North West will be main Brexit frontier

The border at Muff.
The border at Muff.

Derry & Strabane Council’s Strategy Manager has said that the north west will be the main Brexit frontier as it emerged over 60 per cent of those crossing the border into the north for work or study come to Derry and Tyrone.

Over 5,600 people are now crossing the border from Donegal for work or for education, with over 75 per cent of them coming to Derry.

Derry City & Strabane District Council Strategy Manager Michael Gallagher.

Derry City & Strabane District Council Strategy Manager Michael Gallagher.

The results of the 2016 census in the Republic shows that in terms of cross-border commuters, the highest density is from Inishowen and north east Donegal, including Burt, Bridgend, Burnfoot, Muff, Buncrana, Clonmany, Carndonagh, Quigley’s Point, Killea, Carrigans, St Johnston, Newtoncunningham. At Muff, over 48 per cent of the working age population are commuting over the border into Derry and Strabane for work.

Michael Gallagher, the council’s Strategy Manager (pictured below) said: “This isn’t replicated along the border and that is really down to the fact that we are, in economic terms, a Functional Economic Market Area,(FEMA) which essentially means we are all the one economic area.

“People don’t make much distinction about the border here and neither do we in terms of Derry & Strabane and Donegal County Councils.

“We are now involved in a joint investment visit to Boston in the next few weeks. If we can bring investment here to the North West City Region it doesn’t matter that much to us whether it is sitting in Burnfoot or Springtown. The money will remain in the area and increasingly when you look at the composition of the workforces, should it be E&I Engineering, should it be Pramerica, there are large proportions of cross-border workers, in the region of a quarter to a third.

Because people spend their money on both sides, they are living and commuting between the two council areas, and all of those things that go on, it’s not a net loss to the area.”

Statistics show large concentrations of those in the Donegal border region had moved there from the north and a large proportion of those in east Donegal are believed to have originated in Derry.

As such, Mr. Gallagher said, there is “not one aspect of life, to a lesser or greater degree” that will not be affected by Brexit. “We are very much inter-connected. The challenges will be for small to medium enterprises. These tend to be the owner with a few staff. If they are in the Republic of Ireland, if they do export, they tend to export to Northern Ireland. If they export beyond that, they tend to only export to Britain and not beyond into the rest of the EU. As such, they are very sensitive to Brexit.”

Mr. Gallagher said the main challenges for the whole region remain the same as they did prior to Brexit, but were also accentuated by it.

“With the plan we have drawn up prior to Brexit, the draft Strategic Growth Plan, the key challenges remain the same. The things we are saying will improve the competitiveness of this area, including Donegal, are expansion of the university, NWRC, LYIT; roads, the A5, A6, the A2 and the N14 road from Strabane to Letterkenny; the key sites, Ebrington, Fort George, Strabane town centre. We want to see investment. We need it accelerated to deal with this challenge that Brexit presents to us. We believe we are unique and the commuting figures add weight to that, the inter connectedness of the area and how inter-dependent we are on each other.

“In terms of the skills base, the schools do well, but we lose too many people who go away but don’t come back. The idea of expanding the university here isn’t solely about increasing third level participation rates for Derry people, it’s about expanding the university to bring that life to the city, foreign students, people from outside, bringing lecturers and families. Expansion of the university is our number one priority.”

And while debate rages on regarding what shape a post-Brexit border settlement will take, the two councils here in the immediate aftermath of the Referendum began taking steps to strengthen their partnership work, to help safeguard and promote the region, come what may.

“The new NW Strategic Growth Partnership, through which we are working with both governments and Donegal Council, provides us with a perfect mechanism for delivering a coherent and comprehensive response to the impact of Brexit on this border region,” Mr Gallagher said.