One of the abiding images of the conflict in the North is that of a group of paratroopers behind a brick wall firing toward a rubble-strewn barricade, behind which looms a gable wall with the words "You Are Now Entering Free Derry" emblazoned on it. The date was Jan. 30, 1972. On that barricade three young men died that day. The controversy over how and why they died, along with 11 others, has never gone away. But nor should the gable wall that still stands there as a reminder of those turbulent times when it was simply known as Free Derry Corner.
The latest conflict began because an attempt was made last fall to have the gable wall bearing the inscription declared a historical monument. The Heritage Service in Northern Ireland decided that it did not meet the criteria. The application went to the regional development ministry at Stormont, that is headed up by Gregory Campbell — a Derry man and a member of the Rev. Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party. Campbell has said that if he is asked to decide the corner’s fate, one of the options might be to demolish it. As expected, this has set off a wave of anger in nationalist quarters.
The gable wall was first painted with the words that have made it famous in January 1969, when Derry was becoming the epicenter of the civil rights struggle. That struggle would probably not have been necessary nor would have taken the form that it did had it not been for the man who created Campbell’s party.
Paisley’s hostile and intemperate opposition to any reform helped drive young nationalists on to the streets in increasingly large and riotous numbers. Free Derry became their symbol, a place where they gathered to protest and hear civil rights speeches from leaders such as Bernadette Devlin.
As such it was never a symbol of hate or even, primarily, of violence. It long preceded the rise of the Provisional IRA. It stood and stands for civil rights and basic justice. Indeed, it is in that sense relatively rare among the symbols that characterize the North’s conflict. Think of the King Billy murals or those that sprang up in republican areas in the 1980s, portraits of Bobby Sands or of various hooded IRA figures with weapons. They all refer to bloody battles, to conflict and death. Free Derry corner harks back to the time when the conflict was about consensus, rooted in reason, aimed at establishing not the triumph of one side over another but equality for all before the law.
Unfortunately, the North being what it is, that phase did not last very long. That is another reason why the most potent reminder of it should be allowed to remain. Who knows, if all goes well, Protestants from the tradition of Mr. Campbell might one day be glad that they helped preserve it and grow respectful of that for which it stands.
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