The development of Derry remains a main priority at senior leadership level in Sinn Féin, vice-president, Michelle O’Neill, has vowed.
Speaking on a visit to Derry yesterday, the woman who replaced the late republican leader, Martin McGuinness, as its Stormont supremo two years ago, said the city’s voice continued to resonate at the upper echelons of the party.
“Martin was always Derry’s voice in our leadership team,” she acknowledged.
“But that voice is still heard loud and clear from our MP for Foyle, Elisha McCallion, and many others who are on the party leadership team.
“Our Foyle MLA, Karen Mullan, is on the Ard Comhairle, so Derry has a strong representation at a leadership level in the party. And anybody who knows Elisha, of course, knows that she is non-stop and does not take no for an answer,” she added.
Mrs. O’Neill was on a whistle-stop visit to the city during which she met with young women from St. Mary’s and St. Cecilia’s colleges and local community representatives as well as canvassing for some of the party’s 15 Local Council Election candidates.
The Sinn Féin vice-president insisted that the party’s commitment to Derry extended beyond rhetoric and that its National Executive was actively trying to promote the social and economic development of Ireland’s fourth city.
The expansion of the Magee College campus through the development of a Graduate Entry Medical School was of particular importance, the former Stormont Health Minister maintained.
“I’m personally interested in the Medical School. During my short time as Health Minister [May 2016 - March 2017] we had started to look at all this.
“Even though we have no Executive we are pushing and fighting extremely hard to get this over the line,” she insisted.
The Mid Ulster MLA said that the conclusion by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) this week, that high expenditure on locum doctors was becoming unsustainable, underlined the pressing need for the development of Magee.
“The locum story shows why you need the Medical School up here.
“The advantages speak for themselves. There is no doubt about it. Whenever doctors train in a certain area they are most likely to settle in that area.
“Given we have shortages in the whole North West in attracting doctors, this is why it’s so important we get it over the line.
“And that is why we are continuing to fight the corner for the Medical School and for the expansion of the Magee College campus in general,” she declared.
Mrs. O’Neill said the completion of the A5 and A6 road projects and the establishment of a ‘City Deal’ can help redress a century of below-par investment in Derry.
“Derry has been no stranger to the heartache of missing out on investment opportunities and all the things we’ve seen down through the years. We need to arrest that and projects like the A5, A6 and the Medical School need to be driven over the line,” she said.
“I raised the ‘City Deal’ in London on Monday when I met with the Secretary of State, Karen Bradley. We are fighting hard for regional balance and we are fighting very hard for Derry.”
As Agriculture and Rural Development Minister from 2011 to 2016, Mrs. O’Neill, oversaw the relocation of departmental headquarters to Ballykelly. She believes in further decentralisation from Belfast to the North West.
“The fact I relocated that lock, stock and barrel shows Sinn Féin’s commitment to the North West. I’m a big believer in decentralisation in general. I brought headquarters to Ballykelly, I brought fisheries into South Down, I brought forestry into Fermanagh.
"We’ve shown our track record in terms of decentralisation. We want to see a lot more government policies lending itself to that approach.”
Sinn Féin, however, has come under fire from its political opponents for a number of reasons, including giving legislative consent to the roll-out of welfare reform in the wake of the Fresh Start Agreement of 2015.
Mrs. O’Neill defends the party’s record: “There are those who are trying to use the issue to score political points. No other party delivered what we delivered which was the mitigation package of over £500m. We did that because we believed we needed to look after the most vulnerable people in society.”
Critics equally accuse Sinn Féin of intransigence over the rights of women, gay people, Irish speakers and people killed by the State.
But Mrs. O’Neill counters: “We believe in the Good Friday Agreement.
“We believe in an Assembly and an Executive, but it has to serve the people well and in the way that it was intended. At the heart of the Agreement was equality and rights and mutual respect between unionists and nationalists. We do need to get back to that.”
She also emphatically ruled out any relaxation of its abstentionist policy.
“Irish interests will never be served in Westminster and we’ll never go in and take an oath of allegiance to a foreign power.
“It’s not the republican way, it’s not somewhere we are ever going to go.”