It has proved to be a very hectic Christmas and New Year for Gerard Diver - Derry’s latest Stormont MLA.
With the retirement of Pat Ramsey from politics on health grounds in early December, the process of finding a replacement was quickly launched. Initially, two names were put into the hat- Gerard Diver and his Council colleague Martin Reilly. Following Mr Reilly’s withdrawal from the internal party election process, Gerard Diver was co-opted to Stormont unopposed and officially ratified as a candidate for May’s Assembly elections
Earlier this week, the former Mayor of Derry had his first taste of Stormont and, on Tuesday, posed his first question - on the employment situation in Derry and the North West - in the Assembly debating chamber.
“Of course, I am still getting used to this, “ he told the ‘Journal’. ‘While I was on Derry City Council for a considerable period of time, this is very different from the Council chamber. It’s on a different level and, obviously, the issues have a much wider scope.
“I have a good team around me to guide and advise me and the experience of working at Council level will stand me in good stead,” he said.
Gerard Diver was first elected to Derry City Council in 2001, representing the Waterside ward, and served as Mayor of the city in 2008-2009. He was also SDLP leader on the local authority - a role which has now passed to Martin Reilly.
The new MLA is a History, Politics and Community Development graduate from Ulster University and has two decades of experience in the community and voluntary sector, working in community development, community relations and youth work, employability and training.
This is experience the SDLP feel has given him a degree of expertise and, as such, have already appointed him party spokeperson on employment.
“I have already had my first experience of a Department of Employment and Learning committee meeting this week,” he says. “To me, this is the biggest single issue that this Executive or the next one can focus on in terms of the North West and, by that, I specifically mean the expansion of Magee and the increase of student numbers.”
Gerard Diver’s predecessor Pat Ramsey also focussed on this issue during his tenure as MLA.
“Pat had a great wealth of experience as a Councillor, MLA and as Mayor of Derry,” he says. “The contribution that he made means there are big shoes to fill. I now have the chance to build on that work.
“Also, with the SDLP having a new party leader in Colum Eastwood, there has been an injection of energy and vitality and we all need to capitalise on that. This is just not a new chapter but a new story for the SDLP.
“There has been nearly a decade of Sinn Fein/DUP false promises, so, in May, there will be an opportunity for change. That’s why people should come out and support us.
“During the 2011 election campaign, there were political posters in Derry promising the expansion of Magee. Nothing came of this and all that causes is frustration and political apathy and cynicism. So if people are not happy, they have to take the opportunity to change things and that will come in May.
“The definition of insanity is to keep continually repeating the same mistakes and expect the outcome to be different.”
The ‘Journal’ put it to Mr Diver that, electioneering aside, the fact remains that, in the latter stages of 2015, an economic hammer fell on the Ulster University. Job cuts, a reduction of student places and swingeing budget cuts hit expansion plans. So, what is he proposing that will make a difference to an apparently bleak outlook for third level education locally.
“We have to look at it in totality,” he says. “Resources have been reduced, funding has been reduced. The cake is definitely smaller, but surely it is about how that cake is divided up. Even in a difficult economic climate, can it be said the Executive is serious about redressing economic imbalances in the North West?
“Reducing Corportaion Tax is not a panacea in attracting investment here. It is one component, but it is not enough on its own. We will not redress this without expanding Magee and getting more graduates into the work force.
“Look at the example of the Republic,where, in the 1960s, there were around 15,000 third level places - now there are 150,000. This means that, despite the economic downturn, they kept on investing in education and, as a result, the economy in the Republic is growing three times faster than here in the North. I would have serious concerns about the current approach being taken here.”
While Mr Diver has had little choice but to hit the ground running after his unexpected elevation to the Assembly, there is also the practical consideration of having to face an election just five months into his new role.
What, the ‘Journal’ asked, does he feel his chances are of retaining the seat for the SDLP in May?
“One thing I have always been extremely grateful for is people’s support in elections, which I regard as being the biggest test of all because you cannot ever take the electorate for granted. I topped the poll in the Waterside at the last election. I was the first nationalist to ever do this.
“I attach a great importance to community relations and I am very acutely aware of the need to build bridges. One of the great sadnesses of the peace process is that communities remain polarised and Derry, unfortunately, is an example of that.
“It is vitally important that we continue outreach work to the Protestant and unionist community. I would love to see Protestant people coming back with confidence to live on the west bank of the Foyle. This is one of the tragic legacies of the the conflict.
“This work is a very important part of my life as a public representative. This is something to which you cannot simply pay lip-service -you have to take risks, bring people onboard and build relationships. This is also something I worked at as Mayor of Derry.”
Gerard Diver also paid tribute to the SDLP in Derry and, in particular, to the work of Mark H Durkan as Environment Minister and Mark Durkan as the MP for Foyle.
“I will look back on my time in Council with great affection and I believe the SDLP group is in great shape and that Martin Reilly will do a first class job as its leader on Council.
“There is a saying that ‘all politics is local’ and that is very true and the team that we have in place is more than capable of delivering on the ground.”