Peace Bridge Leads to Bright Future

Culture Company Chair Martin Bradley on exciting times ahead for the Maiden City

The massive changes that have taken place in Derry~Londonderry over the past 20 years have seen it evolve from a damaged, war-bound town into a pulsating, 21st century cultural capital.

The city’s key physical assets, the River Foyle and our 17th century City Walls, which were closed off to business and visitors for so much of the Troubles, have take their rightful place as Derry's premiere tourist attractions.

The city centre too is opening up, thanks to the magnificent new Peace Bridge and the sublime restoration of Ebrington Barracks – an architectural treasure in our midst that was hidden away for 150 years behind army walls.

While we have achieved so much already, there is still much more to do. Our designation as the first UK City of Culture speaks loudly as to our ambitions and aspirations for the future. The national and international goodwill towards our city is tangible – everyone wants to support us. In these challenging economic times, our changing fortunes, and determination to succeed, serve as a beacon of hope across the world.

The programme for our City of Culture year in 2013 is rapidly taking shape. Among the highlights already scheduled are: the Turner Prize in art; a Sons and Daughters opening concert, featuring a host of the city’s returning stars and many friends besides; the Children’s Music Promise, which will give every child the chance to learn an instrument; and a ground-breaking closing pageant, The Return of Colmcille the Peacemaker, centred around our most famous son.

We are also intent in nailing down a series of other landmark events including the All-Ireland Fleadh, a specially-commissioned Field Day play, Radio One’s Big Weekend, and the Stirling Prize in architecture. And we have been chosen to stage the Opening Ceremony of the Cultural Olympiad in June of next year. Importantly, our City of Culture year will have benefits for this entire island.

There’s no cliff-edge outside our city-limits. And tourists to Derry, along with international touring acts, will be looking to visit other towns and cities. And when they’re finished enjoying our hospitality, we will be very happy to redirect them.

We want to ensure our year is spectacular – but crucially, it is only the start of a process. This is just the beginning of Derry~Londonderry firmly establishing itself as the cultural hub of these islands; the first in an ongoing series of step changes.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – it could be 40 years before the European City of Culture award returns to Britain or Ireland. There’s no point in just turning off the lights at the end of the year – we must now build, and continue to build, towards a lasting legacy.

As a former politician, while I very much value the huge support we have received from parties in Northern Ireland and beyond, I am hopeful that the City of Culture project will remain free from undue political interference.

Wise political guidance and correct governance is, of course, absolutely necessary. But I know from experience that when politics sets itself up as the final authority on the arts, it can end in disaster for all. Indeed, I believe there are many times when it is a lot more beneficial to society for culture to inform politics.

Culture also allows safe debate and expression. It creates space where all opinions can be heard and appreciated. We don’t expect everyone to be singing off the one hymn-sheet during our year, nor would we want that.

Rather, we look forward to healthy debate and genuine, purposeful inquiry. Many of the greatest advances in art and culture have come from dissenters, so we fully expect both our mainstream and fringe events to be second-to-none.

Our common goal – regardless of class, creed or politics – is to put the city first in all things. The day before the last World Cup final, a huge crowd of people marched through Barcelona to demand full Catalan independence from Spain. But the following night, more than 75,000 of the same people came out onto the main square to cheer on Spain in the final, on a giant screen erected and paid for by their municipal government.

Their logic was simple. Seven players from their home club were playing in the final – and they wanted to show how proud they were of them. Jordi Hereu, the city’s mayor, said afterwards: 'I marched at the head of the procession on Saturday and then went home on Sunday to watch the game with my family. You can do both.'

Like Barcelona, Derry has a true city spirit – a community pride that is unequalled anywhere I’ve ever seen. Derry, as any tourist will tell you, is also the friendliest city you might ever visit. There are no strangers here, just new friends. And we do love to enjoy ourselves – it’s often said that when you come here for the first time, you’ll lose sleep but you’ll gain weight!

I have no doubt there will be challenges ahead: growing a cultural economy isn’t easy. But we have so much to offer in terms of our history, our heritage, our art and our friendship. And if we don’t perhaps succeed in all our ambitions, it won’t be for the want of effort.

But I for one am very optimistic. We have the momentum, and we can’t let it stop now. We the citizens of Derry~Londonderry have always known the inner brilliance of our city – now we intend to tell the rest of the world as well. The best is yet to come.

Martin Bradley MBE is the Chair of Culture Company 2013. A former Mayor of Derry, he is also Chair of the Millennium Forum Theatre.