Culture city's very partial culture

Despite its history, Northern Ireland’s second city continues to espouse division

By Steven Jaffe, September 28, 2010

Last year, 1,400 Palestinian flags flew here in solidarity with Gaza. This city has a policy of boycotting everything Israeli. A week before my visit, Hamas representatives received rapturous applause via a live internet link between Gaza and the city's Guildhall.

Where am I? An Arab capital? Iran? No, welcome instead to the recently appointed UK City for Culture in 2013. Derry-Londonderry, about 70 miles north-west of Belfast remains a divided place where Ulster Unionists and Irish Nationalists disagree about a lot more than the city's name. The publication of the Saville Report on Bloody Sunday and new evidence regarding the IRA bombing at nearby Claudy re-opens old wounds. But after decades of violent conflict between Protestants and Catholics, the city pins its hopes on a peaceful future based on inclusivity and dialogue.

But a future without Jews. The tiny Derry Jewish community folded more than 70 years ago. It was in 1965 that a representative of a Jewish organisation last came here to meet civic leaders. Following on from decades of lack of contact, today the City Council believes it can best further peace in the Middle East by banning goods and services from the Jewish state.

I co-chair the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel. Formed in March 2009, over 1,000 people have attended our meetings in Belfast and we have hosted the Israeli ambassador, met all the main political parties - and have promoted Israeli music and sport.

But my visit to Derry is our first foray into the province's second city, where Irish Republicans have a long-standing affinity with the Palestinian cause (going back to the 1970s when the IRA and PLO trained together in Lebanon), a hard-left element demonises Israel at every turn, and even moderate Nationalists support boycotting resolutions at the City Council.

Supporters of Israel I meet speak of an atmosphere of hatred and intimidation - a Christian lady tells me, "my son is called Israel. Things are so bad I'm scared what will happen when anyone asks him his name." Local schools are being twinned with Gazan schools through a link between Derry Friends of Palestine and the Hamas ministry of education.

Looking out from the famous city walls on to the Bogside, even the gable walls proclaim support for the Palestinian cause. Murals depict the flag of Palestine and declare "You are now entering Free Gaza". The local Derry Journal regularly publishes articles and letters which seek to outdo each other by vilifying the "rogue", "apartheid" and "racist" state.

I ask the city's mayor how inclusivity and parity of esteem - the hallmarks of Northern Ireland's peace process - fit in with boycotting and demonising the world's only Jewish state. Colum Eastwood, at 27 the youngest mayor in Derry's history, cannot tell me the name of any other country the city boycotts. Although it emerges that he is a passionate supporter of the Tibetan cause, the mayor confirms there is no move for Derry to boycott China.

The city's MP, Mark Durkan, like the mayor, is from the moderate Nationalist SDLP (the party once led by Nobel laureate, John Hume). He admits local comment on the Middle East might seem one-sided. However, he defends boycotting if it strengthens Palestinian moderates. I argue that those who lead the campaign for Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions are seeking to delegitimise Israel, not facilitate compromise between Jews and Arabs.

The Unionists who governed the city for many years are now an embattled minority on the council. The Protestant enclave on Londonderry's "west bank," close to the city walls, is surrounded by security fencing.Derry's derelict former synagogue - for many years, headquarters of the local Ulster Unionist branch - is located here. I meet the Democratic Unionist MP for East Londonderry, Gregory Campbell and the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay, both sympathetic to Israel, who ask why we haven't got our media act together.

Encouragingly, they would support Israel's case being put at a cross-community meeting at a neutral venue in the city - an event which the Nationalist mayor says he would also support so that all voices could be heard.

Sinn Fein representatives were unavailable during my visit. No worries, I text the head of their Middle East desk, Pat Sheehan, there will be plenty of opportunities for us to meet. With the Jewish community in the UK and Ireland shrinking, I wonder how many other regions and cities we are neglecting, like Derry, at our peril?

London-based Steven Jaffe co-chairs Northern Ireland Friends of Israel and represents Belfast on the Board of Deputies

Last updated: 11:15am, September 28 2010