More wit than wisdom in the city’s name issue

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“Derry/Londonderry, Stroke City, The Maiden City, The Walled City, The UK City of Culture 2013,” said the station announcer advising prospective passengers of the next train for Derry.

That was at Belfast’s Great Victoria Street Station the other day. Very droll, even though there was no mention of Doire! Hmm? Was he flattering us, or poking fun?

The old Derry/Londonderry debate ended up like other contentious issues. It’s in the too difficult for locals to resolve category.

Dr Richard Haass and his American team have already suffered a degree of ‘mission creep’ so maybe they could have a go at this old chestnut for us as well. On the other hand there’s a certain notoriety to be gained from being a city that has at least six names. We’re better than the city that’s so good they named it twice, as the song says.

Still, a Translink announcer coming out with that unwieldy mouthful is progress. You’ll remember, a few years ago, one of his colleagues, denied the very existence of “Derry”. He refused to sell a bus or rail ticket to “Derry” on the grounds that it didn’t exist. The poor visiting tourist had no idea the Translink official wanted him to say, “Londonderry.”

It reminded me of the old story about a Derry politician returning to the city late one evening from Belfast. He encountered an army checkpoint and a soldier asked, “Where are you going to, sir?” “Derry” replied the politician. The question was repeated. Yes, you’ve guessed, it was rehearsed again and again until the politician finally gave in.

OK, I’ll just head to Strabane,” he said! Can you imagine what it would be like if the roles were reversed and soldiers were trying to make Gregory Campbell say “Derry”?

Incidentally, the former Church of Ireland Bishop, Dr James Mehaffey told me he also told a soldier at a checkpoint that he was going to “Derry”. When the soldier said there was no such place the Bishop assured him that there was. “There is,” said Dr Mehaffey, “because I’m the Bishop of Derry”. “Blimey,” said the soldier, “I’ve never met a real Bishop before!” Then there was a former colleague on the beat in the city centre in 1984 when the city council changed its name. “There, what do you think of that?” a random passing woman asked the constable with a note of triumph in her voice. “It’s good,” replied the officer, “it’ll cut down on typing”! Another former colleague, a native Derry man, was working in police headquarters at the time. When a delegation from local political parties visited headquarters there was some mention of the issue. “I don’t care what anyone calls it; I’m going to call it what I always called it,” said the Derry man. Sensing his moment to strike one of the politicians asked, “And, tell me, what’s that?” “It all depends on who I’m talking to,” replied the canny Derry man. To finish on a more serious note; a few years ago it seemed important for us to grasp the nettle and sort out the city’s name. It’s much less urgent now. What has changed? Well, in a way, we seem to have arrived at a pragmatic compromise. Many, many more people than ever before are willing to accept the Derry/Londonderry formula. It’s unwieldy but at least it’s inclusive. Perhaps there’s something to be said for how that railway station announcer put it, after all.