It's time to start putting the '˜London' back into Derry

Derry has an unparalleled connection to the City of London. Steve Bradley says it's time to take advantage of these unique links.

Wednesday, 17th October 2018, 10:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 17th October 2018, 11:05 am
City of London.

Amongst the many facts that make Derry unique, there is one that we have been reluctant to make the most of in recent decades. And that is our connection to the City of London.

Whilst the metropolis of London is globally significant in economic and cultural terms, it is the historic ‘City of London’ borough that sits at its heart and which comprises its historical centre and primary business district.

The City of London occupies just one square mile of land - barely larger than the centre of Derry – yet it is one of the greatest wealth and employment generators on earth, providing 483,000 jobs within 24,000 businesses of all types and sizes – particularly in financial services. Not bad for an area with a resident population of only 9,400 people.

Derry has an unparalleled connection to the City of London.

As part of the Plantation of Ulster in the early 1600s, King James I of England forced a reluctant City of London to fund and organise the creation of a new fortified town at Derry. This has left a lasting legacy upon our city in three key ways.

Firstly, through the creation of the impressive walls which remain to this day and on which the future of Europe hinged during the 1688-89 Siege of Derry.

Secondly, in recognition of the role that the ‘Square Mile’ played in creating the walled settlement at Derry, the city’s name was officially prefixed with the term ‘London’, creating a point of contention that remains to this day.

The final legacy left by our connection to London is little known locally but gives us a unique niche with tremendous potential. The City of London regularly receives requests to develop strategic twinning relationships from places around the world, but, as a rule, it refuses to twin with anywhere - except Derry. And it is this which offers huge, untapped potential for our town.

Many cities around the world would crave such a genuine and deep connection with one of the planet’s foremost trading centres. Yet, our historical connection to London is one that we’ve largely ignored or played down, particularly since the outbreak of The Troubles.

Fortunately, that is starting to change.

Politicians of all hues here now acknowledge the potential offered by our historical link to the Square Mile, and some good work has already begun to reclaim it.

Last month, the City of London Corporation hosted an event to mark the launch of the City Deal application for the Derry-Strabane region. Those in attendance were left with a very positive impression of our city as a place to locate a business.

This is not the first time a joint investment event has been held with the City of London, however, as a similar exercise was hosted there approximately 15 years ago – with little follow-up afterwards.

It is vital, therefore, that this latest event becomes part of an ongoing strategic focus within the Council to extract maximum benefit from our special relationship with the City of London.

One barrier to our ability to capitalise on the historic link to London is the fact that awareness of Derry is limited once you leave Ireland. And that matters - because people won’t visit or invest in somewhere they’ve never even heard of.

At the same time, whilst attitudes have shifted greatly in recent years, there are still some people here who feel unease with this aspect of our city’s history.

A focus on removing any residual negative perceptions of Derry’s long relationship with the City of London would be welcome – disentangling it from modern day politics, just like our city walls are no longer considered a source of division or the preserve of any one community.

Here are a few practical suggestions for ways in which we could help raise the profile of Derry within the City of London and create a more positive association locally towards that unique relationship:

○ A ‘Monument’ to Derry in London: There is nothing within the City of London to promote the unique heritage and relationship that exists between our two cities. This is a huge missed opportunity for both locations. For Derry, it would help raise our profile in an important global centre; and, for the City of London, it would tell the world of the role it played in creating one of Europe’s first planned towns. The 400th anniversary of the completion of Derry’s walls in 2019 would be the perfect opportunity to do this.

○ Linking our youth with London’s opportunity: To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the building of Derry’s walls in 2019, how about creating 400 cross-community apprenticeships for our young people within businesses in the City of London? This would help to enhance the view locally of our historical connection with the city of London, whilst helping our talented youth secure the kind of opportunities and training that would otherwise be unavailable to them. And, if successful, it could become an ongoing programme to help build the bond between our cities.

○ A Walled City Visitors Centre: Tourists have a thirst to learn more about the fascinating and often turbulent story of our walled city – from its 17th century inception right through to its modern day renaissance. Yet there is no dedicated facility to tell that story (and to keep those tourists here for longer). There is an urgent need for a high quality Visitors Centre to fulfil this function, with the help and support of the City of London.

○ A Walled City Fund: The Honourable Irish Society (HIS) was established in 1613 to manage the City of London’s affairs in County Derry and these days it exists as a minor charitable organisation. The Merchant Guilds and Liveries who originally built Derry’s walls and town for the City of London remain in existence to this day – and some have wealthy philantrophic sections. A specific charitable trust should be established to provide grants for the enhancement, preservation and promotion of Derry’s Walled City – funded by the Liveries who were tasked with building it 400 years ago.

○ Bring HIS home to Derry: The Honourable Irish Society was headquartered on Bishop Street for many years, until two bomb attacks on the Courthouse saw it relocate to Coleraine in the 1970s. Derry was the epicentre of the City of London’s involvement in Ireland and the HIS relocation has arguably weakened its psychological bond with the city. Perhaps the time has come for HIS to re-establish a presence here?

Regardless of your view of Derry’s turbulent past, our city has been dealt a winning hand through its unique historical connection to one of the world’s economic powerhouses.

Whilst this link has largely been overlooked in recent decades, there are encouraging signs of a genuine desire in both cities to reignite it fully.

The 400th anniversary of the completion of Derry’s walls in 2019 provides an opportune moment to do that - including steps to raise the profile of our city within London, and to improve perceptions of this aspect of our history within Derry.

Let’s start playing this winning hand.

○ Steve Bradley is a commentator and urban regeneration consultant from Derry. He can be followed on Twitter at @Bradley_Steve