‘Exciting times’ for Ballykelly, says dFM

The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and pupils planting a tree in the grounds of Orchard Community Playgroup in Ballykelly. Included are Gail Downey, DARD staff member, and Tara Del Cooper, playgroup leader. DARD staff were taking part in a spring-clean at the playgroup.

Photo Lorcan Doherty Photography
The deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and pupils planting a tree in the grounds of Orchard Community Playgroup in Ballykelly. Included are Gail Downey, DARD staff member, and Tara Del Cooper, playgroup leader. DARD staff were taking part in a spring-clean at the playgroup. Photo Lorcan Doherty Photography

The relocation of Department of Agriculture headquarters to Ballykelly will make a massive difference to those coming to work in the village.

That’s the opinion of Gail Downey who will be among hundreds of staff working from the new Ballykelly base.

DARD Minister Michelle O’Neill has confirmed planning permission has been granted for the £20m investment of DARD relocation.

“We will appoint a contractor within the next couple of weeks and see the diggers on site by the summer,” she said.

One hundred staff will be in location in Ballykelly by the end of 2016 with around 150 more posts moving once the new building is available for occupation. There will be a total staff complement of 600 once the transition is completed.

For almost 40 years, Mrs Downey has been driving five hours a day from Donemana to Belfast for her Civil Service job. She says the shorter commute will make life easier for hundreds of workers travelling from the North West in terms of a work-life balance and their mental wellbeing. She said more governmemnt jobs needed to be decentralised out of Belfast. Unless that happens, she said, career progression opportunities for North West staff were few and far between, as most opportunities were in Belfast.

The mum-of-four was speaking as deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness and Agriculture Minister Michelle O’Neill met with people in Ballykelly on Thursday to mark the start of work on the new DARD headquarters.

Martin McGuinness told the ‘Journal’ it was “exciting times, not just for Ballykelly, but the entire North West”.

He said “things are moving big time” following news last week that the Newry-based MJM Group had agreed to buy the massive Shackleton site and create 100 jobs.

“This is one of the best ‘good news’ stories we’ve had surrounding jobs and employment,” said Mr McGuinness.

During their visit, the ministers met with local traders, and made a visit to Orchard Community Playgroup, where DARD staff helped with a Spring clean-up.

Tara Del Cooper, Orchard Playgroup leader, said: “Shackleton has been vacant for so long, so this is a great move. It’s great for jobs and for morale locally,” said Ms Cooper.

Ms Cooper said she made her case to Mr McGuinness and Minister O’Neill about funding to secure Playgroup jobs.

“We’re really looking forward to the DARD jobs coming and hope to see a few new faces in the Playgroup. We need extra funding to secure staff jobs and for our summer scheme which we are running this year,” said Ms Cooper.