Derry people celebrate a peace of history on their new bridge

Michael Cooper Photography - Picture courtesy Ilex.''25/6/11: EU COMMISSIONER HAHN LAUNCHES PEACE BRIDGE''Public cross the new European Union funded Peace Bridge, opened today by the EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn in Derry ~ Londonderry.''The third bridge across the River Foyle, the Peace Bridge has been awarded �14,677,823 from the European Union's PEACE III Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). This funding represents a contribution from the European Regional Development Fund, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. 'Picture: Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper Photography - Picture courtesy Ilex.''25/6/11: EU COMMISSIONER HAHN LAUNCHES PEACE BRIDGE''Public cross the new European Union funded Peace Bridge, opened today by the EU Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn in Derry ~ Londonderry.''The third bridge across the River Foyle, the Peace Bridge has been awarded �14,677,823 from the European Union's PEACE III Programme, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). This funding represents a contribution from the European Regional Development Fund, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. 'Picture: Michael Cooper
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Many thousands of people joined Saturday’s celebrations to mark the historic opening of Derry’s Peace Bridge.

The hotly anticipated party certainly lived up to its billing as a momentous occasion in the city’s journey from a troubled past to prosperous future as people from different walks of life joined the jamboree in solidarity.

John Hume admires the newly opened Peace Bridge. (2606SL19) Photo: Stephen Latimer

John Hume admires the newly opened Peace Bridge. (2606SL19) Photo: Stephen Latimer

Even the weather pitched in for the big occasion as the throngs stood shoulder to shoulder waiting patiently to take their first steps on the new crossing. With the grand opening just minutes away the sun made an appearance for the first time in weeks as if to tip its cap to the thousands of revellers who thought it wise to bring their brollies just in case.

Stilt walkers, street performers, ribbons, bunting and singing fused to create a buzzing atmosphere, giving visitors and locals a flavour of how a city celebrates when deemed a cultural centre par excellence.

As the party got into full swing, little notice was paid to the swarms of highly visible PSNI personnel who seemed to fill every nook and cranny of the city centre. In the weeks running up to the big opening, there were grim thoughts of how the city’s terror merchants may attempt to consign the Peace Bridge celebrations to Derry’s vault of dark days.

However, the whole idea of the PEACE III funded iconic structure and what it stands for may even have touched the hearts of those intent on war and mayhem as - after all the nervous anticipation - the city was at last allowed to enjoy a full weekend of festivities without even the now seemingly obligatory hoax bomb alert.

It was obvious that the rest of those who turned out to the mark the occasion had already taken the new Peace Bridge, and its significance in terms of the city’s ambition, into their hearts. From overheard conversations among onlookers, it was clear that they were proud to take ownership of the fifth bridge in the Foyle’s history.

That sense of pride was bolstered by the sound of 600 local schoolchildren as they joined in song as they stepped onto the bridge - 300 marching from the west bank and 300 from the east bank.

As with any such party, there were dignitaries aplenty with political giants both past and present gathering to get their photos taken to mark the memorable event.

But that was not what the day was about, something pointed out by Nobel Peace Laureate John Hume as he watched people streaming across the new structure, declaring: “This is a momentous day for the people of Derry”. It was a celebration for the ‘ordinary, decent’ people of the city and their neighbours from surrounding towns, villages and counties.

Even the tourists, looking on in amazement, were no doubt chuffed to be a part of the festivities - a truly cross community get together.Mobile phones were snapping constantly as kids, parents, grandparents and even great grandparents posed for their own little piece of personal memorabilia.

Even the North’s senior politicians and other VIP guests could been seen catching glimpses of the event on their personal cameras - such was the magnitude of the occasion for some of them.

For others it was a powerful personal experience, some had never before walked from bank to bank on a Foyle crossing.

For a few loving couples, the bridge opening will be remembered as coinciding with the best day of their lives. Newlyweds Kieran and Jolene McGuinness and Gary and Catherine Carlin rushed from their nuptials to mark their special occasions with wedding snaps on the Foyle’s latest crossing.

As thousands of people were shepherded across the bridge by security staff, there was a similar hive of activity and adventure in the water below.

The whiz of jet skis, sailing of yachts and heaving of rowers, canoeists and kayakers breathed life into the River Foyle giving a real sense of adventure and activity - something that many have noted has been sadly deficient on the waterway for many years.

Of course, there are those who say the city doesn’t need a pedestrian bridge - but in true utilitarian fashion such dinosaurs are (quite embarrassingly for them) missing the point. Last Saturday alone was proof that the Peace Bridge is serving its purpose.

It may have cost £14.6m to build but as one VIP rightly commented “money just can’t buy the collective feel-good factor in our city” throughout last weekend.

One church leader described what he experienced as “a symphony of brotherhood”, heralding a bright brand new day and although some cynics may scoff such a belief , few who experienced the occasion would disagree.

There were smiles all around, religious and political differences were forgotten, sectarianism was sidelined and the city’s people celebrated together. It was true example of how positive moves in the built environment can fuel social cohesion and community regeneration out of the troubled ruins of the past. Long may such regeneration continue.