17 January 2008 Edition
Truth versus perception
Wednesday 9 January
Reviewed by Peadar Whelan
THE third part of the BBC’s trilogy about the early years of the conflict in the North told the story of the Protestant population in Derry and how they were affected by what was happening on the streets.
Titled Exodus, the programme revealed that of the 15,000 people from a unionist/Protestant background who lived on the predominantly nationalist West Bank of the Foyle in 1969 there remain only 500.
The majority of these live in the Fountain area, which borders the city’s ancient walls.
Derry’s walls were defended by the Protestants who, when the city was besieged by King James’s Catholic army in 1689, sealed the city and refused to surrender.
The Siege of Derry holds a central place in the unionist/Protestant historical and emotional mind-set and the war cry ‘No Surrender’ has come to epitomise and express that mind-set.
So listening to the interviews with the many Protestant people who left Derry in the course of the early years of the conflict I got the impression they are a people who were reliving the siege and wouldn’t surrender to the present-day Jacobites.
The story of the Protestant people who lived in Derry through the early years of the conflict is one of a people who were content with the world as it existed.
The Civil Rights campaign exposed the injustices of Stormont rule and when the unionist state tried in vain to stop the clock ticking on the inevitable social and political changes wrought by civil agitation then the unionist world was turned upside down.
War came to the streets of Derry with Battle of the Bogside and the deployment of the British Army and clearly that war accelerated the alienation and fear felt by the unionist/Protestant population of the city.
However, it is dishonest of the BBC – and in my view the narrative of Exodus attempted to set the scene in this way – to find Catholics, nationalists and republicans guilty of driving Protestants from their homes.
A number of the unionist interviewees spoke of being intimidated out of their homes but, more often than not, the interviewees acknowledged that they were not attacked although they felt under threat.
Our old friend perception once again came to the aid of the BBC script-writers. The perception of intimidation was enough for them to build their programme around and in doing so portrayed the many Catholic people who had been good neighbours to their Protestant friends as sectarian bigots.
In the aftermath of the programme I spoke to two elderly relatives of mine who lived all their lives in the area around the Fountain.
“People were scared,” they said, “so you wouldn’t blame them for moving, but they weren’t put out.”
For me the key to understanding why so many Protestants left Derry’s West Bank doesn’t lie in the way they ‘perceived’ the IRA as waging a campaign against them as Protestants.
It lies in the way in which nationalists, as the majority in the city, were in the ascendence in the political, economic, social and cultural life of a city that is more nationalist than unionist.
Protestant alienation grew out of their knowledge that things had changed in Derry and throughout the North and they were essentially voting with their feet.