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The Ulster Heritage

Peter Furtado finds out how hundreds of local historical initiatives are changing the political and cultural climate of Northern Ireland.

It does not look this way everywhere. Certainly not in Northern Ireland where Mark Langhammer, director of Northern Ireland’s Association of Teachers and Lecturers, says that heritage has, till recently, meant the certainties about the past that people in balaclavas tell you to believe. But things are changing, fast.
No-one epitomizes the changing world of Northern Irish politics more than Martin McGuinness, former street-fighter and now Deputy Chief Minister and avuncular politician; and no building epitomizes the changing world of Northern Irish heritage more than the massive walls of his native Derry (or Londonderry). They withstood a famous 105-day siege in 1688-89 after thirteen apprentice boys closed the gates to the ousted James II and the city declared ‘No Surrender’, a event about which every local child learns even before starting school. Though the town is home to thousands of Catholics, the walls have ‘belonged’ to the Apprentice Boys who marched round them each August 12th. So much have they summed up the Protestant Ascendancy that McGuinness’s mother, resident in Derry for most of her 84 years, had never walked on them – until this autumn.

The attempt to find out what happened in Derry on a single day, January 30th, 1972, Bloody Sunday, has demonstrated the problem of telling the history of Northen Ireland’s Troubles in anything like a conventional manner. The tortuous Savile Inquiry has still not reported, almost ten years after being set up. But if such attempts to determine a ‘true history’ that might bring ‘closure’ are flawed, what other approach might prove more valuable to those who were involved? Do people actually want someone to construct a ‘shared history’ that can unite once-warring communities?

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