Derry mayor banned flag from Guildhall in 1920

Huch C. O'Doherty, first nationalist mayor of Derry. (2501MM08)
Huch C. O'Doherty, first nationalist mayor of Derry. (2501MM08)

Ninety-three years ago in 1920 nationalists in Derry were celebrating the election of the city’s first catholic mayor, Hugh C O’Doherty.

The recent loyalist disturbances over the flying of the union flag have attracted headlines around the world but in the North, rows over flags are nothing new. More than 90 years ago Derry made history when the city’s first nationalist mayor, Hugh C O’Doherty, banned the flying of flags from the Guildhall. ‘Journal’ reporter Michael McMonagle looks at the impact of his decision.

Ninety-three years ago in 1920 nationalists in Derry were celebrating the election of the city’s first catholic mayor, Hugh C O’Doherty.

The huge groundswell of national feeling which followed the Easter Rising and the War of Independence had created a surge in support for nationalist politicians across Ireland.

The political situation in Derry also changed dramatically in this period. In 1918, following Sinn Féin’s landslide election victory, nationalist sentiment was riding high and, as a result, unionists lost political control of Derry Corporation for the first time since the Siege.

Over the course of the next year, nationalists made gains in Derry and public meetings held in St Columb’s Hall to discuss national affairs attracted huge crowds.

On January 30, 1920, history was made with the election of Mr O’Doherty, a prominent Derry solicitor and nationalist councillor, as mayor of Derry. He was the first catholic to hold the position since the time of James II when Cormac O’Neill briefly occupied the position.

Alderman O’Doherty was well known in local politics for many years and had been a supporter of Charles Stewart Parnell. He was regarded as popular constitutional nationalist who could unite nationalist and separatist opinion.

Several previous attempts had been made to elect a nationalist mayor but were repeatedly blocked by unionists.

However, due to the implementation of the Local Government Act, the balance of power had shifted on Derry Corporation and unionists could no longer block the appointment of a nationalist.

Alderman O’Doherty was proposed for the mayoralty by Alderman James Bonner and the proposal was seconded by Alderman Cahal Bradley who described Alderman O’Doherty as “a fit and proper person for the position.”

The motion was carried by 20 votes to 19 and Alderman O’Doherty was declared mayor. The ‘Journal’ at the time reported, “When Councillor Logue declared that Alderman Hugh C. O’Doherty had been elected Mayor for the ensuing year there was a sense of wild enthusiasm among the crowd which thronged the Chamber. Cheering continued for a couple of minutes and broke into a lusty rendering of ‘God Save Ireland’ and ‘The Soldiers Song.’

The ‘Journal’ marked the historic occasion with a special edition and its editorial stated that the appointment “bridges the broad black chasm of exclusion which has been unalterably and rigorously maintained not merely for a single decade or full generation, but for the duration of time which calls for centuries in the reckoning.”

His election was also greeted with the waving of tricolour flags in the Council Chamber. Despite this display, in his first speech as mayor Alderman O’Doherty thanked unionist members for not proposing an opponent.

Flags were to play a key role in his mayoralty however, and bring him into direct conflict with unionists in the city.

One of his first acts as mayor was to propose a ban on the flying of all flags from the Guildhall in order to ensure that there would be no barrier to local people identifying with the Corporation. He also announced that he would not be attending any function at which a loyal toast would be made.

He did, however, seek to reassure unionists that he wanted to create a neutral environment in the Guildhall.

“Today a long and painful chapter in the history of the city is closed and a new one is opened. I trust when it comes to be written it will show a spirit of tolerance and forbearance amongst all creeds and classes. So far as in our power lies my Nationalist colleagues and I mean to conduct the business of this Corporation without giving offence, and we will expect like consideration,” he said in his first speech.

His bold proposal on the flags was also designed to de politicise the Corporation, which had been viewed with suspicion by many nationalists as a result of gerrymandering and discriminations.

“The flying of insulting flags from this building must be discontinued, and I now give in the name of the majority of this chamber instructions to that effect. The building is the common property of all citizens, and my view is that until the government of this country is settled in accordance with the will of the Irish people no flag should be flown from it.

“I trust that my wishes in this matter will be respected, as least as long as I preside here,” he said.

However, the mayor’s proposal was not greeted in the spirit in which he intended it and unionists were bitterly opposed to the move.

Unionists demonstrated in the city in scenes like those witnessed recently following the decision of Belfast City Council to restrict the flying of the union flag from Belfast City Hall.

The demonstrations in Derry, however, became more and more violent, and resulted in the full scale sectarian clashes which left dozens dead in June 1920 when the British army’s Dorset regiment opened fire on the Bogside with heavy machine guns and loyalist gunmen clashed with the IRA in the city.

Alderman O’Doherty’s grandson, Ronnie O’Doherty, said the recent loyalist protests across the North is “a case of history repeating itself.”

Mr O’Doherty, who now lives in Buncrana, followed in his grandfather’s footsteps as a solicitor and also served as a coroner for many years.

“It was a very progressive thing to do back then,” he said.” “When you consider what was happening elsewhere in the country at the time, banning the flying of flags from the Guildhall was a courageous thing to do,” he added.

“Looking at what has been happening recently made me think of what my grandfather did more than ninety years ago. It shows how history repeats itself.

“Like today, his move was not immediately popular and was criticised by some, but it was ultimately accepted and no flag was flown from the Guildhall from 1920 to 1923 while he was mayor,” Mr O’Doherty said.