Declan Hasson on business: A reflection on the legacy of Derry regeneration company Ilex

The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MLA, Sir Roy McNulty, chairman, Ilex, and Aideen McGinley, Chief Executive, cutting the first sod on the Peace Bridge at Ebrington in 2010.
The Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MLA, Sir Roy McNulty, chairman, Ilex, and Aideen McGinley, Chief Executive, cutting the first sod on the Peace Bridge at Ebrington in 2010.

In the spring of 2010, the Urban Regeneration Company, Ilex were working through its vision for Derry.

Set up in 2003, Ilex considered its function was to “champion sustainable economic, physical and social transformation in the city.”

Its Chairman, Sir Roy McNulty, acknowledged at the time that dozens of different plans for the economy, the arts and tourism already existed.

The regeneration company’s aim was to develop one holistic plan for Derry – one plan – one vision for the city to 2020.

Ten years on, we can now reflect on what went wrong and what went right.

By 2010, Ilex had no less than 231 proposals for regeneration on the table, but its principle focus was to manage three key development projects – Fort George, Ebrington and a new river crossing. Ilex believed that, together, these three projects had the potential to transform the city’s economy.

For Ilex, the new river crossing was a critical element in the overall regeneration plan for the city.

Interviewed in 2010, the then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Ilex, Aideen Mc Ginley, commented: “As well as physically and metaphorically bridging the river, it’s about the opportunity to open up the whole of the Ebrington site. For the city, the new bridge will be a very important symbol of confidence and of moving forward.”

Following a lengthy period of public consultation, the Ilex proposals for Ebrington ‘settled’ on the concept of an Arts and Cultural cluster, with state of the art office space, business incubation units and a boutique hotel.

The proposals also included provision for a military and maritime heritage centre and interestingly, a ‘home’ for 400 years of records of The Honourable, The Irish Society.

Central to the ‘Arts and Cultural’ theme were the proposals to develop the site’s Parade Ground, which, as Aideen Mc Ginley pointed out, would be potentially one of the largest outdoor performing venues in Northern Ireland, capable of handling up to 14,000 people.

All this fed in perfectly to Derry’s bid to become the first UK City of Culture. Whether by accident or design, the vision that Ilex had for Derry all those years ago was to become pivotal in the City of Culture decision-making process.

When the decision was announced in July 2010, that Derry’s bid had been successful, Ilex became a partner with the then Derry City Council (DCC) in plotting the way forward.

The Culture Company was subsequently set up to manage the year- long festival of events, but despite its huge success, controversy soon followed on the all-important issue of ‘legacy’.

Although not directly accountable, Ilex found itself ‘connected’ to a saga that sadly involved accusation and recrimination.

Most commentators were surprised that there was no real plan to build upon the success of the ‘City of Culture’ year.

A golden opportunity was lost and all the positive momentum in the build-up to 2013 was overshadowed by the unfortunate ‘squabbling’.

In an attempt to rescue the initiative, the then Minister of Culture, Carál Ní Chuilín, announced a three-year legacy plan in November 2013, that for many people fell far short of what was required.

At the time the Minister pledged to focus “not so much on the big ticket events but on local communities learning from the year and flourishing through culture.”

She also approved funding to purchase a mobile marquee “which would enable deprived communities to host events such as the hugely popular tea dances.”

The Minister’s strategy was a million miles away from that being proposed by The Culture Company.

The year, which had attracted over 600,000 people to a programme of high-profile events and show-cased Derry at its best, was sadly confined to the history books.

The spectacular Return of Colmcille, the Lumiere Light Shows, Music City, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann , The Royal Ballet, Radio One’s Big Weekend, the Sons and Daughters Concert, The Turner Prize and the first ever International Choral festival were just some of the stand out moments in a memorable year. From all that, only the Choral festival has endured.

In a depressing post-script to what should have been, the same minister announced fifteen months later that there was to be no budget provision for Derry’s legacy projects.

For Ilex and the city it was helping to regenerate, the fall-out from 2013 was a setback. In reflecting on a decade of opportunity, one might be forgiven for remembering all the disappointments. But no-body can fault the ambition.

Ilex had a clear and well researched vision for Derry. Its challenging brief was to deliver on a realistic set of proposals for the regeneration of Derry and its community, principally through the development of the vast Ebrington and Fort George sites, comprising over forty acres of strategic riverfront land.

It can look back with pride that progress has been made, albeit more slowly than planned.

Its original proposals are as relevant today as all those years ago.

While Ebrington’s development continues along ‘original lines’, there are concerns that the vision for Fort George as ‘a knowledge hub’ may get compromised in time.

While the 2010 - 2020 decade has witnessed its fair share of setbacks, we shouldn’t lose sight of the ultimate prize.

The Ilex vision, as conceived at the start of the millennium, still has the potential to transform our city, our community and our fortunes.