Working In These Times
Hard Times in Free Derry
DERRY, NORTHERN IRELAND -- The graffiti-marred images on the steep Eastway Wall in Derry's Creggan neighborhood tell stories of the area's tumultuous political, social and labor history. There are mentions of Bloody Sunday, the infamous 1972 massacre of participants in a non-violent Catholic civil rights march in Free Derry just down the street.
There are also photos and text commemorating and explaining the area's less-famous labor history, which also speaks to the local spirit of resistance and current economic and social woes.
Over the June 2-3 weekend, police raided homes in the Catholic Bogside and Creggan neighborhoods in advance of the Olympic torch relay on June 4. Residents called the raids an unjustified affront to their civil rights, and several bombs were thrown at police vehicles, including one just 15 minutes after I left the area on Saturday, that resulted in attempted murder charges.
These skirmishes show the economic and political challenges that residents still face 14 years after the Good Friday agreement. Despite vigorous efforts to heal divisions and create jobs and economic opportunities, Catholic residents are still disproportionately likely to be unemployed, after decades of severe discrimination and institutional inequality.
Derry was once home to large factories making dress shirts, electronics and other products, with strong organizing by workers who harbored both "fondness and resentment" for their employers, as one plaque on the Eastway Wall notes. Hundreds of jobs were lost as factories closed, including the United Technologies Automotive (UTA) factory that closed in 1997, shedding 600 jobs. The closure of the Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR) factories that once employed more than 2,000 people making record players and tape decks was "devastating despite the sweatshop conditions and the inadequacy of the wages," according to the Eastway Wall art project, part of the Re-Imaging Communities program meant to bring factions together and help people move past historical grievances through public art.
While devoting significant space to the factories closed and jobs lost in the area, the Eastway plaques also note the creation of the Rath Mor Indigenous Enterprise Park, a grassroots "self-help" initiative wherein community members gained control of part of the old United Technologies Automotive factory as a home for local businesses. The plaque says:
"It is a story born of despair, but filled with hope—testimony to the commitment, courage and perseverance of remarkable people living in remarkable times in a remarkable place. ... The significance of the self-help ethos promoted and fostered by CEL (Creggan Enterprises Limited) is the foundation stone to ensure the revitalization of the area and has become the key structure for job creation."
Northern Ireland actually has a lower official unemployment rate than the United Kingdom as a whole, but many are still dependent on government assistance or struggling to survive. There was a 70 percent increase in people on the dole in the past year, and unemployment rates have traditionally been higher among Catholics in Derry.
About one in five youth in Northern Ireland are classified as unemployed. Recent news stories note that only one in 10 teachers completing certification can expect to get a job in Northern Ireland, because of budget cuts and dropping student enrollment.
Government and private agencies are aggressively pushing tourism as an economic engine, with a special Northern Ireland Summer campaign running that coincides with the opening of a big, permanent Titanic exhibit in Belfast, where the doomed ship was built. A Belfast storefront employment agency is plastered with banners and fliers announcing jobs at the Titanic museum, and bars and stores are filled with Titanic memorabilia.
Northern Ireland tourism promoters are even ardently trying to woo "Olympic refugees"—thousands of London residents who are expected to flee their homes because of chaos and security concerns during the Olympics this summer. The Belfast Telegraph reported that one in four Londoners are expected to leave the city during the Games, and Northern Ireland has already seen a big uptick in tourism with 60,000 more visitors this year than last.
Tourism would likely be hurt by continued political violence, which is not a thing of the past as evidenced by incidents such as attempted bombings allegedly by Republican Irish dissidents in Newry and Belfast in April, the recent incidents in Derry, and ongoing mistreatment of Republican prisoners by majority British loyalist police forces.
Drug addiction and vigilante action against drug dealers have also reportedly become serious problems in Derry and Belfast, with Northern Ireland deputy first minister and long-time Republican leader Martin McGuinness saying that members of a group called Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD), which took credit for the June 3 bomb, are "the new oppressors of the people of Derry."
The group reportedly exiles on average four young men from Derry each week, and also has maimed and killed young men accused of drug dealing if they refuse to give up dealing after being warned. The Guardian reported last month:
"In some instances those targeted, mostly in their teens or early 20s, have been forced to turn up with a parent or relative to a pre-arranged appointment to be wounded for alleged drug dealing or other supposed crimes."
As in many places, the abuse of drugs and the incentive to deal is closely linked to economic conditions and social disenfranchisement. In a gruesome irony, some Irish Republicans' efforts to curb the scourge of abuse in their own communities appears to have perversely morphed into the type of violence and terror visited on them for so long. McGuinness and other critics also said RAAD targets people who have nothing to do with drugs, or who are powerless victims of addiction, not major dealers. He and other Republican leaders have called for RAAD's disbanding.
On a short visit, I saw people who seemed very obviously to be struggling with unemployment and drug addiction, and I happened to catch some of the political violence. But I couldn't tell how the Creggan indigenous enterprise project or other "self-help" development efforts are faring. One can only hope such efforts born out of decades of struggle against inequality and marginalization will triumph over continued institutional injustice, violence and cycles of conflict.