By Stephen McKinley
Yet another siege could soon break out in Derry, this time over the fate of one of the city’s most potent landmarks: Free Derry Corner.
"You are now entering Free Derry," reads the slogan in stark black block capitals on the only remaining end wall of a house that marked the entrance to the Bogside, the IRA’s no-go area with the security forces during the tumultuous civil unrest of the 1970s. And each year after the Bloody Sunday march, a rally has been held before the defiant words, only the most famous of dozens of stark political messages on loyalist and nationalist walls around Northern Ireland.
With the advent of the peace process, such totems have taken on historic significance for both communities, and in Derry, efforts have been made by local Sinn Fein and SDLP members to have the site preserved as a historic monument. Last September, Derry council members voted to apply for historic-monument status for the site, a proposal that was subsequently rejected, as it did not meet the criteria.
As a result, future decisions about Free Derry Corner will almost certainly land on the desk of the regional development minister at Stormont, Gregory Campbell of the hard-line loyalist Democratic Unionist Party.
"The question of ownership was raised when the heritage department turned it down," Campbell said on Monday, "but I haven’t been asked, as of today, about the site."
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However, Campbell told the BBC last week that if he were asked to make a decision, then a number of options, including demolition, may be considered.
"People would actually camp out rather than see that happen," responded Liam MacNiallais, a Derry nationalist living in New York, adding that an attempt to remove the wall with the rest of the house in the ’70s had been met with strong local opposition. "Any attempt would be opposed tooth and nail by the people of the Bogside and around the world."
The wall’s fame has attracted visitors from far and wide — even departing British soldiers sometimes posed for photographs there — and Campbell agreed that the site was a major tourist attraction to Derry. But he noted that his remit did not include tourist considerations, "only the roads management aspect." The world’s most famous corner is now next to a main road entering the Bogside.
"Some people there would want to preserve it," Campbell told the Echo, but "others see it as [evidence of] a very republican, sectarian approach to politics."
Asked whether a compromise could be reached, given the potency of the site in republican folklore, Campbell added that he could see an additional edifice being erected across the road or on the other side of the wall, to provide "a more accurate depiction of history. They could also conclude the slogan on the one side by adding on the other side, ‘from which all the Protestant community has been ethnically cleansed.’ "
"In that case," MacNiallais said, "they should add a republican mural next to the King Billy mural in the Fountain district [of Derry]. That’s just Gregory Campbell’s usual rant."