‘Derry needs to be more ambitious. It must harness talent of its people’

DERRY IN THE 1960s... A city gerrymandered to prop up a unionist minority and plagued by male unemployment and dreadful housing conditions.  It was a city of protest about to explode.
DERRY IN THE 1960s... A city gerrymandered to prop up a unionist minority and plagued by male unemployment and dreadful housing conditions. It was a city of protest about to explode.

Derry has many of the raw materials that would make any city successful. So what has turned this winning hand into an economic busted flush? STEVE BRADLEY thinks he knows why.

Derry felt a heavy impact from partition, with an international border slicing the city off from its economic hinterland.

Even the city’s all-powerful shirt-making industry suffered as it relied on large numbers of ‘outworkers’ in Donegal. And the border was to later prove the dividing line along which aspects of the city’s infrastructure were later wound down.

By the time of partition, Derry was an economic mono-culture with 44 shirt factories employing 8,000 people in the city and a further 10,000 elsewhere in outworking - more than in all other industries combined. The years after partition saw a steady decline in the local shirt industry and, when the Troubles erupted, Derry’s economy was languishing and unemployment was rife. The city had not adapted to its post-industrial reality, and the decline of its dominant textiles industry was left unmanaged without alternative employment introduced.

By the 1960s, two-thirds of Derry’s population was Catholic and the Unionist Party feared losing the city. It responded with gerrymandering and by stifling development – initiating a period of chronic under-investment in which the basic tools Derry needed to prosper were, largely, denied it.

The city’s railway lines were wound down and promised motorway replacements never materialised. When Stormont commissioned the Matthews Report in 1963 to create a counter-balance to Belfast, it recommended a ‘new city’ of Craigavon be built less than 30 miles from Belfast. The English architect in charge of the project resigned, telling the media that Derry should be developed instead and confirming, in later years, that he resigned because he had been asked to ensure the new city did not upset the area’s religious balance.

Then, in 1965, another Stormont report recommended situating Northern Ireland’s second university in Coleraine. Unionist MP Robert Nixon famously complained that “nameless, faceless men” within his own party had been pushing an “anywhere but Derry” strategy.

The old Stormont government was abolished in 1972 but suspicions remain in some quarters that political Unionism’s attitude towards Derry has altered little since. The difference now, however, is that NI is no longer a one-party Unionist state – and Sinn Fein and the SDLP have both been involved in government here. So why have politicians of ALL parties done little to alter the fortunes of the north’s most deprived city when in power?

The DUP and Sinn Fein are locked in an ongoing electoral battle to become NI’s largest party. The five MLAs for Foyle pale in comparison to the 20 MLAs returned by Belfast city (more if you include Greater Belfast), and, whilst Derry is an overwhelmingly nationalist city, Belfast’s demographics are in flux. All of which makes Belfast the north’s key electoral battleground for the foreseeable future and reduces Derry to fringe importance.

So, when faced with a priority call between Belfast or Derry (e.g. the £300m relocation of the Jordanstown university campus), which way does electoral reality suggest these parties will lean? Has Derry been ill-served by both nationalist and unionist politicians because the city just isn’t important enough electorally to either? And to what extent is this a conscious phenomena rather than just an inability to see beyond Belfast?

Greater Belfast dominates every facet of life within NI - with the vast majority of public funding and attention instinctively directed towards it. This has reduced the north to the equivalent of a city state - a poor man’s Singapore, with bad weather and painted kerbstones. Examples abound of this. In economic development, Invest NI creates significantly more jobs in Belfast than in Foyle, despite Derry having the UK’s highest unemployment.

Of NI’s 26 former council areas, only four (Castlereagh, Armagh, Craigavon and Belfast) have an above-average allocation of civil service jobs, highlighting just how concentrated these roles are in specific pockets of the east.

In sport, Stormont is spending almost £100m creating three top-class stadia in Belfast, whilst Derry’s Brandywell Stadium received only a partial upgrade after it was unable to secure any Executive funding.

An inability to see beyond Belfast afflicts all politicians, decision makers and organisations here – whether nationalist, unionist or unaligned. It helps explain why, even to this day, Derry is still being largely ignored by those in power.

Derry must also look to itself for some of the answers as to why it is being left behind. In particular at the vision and ambition of our own civic leadership and institutions.

Accusations are regularly levelled that key local institutions lack genuine ambition for the city and are too willing to settle for second best. Derry certainly showed ambition when it put itself forward for (and won) the UK City of Culture title in 2013. But, five years on, there is little physical legacy to show from it. And fifteen years after the Ebrington and Fort George sites were handed over for the good of the city, both remain under-utilised.

Derry’s civic leaders have also struggled to determine a credible yet ambitious economic strategy for the city, with a focus primarily on retail in recent decades. Tourism offers great potential for the city – yet little is being done to enable us to genuinely compete with alternatives like Titanic and the Causeway Coast. And Derry’s civic leaders continue to vest their hopes for major university expansion entirely in Ulster University,despite repeated disappointments from that quarter.

To their credit, however, Derry City and Strabane District Council has performed admirably on the subject of a City Deal where we have been significantly ahead of Belfast in the development of our pitch.

Finally, the role of ordinary folk must also be considered. Derry people are proud and passionate about our city but years of neglect have created a negativity here. If Derry is to reach its true potential, a change in the mindset of its citizenry will also be required. If no-one else will do it, Derry people need to be more willing to use their own undoubted talents to lift this city up by themselves.

Derry requires significant external investment to put it onto a footing where it can become genuinely competitive in a globalised world.

But it must also be more willing to challenge itself - to be more creative and ambitious, and to harness the talent of its people.

Because no-one will match the passion for improving our city that can be shown by our own people and institutions.

Next week, we’ll take a look at ways in which a much brighter future can be secured for Derry.