Ebrington Square a perfect venue for North’s ‘Troubles Museum’

Ebrington Square.
Ebrington Square.

Last week marked the 49th anniversary of an event widely believed to have marked the start of Northern Ireland’s Troubles. On October 5th, 1968, the RUC violently broke up a peaceful Civil Rights march in Derry which had been banned by the Stormont government. As images were beamed around the world of marchers being batoned, the fuse was lit on a 30 years conflict that eventually ended with the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Twenty years on and the world still retains a fascination with the Troubles. In Belfast tourists flock to political murals, peace walls and black taxi tours. Locally, ‘Free Derry Corner’ has become a must-have photo opportunity for visitors, whilst the Bogside murals and Museum of Free Derry are also major attractions. And politicians, academics and journalists from conflict zones around the world, continue to look to the North as they search for solutions to their own difficulties.

It is, therefore, an inevitability that at some point a major visitor facility will be established somewhere in N. Ireland to tell the story of the Troubles. That was one of the proposals for part of the former Maze Prison site, but unionist politicians opposed it through fear it would become a shrine to the ‘Hunger Strikers.’ The opportunity, therefore, remains to establish a world-class facility to provide a rounded view of the Troubles and in my opinion, Derry would be the most appropriate location in which to do that.

In fact, Derry played a central role throughout the history of the Troubles. The conflict began with the Battle of the Bogside in 1969 and the following year led to full-scale civil unrest.

One of the Trouble’s most controversial events, Bloody Sunday, took place locally. Five of the 10 Hunger Strikers who died in 1981 were from Derry city or county, whilst local man, Glenn Barr, was a leading figure in the loyalist camp throughout the conflict. Two of the central characters involved in bringing the Troubles to an end were based in Derry (John Hume and Martin McGuinness), and the city was also the location for secret peace talks facilitated by local businessman Brendan Duddy.

Finally - the Referendum on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was organised by a Derryman, and he also announced its result to the world. From the start to the end, the Troubles is very much Derry’s story to tell.

DERRY STILL LAGGING LONG WAY BEHIND IN TOURISM

Despite being the north’s second city, only one out of every20 overnight visitor stays in NI takes place in Derry and less than five pence in every tourist pound spent across the north reaches Derry.

In contrast, Belfast and the North Coast between them account for half of all overnight tourist stays, with Derry lagging behind even the Fermanagh and Newry council areas. Derry is very much the under achiever when it comes to N.Ireland’s booming tourism industry.

All this points to an important conclusion. Whilst we may be attracting more visitors than ever before, Derry simply doesn’t offer enough to make many of them want to stay here.

A world-class N. Ireland-wide facility to tell the story of the Troubles has the potential to become a must-see destination - enabling our city to attract more visitors, and encouraging more of them to stay overnight.

Despite formally ending in 1998, the conflict still evokes raw emotions and controversy to this day. There is no universal or accepted interpretation of what happened or why, and many people involved or affected by it are still alive today. All of which makes it a difficult story to tell, but none of which provides sufficient reason to shy away from doing so. Indeed – as one of the most defining yet misunderstood periods of recent British and Irish history, there is an argument that the Troubles is a story that really needs to be told. It is also possible that the process of determining how to tell that story in a sensitive, impartial and rounded manner could itself contribute to the healing process here and it could also create a global exemplar of how to present contested histories in a sensitive manner.

So what could such a facility entail ? Ideally it would be anchored around a Visitor Centre to present the story of the entire Troubles from the perspective of all sides involved. But it should be more than that. It could also act as a centre for research into the conflict here, designed to cater for school trips and University study groups. The facility could also serve as a physical N. Ireland-wide archive of the conflict A Derryman based in London owns the largest private collection of material related to the Troubles (40,000 items), and has expressed a desire to find somewhere in Derry to have it housed and displayed. Ulster University’s online archive of the Troubles (CAIN) would also be a natural partner for the Troubles museum in this task. And it should seek to work with, not compete against, existing facilities around the north such as the Museum of Free Derry - which does an excellent job in presenting a limited part of the conflict. So ideally the facility would be a collaborative and comprehensive visitor centre, research and educational facility all under one roof.

EBRINGTON SQUARE WOULD BE A PERFECT VENUE

In terms of where a Troubles museum could be located in Derry, authenticity of place is vital. It should be housed in a location which has a direct connection to the Troubles. The most obvious choice would be Ebrington, given its former role as a British Army base. Ebrington is due to be transferred to the local council shortly, and after a decade of plans it remains a location in search of a purpose big enough to match its potential. A world class Northern Ireland-wide visitor attraction could be just such a role. Ebrington’s sister barracks at Fort George is another option, though its distance from the city centre conspires against it. A third possibility could be a new purpose-built structure in the area formerly known as ‘Aggro Corner’ (the junction of William Street, Waterloo Street and Waterloo Place) - a notorious epicentre for rioting through much of the Troubles.

There undoubtedly remains a thirst to learn about the Troubles both at home and abroad, making it inevitable that a facility will eventually be established somewhere to attempt to tell that story. It won’t be an easy task for a visitor attraction to tackle, but it is a story that should be told nonetheless. And if done correctly, it could even contribute to the post-conflict healing process within the North. With the Troubles being in many ways Derry’s story to tell, we have a strong claim as the ideal place in which such a Troubles museum should be located. We have a clear strategic need for such a facility to help us attract and retain more overnight visitors and tourist pounds and we have potential locations which offer the scale and authenticity required to help make such a facility a success. 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of the Troubles starting here and the 20th anniversary of them ending via the Good Friday Agreement. It would be the perfect year in which to announce a plan to create a world-class Troubles Museum, Archive and Research Centre in the city that played such a central role from the start to the end of that conflict.

Let’s hope the powers that be locally recognise and seize this huge opportunity for Derry - before somewhere else does.

Steve Bradley is a native of Derry who works as a regeneration consultant in England. He can be followed on Twitter at @bradley_steve