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Londonderry turns swords into ploughshares

With Bloody Sunday report imminent, barracks at the centre of the shootings takes key role in bid to become UK City of Culture

Londonderry will try to lay part of its unquiet history to rest later this month when two events coincide: the city's final representation in its attempt to be named UK City of Culture and the report of the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday.

Poignantly, a central part of the city's bid will be the £6m conversion of what was formerly Ebrington Barracks into a multi-venue arts centre. In its previous incarnation this was the military headquarters that co-ordinated British paratroopers alleged to have killed 13 young Irish men, five of them teenagers, during a civil rights demonstration in the Catholic Bogside area in 1972.

The Saville report will be published on 15 June; and the bid – which points the way to a hopeful future – will be made a day later.

For the three decades after Bloody Sunday – 30 January 1972 – the 1,000 British troops garrisoned in Ebrington were, in effect, under siege.

But by summer 2011, Ebrington, ceded to the Office of the First Minister of Northern Ireland in 2004 when the Army finally left, will be an arts centre. The former parade ground, today still with its helicopter landing markings, will become an open-air performance space bigger than Trafalgar Square. On its east side, the main Clocktower GHQ building will be a major contemporary art gallery, extended with a naturally lit gallery at its rear; negotiations with the Tate for a long-term collaboration are near completion. On the square's north side, the former military hospital will be a museum and archive centre. On the south side will be studios, cafés, bars and a sports centre.

On Ebrington's western edge a new £13.4m footbridge, paid for by the EU's Shared Space Programme, is being erected across the Foyle. It will open at the end of this year as the Peace Bridge, in defiance of the area's long history of division.

As a 12-year-old in 1971, living in Waterside, Brendan McMenamin could wander in and out of Ebrington, where he was taught how to use a Lee Enfield rifle by friendly soldiers, but within a few months that neighbourliness ended.

Mr McMenamin is now Londonderry's arts officer. "This is a small city of little more than 100,000 people, and it's also Ireland's youngest," he says. "Thirty-seven per cent of the population are under 35 and it has become diverse, with over 100 different communities. Most of Derry weren't born on Bloody Sunday or have come to live here since. We want Saville to put all that behind us."

The Museum of Free Derry opened three years ago in the Bogside with objects from those involved in the civil rights movement of the Sixties and Seventies. It is run by volunteers, including John Kelly, whose brother Michael was, at 17, the youngest casualty on Bloody Sunday. "I see my brother's death as a human rights issue, not sectarian," Mr Kelly says. "Saville is about setting the truth free and we want a declaration of innocence for our people. I'm a Derry man, never left the place and I love it, but it's a major city and we want it to be City of Culture, not for the old history but for the new."

There is no longer a need for reprisal or revenge, he says, quoting Bobby Sands, the republican MP who died in the Maze prison on hunger strike in 1981: "Our revenge will be the laughter of our children."