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10 January 2008 Edition

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Free Derry - symbol of resistance

TV Review
No Go: The Free Derry Story
Tuesday 8 January
BBC1

Reviewed by Peadar Whelan
 
I find when I watch programmes about the political situation in the Six Counties that one phrase in the narrative can prejudice how I interpret the whole programme. And that is exactly what happened as I watched No Go: The Free Derry Story on BBC on Tuesday night, 8 January.
The offending phrase came at the beginning of Bernard Hill’s narrative when he described how Catholics in the North took to the streets in protest at the “perceived injustices”, they suffered at the hands of the unionist regime in Stormont. So the last 30 years of violence, bloodshed and suffering could have been avoided had the civil rights protesters perceived their experience of gerrymandering and discrimination in a different way!
What goes to the core of my prejudice is the understanding of the BBC as the, “official organ”, of the British state and therefore not an organisation that will make programmes about the North of Ireland that objectively analyse the relationship between Britain and Ireland.
No Go: The Free Derry Story was the second of a three part series looking at the Battle of the Bogside in August 1969 and it’s aftermath. The first part, on Monday 7, was a repeat showing of the Battle of the Bogside and came, co-incidentally, on the day that the consultative group on the past co-chaired by Denis Bradley and Robin Eames held its first public meeting in Belfast. Among the recommendations the group is apparently poised to make is to ask the British Government to acknowledge that it fought a war against the IRA on the streets of the North thus admitting its role as an active participant in a war rather than hold to the myth that they were honest brokers in a fight between two religious protagonists.
The BBC’s Battle of the Bogside provided plenty of good footage of the riots that took place in Derry in August 1969 but done very little to shed light on the politics of the era that erupted into a 30-year war.
In the second programme the programme makers tried to deal with the phenomenon of what become known as Free Derry, how it came about and how it came to represent the victory won by the people of Derry over the hated RUC.
Indeed, according to the narrative Free Derry almost happened by chance given that the leaders of Derry’s resistance hadn’t any real idea of what to do when the British Army came onto the streets, but demanded the barricades stay in place until some kind of political agreement was put in place.
For their part the British commanders on the ground were less enlightened. Their role, as they saw it, was to preserve order so they seemed content to allow the Derry Citizens Defence Association to govern the area.
The programme, through interviews with Bogside residents and the political leaders of the resistance, captured the elation that the people felt about their achievements in fighting the RUC to a standstill. The reality of Free Derry was the embodiment of that victory because it also gave the people something tangible and when the British army allowed the people to run their own affairs in the ‘free’ area their triumph was legitimised.
Free Derry, by it’s very existence, became a challenge to the legitimacy of the British government so it was inevitable that it would never last. At the time, however, it gave Irish people a glimpse of what life could be when the shackles of oppression were broken.
In hindsight it seems inevitable that the struggle for civil rights would become a struggle for national rights.
This was recognised by one contributor to the programme who described the British army as an occupying force. She quoted the old saying, “I’d rather have an Irishman’s growl that an Englishman’s smile”. How right she is!

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