It’s hard to believe that 2017 is coming to a close, bringing to an end an eventful year for the Derry City and Strabane District Council area.
I am now halfway through my time of office and in that time I have become more acquainted with the fantastic work ongoing in our City and District and the challenges we face in the year ahead.
It’s been a year of highs for me - not least in seeing Derry City recognised as an ideal location for hosting events at an international level - but also a year of some quite challenging lows, such as the August floods, which presented us with learning opportunities that will be carried forward for many years to come.
In the past seven months, I have hosted many receptions, participated in the openings of numerous new facilities, visited community groups, immigrant groups, sports and arts organisations, educational establishments and care facilities, and completed a wide range of official engagements. During this time I’ve met so many truly remarkable and wonderful people, working diligently on behalf of their communities often on a totally voluntary basis which confirms for me that it’s such commitment which holds the wider community together. As Mayor one is genuinely privileged to be given the opportunity to meet such groups both urban and rural.
There have also been some difficult challenges throughout my time as Mayor, but despite the circumstances, I have seen them bring out the very best in local people. The August floods were undoubtedly the lowest point for many of us this year, due to their unexpected and devastating impact. Rural areas were hardest hit, and for some the damage will take many more months to address. For others, while the physical restoration is well underway, psychologically the damage will remain with them for the years – the loss of valued personal possessions, and the vulnerability of having to rely on others for a home and for support.
But from this dark time, the people who are the backbone of this community emerged en masse to help shoulder the burden, and to bring comfort in all its forms – from warm food to financial aid – demonstrating the resilience and strong human spirit which sets us apart. For me, it was a true measure of what we are capable of when called upon.
The rural communities of our district have an integral role to play in the life of this council and I am encouraged by the work that is ongoing to improve connectivity, in terms of both physical and digital infrastructure, which are so essential to the quality of life in rural areas.
It’s important to retain the sense of identity in our smaller communities and it’s also essential that we create a strong network to bring us together and strengthen our sense of the wider council community. I hope to see the work on this continue over the coming months and years particularly as we work towards finalising the Local Development Plan and Local Community Plans for the district.
One of the major highlights of my term so far has been the Trade Mission to Boston Massachusetts and Philadelphia in November in conjunction with our neighbours in Donegal County Council. The North West, presented as a city region with a clear voice and unity of purpose, received a warm welcome from not only the business community and political representatives in America but also the Irish Ambassador and Minister of State Joe McHugh who met with our delegation. It was a fantastic opportunity to strengthen the historic links between Ireland and the US, and for local companies to benefit from the insight provided by some of the leading names in global industry.
As we work to grow and develop the North West’s profile as a first class location for investment, our links with overseas companies both to the East and West continue to strengthen and it’s extremely encouraging to see local enterprises reaping the rewards of these relationships.
This was also evident during my recent meeting with the delegation from the Chinese City of Dalian who visited the Guildhall this month as part of the UK-China Regional Leaders Summit. We had the chance to discuss the many shared interests between our two cities in areas such as the software industry, bio-medicine, digitalisation, and advanced manufacturing, and in 2018 we can continue those discussions around how our academic establishments and our indigenous businesses can develop and progress mutually beneficial relationships.
There was disappointment this year when news broke that the city would be unable to complete its bid for European Capital of Culture in partnership with Belfast. A tremendous momentum had begun to build in the campaign, and the arts community and the general public had rallied to support what would have been a major opportunity for the region. But all is certainly not lost in terms of the groundwork invested in the bid, with a resurgence of the cultural energy which has certainly become synonymous with Derry and Strabane. This has allowed us to refocus on the importance of cultural identity and we hope to continue to work with Belfast on amplifying our strong regional voice and the creation of a shared cultural programme which will benefit both cities.
On a more positive note – we have much to look forward to in the year ahead. November saw the launch of the Community Plan – the Strategic Growth Plan, which maps out the path to progress for the City and District until 2032. This strategy is unprecedented in its scale and potential impact, offering a chance to improve the lives of everyone living here. I’m extremely impressed at the support from all our strategic partners who have given their full commitment to the delivery of the aspirations which have been identified.
I look forward to seeing the results of this work as it manifests in the numerous positive plans for the development of Derry and Strabane. They are already coming to fruition in projects such as the Brandywell Stadium here in Derry which is nearing completion, the progress on the A5 and A6, the plans for the expansion of Magee campus, and the development of key sites in Derry and Strabane including Ebrington and the Riverine site.
In tandem with the Community Plan, Council has been working behind the scenes to secure a City Deal of Growth Deal, and there have been positive discussions around this. I’m hopeful that these will progress further in the New Year and look forward to all the opportunities this will offer.
As the year draws to a close I want to thank everyone for their ongoing support of my chosen charity Aware Defeat Depression, who provide an invaluable support network for some of the most vulnerable in our society. I hope to see this continue in the New Year, and also the development of additional support services for local people in times of crisis.
Finally, I’m looking ahead myself now to 2018 and the continuation of my role as Mayor, which I hope to embrace with renewed energy following the Christmas break. If it’s half as rewarding as the first half of my term then I know I have a fantastic year ahead and I look forward to meeting many more exceptional people from all communities and cultures. If you see me out and about please come and say hello, it’s my privilege to act on your behalf as First Citizen and I want to hear more of your personal stories.
Bliain Úr faoi mhaise
daoibh, Maolíosa McHugh