Four independent councillors were elected to the Derry and Strabane Council last May. Here they voice their opinion on how they view the current political and economic situation.
Derry and Strabane need new champions. The representatives who have served us over the past two decades (and before) have not delivered any tangible form of lasting improvement, prosperity or ‘peace dividend’ for this region.This is not posturing, sabre-rattling, politicking or a matter of opinion – this is a statement of fact.The Northwest is without question the most neglected blackspot on these islands. And it is time that our leaders took responsibility for this fact and stopped blaming the other guy.
Our new council, when it opens in April, will boast the highest rate of unemployment, the highest level of economic inactivity and the lowest percentage of third level places. We are bereft of jobs, decent wages and proper public investment.
Worse again, we are consistently neglecting our greatest assets – our young people. Huge numbers of our children are emigrating in search of education and employment because we aren’t providing these for them here.
Furthermore, our inability to train our young people for their futures has left a skills deficit, which leaves employers unable to recruit for any jobs that might be created there.
The haemorrhaging of jobs will continue as a direct result of the austerity measures that will flow from the Stormont House Agreement. Such measures will destroy our public sector and will impact most on the most vulnerable and poorest areas such as the Northwest.
Perhaps the biggest generational failure of this region, however, has been our failure to challenge the Belfast monolith.
And the biggest disappointment in recent years has been how quickly our Northwestern representatives have bought into the Belfast-centred power structures, and forgotten about delivering for the people who voted them into office.
Task forces, One Plans and Stormont sub-groups have blazed gloriously under the lights of photo-calls, promising all the answers, but delivering nothing.
They are placebos, designed and marketed to keep the natives happy, but they lack all meaningful substance or capital.
They are quietly dismissed by Stormont committees as ‘aspirational’, and the natives are asked to produce another ‘business case’ to keep them out of the road for a while.
No one dares challenge this by now traditional process, however, for fear of being labelled ‘negative’ or ‘cynical’ - the current pariah-word.
But is it really cynical to ask our representatives to explain hard evidence?
Fifty years ago, civil rights campaigners brought down Stormont because the new university for Derry was wrongfully built in Coleraine. Today, the new university for Derry is currently being built in North Belfast – in an area which has already more than double our third-level representation. Which of our representatives nodded their heads when this deal went through?
Media figures show that of the thousands of jobs Invest NI ‘created’ in the North recently, just a handful went to Derry and Strabane, the poorest area in NI. Around seventy percent of these jobs went to Greater Belfast, the richest area in NI – with that area also receiving twelve times the level of investment as Foyle.
Forgive the vulgarity, but in that context, the recent trumpeting of just 65 jobs, spread across half-a-dozen local factories, as some sort of victory for Invest NI looks exactly like an attempt to polish a turd – as does the announcement that we might just get a consolation prize of a replacement teaching-block at Magee, instead of a real university.
The real truth, however, is we are drowning, not waving.
A much more pertinent snapshot of our current position is the just-published Community Audit of Strabane, which showed that almost two-thirds of households surveyed had a combined income of less than £15,000. This comes on top of the news that Strabane ratepayers will now be expected to pay an extra two percent on their rates bills as part of the merger with Derry.
In case anyone ever doubted Belfast’s priorities, in the past few weeks alone, politicians in that city have used half a million pounds in tax-payers’ and rate-payers’ money to bail out an orchestra, while simultaneously closing down a homeless shelter they didn’t even fund.
That same orchestra is now to be given free use of two state-funded venues (i.e. funded by us) – the Ulster Hall and the Waterfront – for their concerts.
Though, as yet, there is no mention of the North’s sizeable homeless population being given similar privilege or accommodation.
Unless we resolve to tackle the east-west imbalance immediately, as our number one priority, this region may as well sink into the North Atlantic.
We need – and must fight tooth and nail for – proper public investment, for our roads, our infrastructure and to build an economy. We don’t want borrowings – but actual capital.
But we must also make hard decisions about our current spending – do we really need to subsidise an airport to the tune of £3.5m per year, or spend £2m on a round-the-world yacht race while our city centre shops are closing due to excessive rates?
But most importantly of all, we cannot wait for Belfast’s permission to deliver for us. We must plan for ourselves and we must deliver for ourselves.
The new Derry and Strabane District Council must become a new champion for our region - by leading, fighting for, and delivering a sea change in our fortunes. It must relentlessly pursue a Northwest agenda – not a Stormont or Belfast one.
To that end, we have drawn up a simple five-point manifesto for Derry & Strabane.
- We must demand a programme of proper investment to address our infrastructure needs, including the A5 and the railway network
- We must support enhanced technological and FE provision, and an independent fit-for-purpose university for the Northwest
- We must create targeted skills development programmes for our most disadvantaged communities
- We must protect services provided by community development and social economy organisations
- We must increase the provision of social housing and the protection of the Housing Executive
Derry and Strabane need to take charge of our own destiny, fight for rightful investment, set our own agenda, and deliver a proper future for our young people.
We deserve, and will accept, nothing less.
Councillor Gary Donnelly
Councillor Dee Quigley
Councillor Darren O Reilly
Councillor Paul Gallagher