All quiet on the Derry front

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Paul McGill reports on a college that symbolises the improving community relations in Ulster's second city. The Government's decision last week to call the troops off the streets of Derry recognises what residents and visitors already knew - that the Troubles there ended years ago.

Derry played a crucial role in the recent violent history of Northern Ireland. The historic civil rights march in October 1968 marked the start of the Troubles, and the city was scarred by notorious events such as Bloody Sunday on January 30, 1972, when 13 people died after British troops opened fire on an unarmed Catholic demonstration.

Community relations, which were never good, suffered as well as people and property. The Protestant population fell sharply and those who remained mostly fled east across the River Foyle. First Derry Primary School, for example, which served a Protestant enclave in the west of the city, saw pupil numbers fall by 70 in a single weekend in the violent 1970s.

The recent ceasefires have merely reinforced a new optimism. Poverty and unemployment remain serious problems but construction work is proceeding all over the city, Magee university campus is flourishing, community relations have improved and Protestants are making their way back to play their part in building a more harmonious community.

Foyle and Londonderry College is a symbol of the changes. Foyle, a Protestant voluntary grammar school, was already well established in the west of the city at the time of the siege of Derry in 1688. Hugh Gillespie, the former head, negotiated the merger of Foyle with Londonderry High School for Girls and saw the new institution through many traumatic years. He built links across the community to the extent that a fifth of the 931 pupils are now Catholic.

Now the governors have gone further and appointed as head a man who reflects the spirit of the times. Although John Magill is a Belfast Protestant, his most recent job was as deputy head of New Hall, a Catholic girls' school in Chelmsford, a background which would have excluded him in darker days.

"I found the culture in New Hall very acceptable despite being an Ulster Protestant. That background was very valuable in coming to Foyle because I have a deep understanding of the Catholic community and the schooling it wants for its children," Mr Magill said.

Mr Magill is unequivocal about the role of Foyle and Londonderry. "We could lift sticks and move to a green-field site in the Waterside, but there is much to be gained from staying where we are.

"I feel the school, which is one of the oldest institutions in Derry, should stay and proclaim its values. It is not just a Protestant grammar school; it has been part of the fabric of the city since 1617.

"We have much to offer in family values and academic excellence, which is exactly what Protestants and Catholics want for their children."

Mr Magill, who read English at Cambridge before entering teaching, sees his new school as a focus for healing community divisions and for tackling "the insidious destruction of families by lost economic opportunity, in which the role of the school is simply education for exile.

"Foyle is liberal and open-minded and values people for what they are. It does not have a sectarian outlook. This liberality means Catholic families are not put off Foyle - they don't have to come over a metaphorical fence to come here. Everyone in Foyle is part of the family."

He feels positive about returning to Northern Ireland after nearly 25 years in England, and particularly glad to be in Derry.

"It is a pivotal place in Northern Ireland. It is up to Derry to show a lead and heal the divisions in society. Foyle is leading the way and I am optimistic we can build a new community because we have young people with great ability and talent," Mr Magill added.

There is optimism too at that victim of the troubles, First Derry primary, surrounded by army observation posts and the 17th-century city walls. After falling to 40, enrolments have climbed back to 75 and a brand new six-teacher primary will replace three old schools next year.

"We have a very good relationship with Long Tower, the Catholic primary school near us," said Isabel McNally, the principal. "We encourage people to mix and that is now happening. Before this, our pupils would not have gone there, but now they do."

There is hard evidence to support her claim that community relations have improved greatly. Last month her pupils attended a nearby Catholic church for the funeral Mass for a former pupil - a child of a mixed marriage. Far from objecting, many of her Protestant parents attended as well.

"People generally are mixing together and the city has blossomed. We still have stone-throwing and name-calling on some of the estates but it is not common in the rest of the city.

"I'm very positive about this because I have fought very hard to break down barriers. The city is definitely moving forward," Mrs McNally said.

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