Brian Tierney reflects on Covid and the ‘virtual’ Mayor
When Mayor Brian Tierney hands over the chain of office at Monday’s Council AGM, it will mark the end of an unusual and challenging year. No-one could have imagined that COVID would have had such an impact on our lives and that the Mayor would have had to readapt to a new way of working. In this article, he explains how he reached out to communities via digital means and the proactive role he played in pushing out the health message to the public in an effort to ensure everyone safe and to keep infection rates down.
My year as Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council has been an unusual one, to say the least, writes Brian Tierney.
While it has been challenging and different, it has also been hugely enjoyable and I feel truly honoured and privileged to have held the position of First Citizen and represent the wonderful people of this city and district.
Without doubt, my year as Mayor has given me an entirely new perspective on life and, while I wasn’t able to physically meet and greet as many people as I would have liked to, I managed to carry out my new duties in new ways. I engaged with the public as much as possible through virtual and digital means and, when the regulations permitted, I travelled across the Council area to visit towns and villages and meet with people from all communities.
Looking back to when I took office last year, little did I think for a minute that, a year on, we would still be dealing with the COVID 19 pandemic. While things are improving and we are in the process of recovery, we still have some way to go and I sincerely hope that we continue with the cautious and slow step approach that will see us successfully come out of this difficult period and into a new and better future.
In spite of the pandemic and the fact that I was very limited in terms of getting out and meeting people physically, I had a very full diary of commitments throughout the year that saw me prioritise leading our communities through the Covid-19 pandemic, via consistent and positive messaging and continuous lobbying for investment to support our economic recovery.
I don’t think there is a person in Derry or Strabane who hasn’t seen me on social media encouraging them to adhere to health guidance. Social media and the digital communication channels were an essential tool for me to engage with the public and video messages were a key element of my mayoral year.
Our social media platforms proved essential in engaging with the public and getting our message out and also giving the public an insight into the work I was doing. We took a very proactive role in leading on the health messaging throughout the pandemic and I want to sincerely thank everyone who helped us with that line of communication – people such as Phil Coulter, Dana, Roma Downey, John Duddy, Adam B, Jason Smyth, Declan Devine and Tyrone McCullough all responded positively to my call out to help us increase awareness of COVID and help us share health messages to curb the spread of the virus. I also had tremendous support from the sports fraternity, youth organisations and leaders, community groups, elected reps, church leaders and artists, who also signed up to this campaign. I am in no doubt that all their efforts helped keep infection rates down and save lives.
Given the impact of the pandemic on mental health, I was particularly pleased to have my Mayoral charity, Auroa Counselling, on board throughout the year and, while the pandemic limited the amount of fundraising we could do, I am delighted with the support we did receive at the various charity events we organised and the level of profile and awareness we were able to raise for this very worthwhile charity.
It’s been a very difficult and challenging year for the people of this Council area but we have responded to the pandemic and done everything we can to combat COVID 19 and protect our communities. Each of us have made huge sacrifices but this pandemic has rocked us all to our core and had a huge impact not only here but across the world; the loss of life has been heart-wrenching. I would like to offer my sincere condolences to everyone who has suffered loss as a result of COVID and to take time to remind ourselves that behind each statistic is a grieving family.
For each one of us, the way of life that we all took for granted has been totally transformed but, thanks to the successful roll out of the vaccination scheme, there is light at the end of the tunnel and we are seeing a gradual return to a new norm.
One of the highlights of my Mayoral year has been seeing at first hand the level of community support and solidarity that exists here in Derry and Strabane, from the heroic efforts of our NHS staff, to the incredible work carried out by the community and voluntary sector to ensure the vulnerable and those in most need have the support they need. The role played by all our workers during this time has to be acknowledged – from nurses and doctors to our bin men, cemetery staff, factory and shop workers, teachers and delivery drivers – a big thank you to all of you.
As we step into the recovery phase of COVID, there can be no room for complacency; we need to continue to adhere to the public health advice, avail of the vaccine and continue to take steps to drive down the infection rate and protect our community so that we can concentrate on rebuilding our economy.
On a positive note, there was a lot to celebrate in 2020/21. We had the signing of the Heads of Terms for the City Deal funding package that confirmed the £250m investment from NI and UK Government to bring real growth, investment and prosperity to our region. The list of innovative and aspiring projects that will come from this investment have the potential to transform this place, to set it aside from others and I sincerely look forward to seeing the roll out of these projects as we move into the delivery phase of this partner-led investment.
The focus on innovation and research and bringing high level jobs and research into our city and district is hugely exciting for all of us. The Heads of Term announcement came within weeks of the welcome news regarding the relocation of the School of Health Sciences to Magee.
This all bodes well as we look ahead to the arrival of the first tranche of students to our new medical school at Magee in September. I truly believe this will be a hugely significant and a positive step forward in realising our economic and educational potential.
In terms of regeneration, my Mayoral year saw huge levels of investment and progress on a range of regeneration projects across the Council area including progress on a number of play parks, the completion of Drumahoe District Park and the roll out of significant Village Renewal projects in Ardstraw, Artigarvan, Drumahoe and Donemana. We saw a number of significant planning decisions including the redevelopment of the Café Roc site, the relocation of Lidl, at Buncrana Road, the extension of Sean Dolan’s, approval for the new Ardnashee School and College as well as the go-ahead for the Culmore section of the Derry to Muff Greenway. In addition to all this, we had significant numbers of approvals for new housing developments across the city and district and several projects were given the green light for development within the Ebrington site.
There were occasions during my year that our communities experienced great loss and sadness. Most notably, from my perspective, was the sad passing of my former party leader and personal friend John Hume. While it was unfortunate that most of us did not get the opportunity to publicly express our thanks and gratitude for his huge contribution to politics and civil rights, I know that his family and friends were grateful of the messages of support they received and the dignified manner in which he made his final journey. The generous donation by his family last week to gift the Nobel Peace Prize, the Martin Luther King Jnr Non-Violent Prize and Mahatma Gandhi Peace Prize to the people of Derry, was a significant gesture. He will be forever remembered in the hearts of the people of this city and district.
It was a year when we also saw the passing of George Floyd, in the United States, former Republic of Ireland manager Jack Charlton, Dr Tom McGinley, of the Foyle Hospice, and HRH Prince Philip, and I was able to establish virtual books of condolence to allow our communities to express their sympathy and share their memories.
I had the privilege of lending my support to so many initiatives and projects throughout the year and turning the Guildhall clock face and Council offices various colours in support of many charities and causes. There are too many to name but all of them were important and it was an excellent way of showing support and raising awareness across the Council area.
I also had the pleasure of attending a series of online festivals and exhibitions throughout the year. From virtual jazz performances in the Guildhall and music sessions at the Alley, to digital tours of our Museum exhibitions, pop up animation on our streets and online exercise classes and bootcamps, that helped keep our communities energised and entertained.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the commitment and resilience of our business community and I had the pleasure of going out on a number of occasions to meet with businesses across the Council area to hear at first hand the challenges they face. While they appreciate the level of financial support they have received from Government, they know the road to recovery will have its challenges. It was also sad to see the demise of some of our popular high street stores including the departure of Easons. We remain confident, however, at the new approach taken by many of our local businesses to adapt to new business practices, including selling online.
I look forward to seeing work commence in the coming weeks on the exciting revitalisation plans for Derry and Strabane town centres. It is important we do all we can to ensure we welcome people back into a safe environment that encourages them to support our local businesses and rebuild our economy.
While I didn’t get the chance to travel overseas, I did have the pleasure of being part of a series of international and cross border events including the first ever virtual Golden Bridges Conference. I also had the pleasure of meeting virtually with An Taoiseach Micheal Martin to highlight the work we are doing in partnership with our neighbours in Donegal County Council to promote the North West City Region as a unique investment proposition, whilst highlighting the need for investment in our infrastructure including City of Derry Airport.
It goes without saying, however, that the highlight of my Mayoral term has been meeting with young people. I think we all agree it’s been a tough time for our children and young people and, fair play to them, they have been brilliant.
Every single day I am amazed at how talented, creative and inspiring they all are. Earlier in the year, I held a series of School Leavers’ events for children moving from primary school to secondary school and who, as a result of the pandemic, didn’t get to say goodbye to their friends. All 15 of these one-hour sessions, held over six days, were a huge success and were extremely enjoyable. The feedback from the students, teachers and parents was extremely positive and I really enjoyed being part of it.
My Easter art competition saw over 1,300 entries from schools across the Council area and I was delighted earlier this month to award jazz bursaries to five local talented musicians. Just last week, I welcomed a number of school groups participating in the ASPIRE project to the Guildhall for a series of socially distanced meetings and was hugely impressed by their tenacity, strength and enthusiasm for the future.
I will never forget my year as Mayor and leave with great memories of this experience. I would like to acknowledge all the staff at Council and my elected representative colleagues for all your support throughout the year. Sincere thanks and appreciation to all my family but, most notably, to my wife Cheryl and children and my parents, who have been just fantastic.
I would like to wish to my successor all the very best in his new role and I look forward to working with him as we continue our journey to fulfil this region’s potential. I look forward in the weeks ahead to spend some precious family time with Cheryl and the wains before returning to serve the public as an elected representative.