Stormont urged to decentralise civil service posts

SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood
SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood

In this specially written opinion piece for derryjournal.com SDLP MLA argues Stormont must decentralise civil service posts. Over the last few weeks the Derry MLA has asked every government department to detail how many posts are based in the city, and says the figures show the need for immediate decentralisation.

It was the Irish American political giant Tip O’Neill who gifted society with the phrase that ‘All politics is local’. It was a phrase of blunt purity, highlighting the belief and reality that for the majority of citizens the impact of politics is felt most deeply the closer it comes to their individual doorsteps.

As we know, this idea has pervaded throughout Southern Ireland in particular. A politician’s rise in Dáil Éireann was as much judged by delivery for the local constituency as it was by a contribution at a national level. The former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds was famous for saying that you could tell a good politician by the quality of tarmac on the roads in their respective constituencies. Undoubtedly this competitive, localised culture went too far at times in the South. However, part of its consequence and benefit was to prevent widespread regional inequality.

For years this city found itself somewhat detached from this political culture. For Derry the local was a mirror image of the national. The political conscience of the city was national in its focus, determined to construct national solutions for the island. The political agenda, out of necessity, was driven by, and directed to, bringing an end to the bombs and bullets which destructively defined our politics.

We are now, thankfully, in a different place. The embedded stability of devolved government in Stormont demands and enables us to radically change the way in which we conduct our politics. In truth this process is long overdue, we are now 14 years on from Good Friday 1998. We are free from the straightjacket of Direct Rule and are now empowered and able to shape our economic landscape.

Amidst this prolonged recession the clear needs of ‘the local’, here in Derry, demand intense and tireless priority. The most pressing example of this priority is the provision of jobs. We top the list of unemployment in the North and have wage levels considerably lower than other regions.

If therefore all politics is indeed local then what can be done to help? What is the centre of our local politics, our government in Stormont, doing to help this crisis of joblessness?

We have a large public sector. Devolved government here in the North provides thousands of jobs directly through the civil service. Over the last month I have asked every Minister to give a breakdown of every grade of civil servant they employ in the Derry City Council area (Only DSD declined to provide a breakdown on this basis).

The figures speak for themselves. Derry City currently has only 4.85% of the total civil service population, the North West in general counts for about 5.5%. Almost needless to say, the greater Belfast area has in excess of 60% of these posts. This is a statistical pattern to which we are now well used.

The Bain report published in 2008, around the same period that Stormont’s current leadership came to power, proposed that civil service jobs should be relocated ‘to improve regional economic balance’. That report has been effectively shelved, confirmed to me personally by the Finance Minister, Sammy Wilson, in the Assembly chamber only last week.

The agenda of decentralisation badly needs resurrected. I am humble enough to realise that every party must do more, however some must do more than others.

Whilst DSD minister, Alex Attwood decentralised 95 jobs to the city and as Environment Minister has committed to locate all jobs generated by the plastic bag levy in Derry.

In contrast, on the eve of the City of Culture, there isn’t one civil servant from the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure working in Derry. When I questioned the Sinn Féin Minister, Carál Ní Chuilín, whether she intended to address this disparity, she responded: ‘there are no plans to decentralise any posts within my Department and at this time there are no plans to do so in the immediate future’.

Decentralisation will not in itself solve our unemployment crisis. Government’s broader duty is to set the correct conditions for the influx of employment. Stormont does however have a duty to set a firm example that it will not tolerate vast regional inequality. Decentralisation is in essence about job-sharing, distributing the economic capacity of the state in a fair manner. This is blatantly not the case at present.

This agenda is not whinging. It is not unrealistic or unachievable. Its is primarily about fairness.

Stormont’s record has, thus far, been all politics and no governance. For this city’s sake, the advice of Tip O‘Neill, requires remembering.