s name has been a vexing issue since it was changed by royal charter in 1613 when James I granted it to the city and trade guilds of London. They built its thick stone walls to force the native Irish out (into the aptly named “Bogside”), and renamed it “Londonderry” (the original Irish “Doire” means “oak grove”).
Many Protestants call the city simply “Derry” in everyday speech and the loyalist marching order is called the “Apprentice Boys of Derry.” To avoid causing offense, some refer to it as “Londonderry-stroke-Derry,” and local musician and radio DJ Gerry Anderson coined the name “Stroke City.”
The city’s population is two-thirds Catholic with most Protestants now living on the eastern side of the River Foyle.
A delegation of Unionist councilors has now asked for an urgent meeting with the Northern Ireland Office. Nationalist councilors, however, are to meet the town clerk to discuss the implementation of the name change plan. An impact assessment of the request will be carried out and will likely include community relations consultation on equality issues.
The historic co-proposed motion was put before a meeting of the council last week, after days of negotiations between the SDLP and Sinn Fein, the two largest parties on the council. It was passed, stating that Londonderry should no longer be singularly imposed as the official or legal name of the city.
The UUP leader, David Trimble, called the move “naked triumphalism” and sectarian. Speaking during a visit to the city last Friday, he said it was an “utterly disgraceful” act that would “damage community relations.”
Reacting to Trimble’s comments, SDLP leader Mark Durkan revealed that during his dealings with the UUP leader, while the two men were jointly first and deputy first minister, he had insisted that every time the city was mentioned it was called “Londonderry.”
“David Trimble cannot accuse the SDLP of failing a test on parity of esteem, tolerance and respect for difference,” he said. “When the [power-sharing] Executive held a meeting in Derry, he refused to agree a press release that would use anything other than ‘Londonderry.’ “