Forcing democracy to work for Derry

John McCloskey
John McCloskey

DERRY

Stephen Farry’s article in the Journal got me to thinking and five years on from the One Plan seems like a good time to review the state of play. Now none could dispute that the Peace Bridge has produced a much needed face-lift to the centre of the town nor that the UK City of Culture rebranded the city as a centre for the Arts, but how many, permanent skilled jobs have these successes brought? The fat-cats with their pop-up bars have certainly done very well, thank you, but minimum wage jobs in the ‘hospitality’ industry do not reduce emigration and no economic assessment ever mentioned the need for a Peace Bridge.

Magee College, University Of Ulster, Co Derry, Ireland

Magee College, University Of Ulster, Co Derry, Ireland

I recently travelled by car from Derry to Carlingford (just the other side of Newry). The AA website told me this was a journey of 100.3 miles and would take 3hrs 10mins. That couldn’t be right. An average speed of less than 35mph? Now, a horse gallops at about 30 mph (the record is 55 - thanks Google) so the pony express could nearly have kept up – 200 years ago! Not possible, I thought. The journey took 3hrs and 5 mins; well done the AA website. When you think about it, there is not a yard of dual carriageway between Derry and south Monaghan on the Dublin road or between Derry and Toomebridge on the road to Belfast, so these ridiculous journey times are not such a big surprise after all. If you look at the infrastructure projects under construction in N. Ireland, some £280m is actively being spent in the greater Belfast area. The equivalent figure for the anything that might benefit Derry is £0; all projects connected to Derry are filed under ‘Schemes in Planning’. Last month we had 2cm of snow – all on the one day. I drove from Shantallow to Altnagelvin hospital; the roads were grid locked and the trip took me just over 2 hours. It’s as well it wasn’t an emergency. A stiff breeze up the Foyle routinely shuts the Foyle bridge, diverting all traffic though the town; again causing gridlock and hours of delays.

The train is even worse. Derry to the university in Coleraine; distance: 32 miles, train travel time: 1 hr 20 mins; average speed: 24 mph. We’re told again that the new signalling system and passing loop -required bring us up to the same standard as Cullybackey (population 2400) – is slated for commencement in May. I’ll believe it when I see it.

So much for the infrastructure, how is the University shaped up in the five years since the One Plan promised so much? We know that university expansion won’t cure all of Derry’s ills, but the economic assessments indicate it’s maybe the biggest and best single step we can take in that direction. Farry’s article held out almost no hope of any improvement in the foreseeable future. It read like: ‘It wasn’t me! A big boy did it and ran away’ and this is probably fairly accurate – Farry has no money and no power so he certainly didn’t do it. But it wasn’t a big boy that did it, it was two big boys, Sinn Fein and the DUP. They have the money, they have the power. Amazingly, Derry’s ‘One Plan’ is only mentioned once in the current programme for government and no reference is made at all to higher education expansion. This is the true measure of the importance our political leaders attach to regeneration in Derry and the role of higher education in that regeneration. The University of Ulster is currently spending £250m on its Belfast campus, Queen’s continue to investing hundreds of millions (it’s hard to find out exactly how much) including investment in a new cancer centre which has benefited from the full support of our very own Martina Anderson MEP who has pledged to … ‘work together with researchers from Queen’s to maximise opportunities to advance cancer research and cancer care at European level.’ Meanwhile, if we get through another series of committee approvals, Stephen Farry will apply for £11m to build a new teaching block to accommodate existing – not planned – students. We don’t only need a new building or two £11m will deal with that, Magee needs fully funded student places on economically relevant courses and the staff they will support, as well as centrally funded, properly maintained research infrastructure. This is the currency of a successful university but it requires real, long-term political commitment to the expansion project rather than the broken promises and short-term political expediency we have been forced to adapt to over decades.

From the carcades of the 60s to the recent ‘task-forces’ and ‘working groups’, we have seen politicians, of all hues, hand-wring about the lack of investment in Magee. For nearly two years the ILEX Further and Higher education Committee, which included real authorities on third level educational management and funding, worked late hours after our day jobs putting together a detailed and costed plan for the expansion of Magee. The entire careful strategy was signed off by the University and political leaders of every stripe and it was published in ‘The One Plan’ for regeneration of our city. I, for one, felt a genuine sense of having turned a corner. Look at the ‘Resource Group’ report on the ILEX website. I commend it to you. What has been the result after five years? A few hundred extra full-time equivalent students, against a target of close to 5000, and barely a new brick laid. Derry continues to lag behind every comparable city in Britain and Ireland with any higher education ambitions, and even behind some that don’t have a history of any educational ambitions at all. We don’t need another task-force, we need to fund the plan we’ve already all agreed to.

The University charter enshrines the University’s fundamental regional, social and economic responsibility and, while none would argue that it has discharged this responsibility well, ultimately this is a political, not a University problem.

Good will from the University is essential - and it does exist in places - but it is far from sufficient to overcome decades of financial neglect. Farry reckons the cost of the expansion outlined in the One Plan at something like £30m per year and that’s without any capital expenditure.

This is broadly in line with the estimate in the One Plan, this is political-scale investment that only be achieved with the total commitment of politicians.

Remember, this sounds like one hell of a hand-out, but it would be more than paid for by economic growth it would stimulate and we are citizens of this state and a better future than we have in prospect is our right, not charity.

Thomas More, who enraged Henry VIII by refusing his blessing on the monarch’s latest marriage, used the powerful legal defence ‘Silence gives consent’; I have not stood against you so I implicitly consent to your action. Henry didn’t react well to reasoned argument; More was beheaded and, since we like to remember the gory bits – no beheading no story - we consequently remember and appreciate his failed defence.

In the present context it means that by refusing to object to what’s happening, by throwing up our hands and pleading ‘what can we do?’ we are not sitting on the fence: we are consenting to, and in a democracy that means supporting, the current inhuman situation. And it won’t get any better, it will get worse. Ask any Derry GP or primary school teacher and let them tell you what is and what will be.

We live in a democracy, far from ideal but that’s what we have and, on the positive side, in May we get a chance to shake things up.

The politicians want our votes so bad they can’t sleep at night; and they’re our votes. For once, instead of voting on the basis of opinions about a struggle which ended 20 years ago let’s force them to make real, concrete commitments to expansion of our University and to the future prosperity of our city.

Science is based on the idea of the falsifiable statement; a statement which is designed to be able to be proved false. Falsifiable statements have built-in, anti-bullshit insurance - brilliant.

Let’s treat the promises of our politicians as good, falsifiable scientific statements. Force them to be precise about what they will deliver: don’t let them off with aspirations and promises, force them to make quantitative statements, which we can objectively test when next they come looking for the power we have and they want. Don’t accept: ‘Trust us to fight tirelessly for Magee’ and insist on: ‘by 2017 we will have 1500 new fully funded places on courses in Magee’. In 2017 we can check the number of new places and see if it is or isn’t 1500, we can never show that somebody hasn’t fought tirelessly. Make this the price of our support. Replace the hot air we’re used to with the cool breeze of clarity and honesty.

Its Derry’s turn to reap the benefits democracy always promises but has never before delivered for us but we won’t get anything without forcing our representatives to represent us.

Write to the press, phone in to the radio, organise a meeting in your football club, your community group, your prayer group, go to political meetings and demand that they tell us what they will do. And I’m talking to you, not the guy beside you! Otherwise say no more about it.

Shut-up and put-up with what we are used to: a thick slice of the past with lots of excuses for the present on the side.