Eamonn McCann: Derry is being let down again

Eamonn McCann.
Eamonn McCann.

The disparity in treatment compared to the Belfast region is clear in plans for a “city deal” for council areas east of the Bann.

Some of us might be totally cynical about the potential of city deals to transform cities or regions. And even more cynical about the squabbling of the mainstream parties to claim credit for the Treasury’s recent endorsement of a deal for Derry.

At the same time, the proposed deal speaks volumes about official priorities.

Some of what Derry wants and is entitled to is compromised in advance by Monday’s announcement.

Magee College has for years been looking for a substantial increase in student numbers. People Before Profit called for at least one of the six departments being moved from Jordanstown coming to Derry instead of Belfast. There’s a major reorganisation of Ulster University under way. It will cost upwards of a quarter of a billion pounds.

But the question of bringing a department to Derry apparently hasn’t even been discussed - despite Magee having been repeatedly promised a substantial increase in student numbers. At one point, a student body of 20,000 was mooted. That has been inexorably been forced down since.

There isn’t even an aspiration towards the 20,000 mark any more.

Both Ulster University and Queen's joined in the drive for a deal for Belfast, along with Belfast, Ards and North Down, Antrim and Newtownabbey, Lisburn and Castlereagh, Mid and East Antrim and Newry Mourne and Down councils. Private businesses and the NI civil service added their voices.

Apart from a major increase in student numbers in Belfast, their plan envisages a Global Innovation Institute to service existing Belfast industries; investment in digital connectivity to connect Belfast business to “new markets and opportunities;” investment in tourism, including a new “landmark venue” in Belfast, the regeneration of Bangor seafront; new facilities at Carrickfergus and Hillsborough Castles, a focus on attracting more visitors to the Mourne Mountains; extension of the Belfast Rapid Transit System; and an ”extensive employability and skills programme, incorporating apprenticeship schemes; and more.

People in these areas will be canny enough to take a believe-it-when-we-see-it approach. But at least the ambition is there.

What’s happening cannot be put down only to bias against Derry - although that’s clearly a factor. The introduction of the private market into third-level education is another factor.

Decisions on the development of our universities are increasingly taken on the basis of what best suits business - not on educational grounds or in the social and cultural interests of surrounding society.

This is to ignore the social value of education in itself and its role in the cultural life of local society and the morale and sense of worth individual students.

These are intangible things, which cannot be measured in spreadsheets or in terms of “the bottom line.” But they are real enough and just as likely to generate jobs as betting the future on technological development.

If we are serious about having as many jobs as possible in Derry, we should be opposing the job cuts in the public sector which are hitting Derry’s economy hard.

And yet, those who regard the public sector as a drain on the public purse enjoy the support of the North’s two biggest parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, for the policy of “rebalancing” the economy away from the public sector and towards the private sector.

The cut-backs include starving our schools of resources, chronic underfunding of care of children with disabilities, community services ripped to pieces, the arts treated like persistent beggars and so on.

One of the results is that a region living with the results of long-term neglect - like Derry - are left scrambling for scraps. The lack of a city deal is one illustration of this.

The two main parties rush to take credit for anything positive which comes along, rush for the hills denying all responsibility when problems arise for which they are least partly responsible.