Fifty years ago this June, a caravan was used to block the Lecky Road in Derry’s Bogside in protest at Londonderry Corporation’s housing policy. The Unionist-run council retained control over the majority nationalist city at that time by discriminating against Catholics in housing and votes. The caravan protest represented a marked escalation in tactics by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC), who shortly afterwards contacted the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and persuaded them to hold a demonstration in the city in October 1968. When that peaceful demonstration was met with state violence, the thirty year conflict known as The Troubles began. As the theory of the ‘Butterfly Effect’ asserts, minor events can sometimes have unexpectedly major consequences. Every fire must begin with a spark.
It may seem unlikely, but one line in the Budget speech made by the UK Chancellor in November may turn out to have similarly unexpected consequences. As part of his 90 minute Budget monologue, Phillip Hammond announced that “upon restoration of a Northern Ireland Executive, the government will open negotiations for a city deal for Belfast as part of the government’s commitment to work towards a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland to boost investment and productivity”. His announcement was trumpeted in the Northern Irish media and warmly applauded by institutions in Belfast, but greeted with an outcry in Derry – and for good reason. The Council and politicians in NI’s second city have been lobbying robustly and consistently for a City Deal for four years. Much preparation work has been done for a deal by the local authority, with their proposal ready for sign-off. Belfast City Council, on the other hand, only began actively pursuing the idea of a City Deal in late Spring of this year, and is still busy working on its proposal. Worse still – by talking of “a set of city deals across Northern Ireland”, Phillip Hammond has left open the slim possibility that other Northern Irish conurbations could also benefit beyond Belfast and Derry. So the part of Northern Ireland that has been late to the game on City Deals was singled out to lead the initiative on its own, whilst the palace which has its proposal ready to go didn’t even warrant a mention – and may have to compete with other areas for the crumbs left once Belfast has attracted most of the funding and attention.
Doubtless some outside of the north-west will fail to fathom the outrage felt on Foyleside by this snub, or will dismiss it as ‘second city’ whingeing. But it is just the latest episode in the long-running saga of Belfast being ushered to the front of queues whilst Derry and its legitimate needs have been repeatedly left in the cold. The announcement of the £1bn Tory-DUP deal to keep Theresa May’s government afloat earlier this year identified the York Street Interchange as the only specific infrastructure recipient within that funding. That was despite York Street never being an agreed priority for the Northern Ireland Executive. Instead, other long-standing Executive infrastructure priorities which are still not fully funded (like the dualling of the A5 and the A6 roads, and the upgrade of the Coleraine to Derry railway line) were completely over-looked in that announcement. Likewise when it came to the relocation of Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus. That would have been the perfect opportunity for the University to fulfil its decades-long promise to significantly expand its operations in Derry, where a proper university has been demanded for over fifty years. And it would have saved the UU a small fortune, given the relatively low land prices in Derry. Instead they chose to spend over £300m creating an entirely new campus in the centre of Belfast, and added insult to injury by moving more than 100 members of staff and courses away from Magee. Time and again, long-standing promises to deliver the basic ingredients needed to help transform Derry’s faltering economy are broken in favour of investment and prioritisation in the Greater Belfast area.
The argument for investment in Derry’s transport and education facilities was won decades ago. The city has the worst infrastructure of any on the island – with no motorway or dual carriageway connection, and the most isolated train station on the island’s network[i]. Derry also has the lowest student provision of any of the 15 towns and cities on the island which offer Higher Education courses. Full-time students account for only 4% of Derry’s population – vs 21% in Coleraine, 34% in Galway, and 14% in Belfast once the new UU campus opens there[ii]. Poor infrastructure and a lack of educational opportunity have conspired to burden Derry with the worst unemployment of any city in the UK for years. The Foyle constituency had a claimant count of 7.6% in November – almost two and a half times higher than the Northern Ireland average (3.2%), and over 70% higher than the rate for Belfast City (4.4% – which had the second highest unemployment of any council, after Derry City & Strabane District). Derry also has by-far the worst figures for child poverty in Northern Ireland, with as many as two out of every three children in certain neighbourhoods living below the poverty line. Unsurprisingly the city also has the North’s worst health statistics too. In any other part of the UK or Ireland a city perennially blighted in this way would have received special remedial attention long ago. But not in a Northern Ireland where the majority of resources, energy and attention flow largely towards Greater Belfast. Regardless of who has been in power at Stormont over the years (and all five major parties here have held ministerial portfolios at some point) there has never been a genuine acceptance of the need to deliver greater regional balance throughout Northern Ireland in general, or to focus on improving Derry’s situation in particular.
The outrage expressed at Derry’s recent City Deal snub may therefore have been less about surprise and more a reflection of a changing mood and spirit on Foyleside and a palpably growing restlessness. In short, Derry and its people have had enough – and early signs of a 1960’s-style spirit of organisation, defiance and dissent appear to be slowly emerging. The roots for this arguably stretch back to Derry’s year as the first UK City of Culture in 2013. There is little evidence on the ground today to show for that accolade in terms of a physical legacy. Even calls for the temporary building that housed major events throughout the year to be kept in the city were ignored by Stormont, with the structure popping up as Belfast’s new Titanic Exhibition Centre instead. What the City of Culture year did leave, however, was a definite psychological legacy. After so long being made to feel like Ulster’s bridesmaid, 2013 gave Derry the confidence to believe it could have – and was worthy of – its own time in the sun. The city realised that it no longer had to accept its lot, but could instead elevate its ambitions and horizons to demand and achieve so much more for itself. Derry’s City of Culture year was therefore an exercise in civic lamp rubbing – with a new genie of confidence and expectation emancipated through the process.
Perhaps the first impact this wind of change had on politics locally came in the 2016 Assembly elections, when veteran activist Eamon McCann was returned as an MLA. It proved a surprise to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, who had each held aspirations to return 3 candidates locally. McCann’s election was a ballot box-based expression of the frustration that twenty years of Stormont and the Peace Process had left Derry facing many of the same issues it had suffered when the Troubles began. Nationalist politicians received a further bloody nose in that election when McCann’s party colleague Gerry Carroll stormed to first place in West Belfast, as nationalism as a whole expressed frustration at Stormont’s inability to deliver change. The DUP’s ill-advised slights on Irish identity saw McCann edged out by a resurgent Sinn Fein in the snap Assembly election in March last year, and the party also went on to win the Foyle Westminster seat by a whisker for the first time in June. But they won’t have RHI and crocodile references to distract voters from a lack of Stormont delivery in every election in future. Nor are the DUP themselves insulated from this growing restlessness on Foyleside. Their sole MLA there, Gary Middleton, scraped into the city’s fifth and final Assembly seat in March’s election by only 663 votes over McCann. With the DUP seemingly more of a hindrance than a help to the city, Middleton’s seat certainly appears vulnerable in future contests. Disenchantment remains with Stormont’s inability to deliver for Derry, and it will doubtless have political consequences if left unaddressed.
Politics is not the only realm suggesting a shift in Derry’s fighting spirit, however, with civic and community outlets also growing voices for change. One such example is a new self-styled social movement called ‘Your Derry’. Began from scratch last Summer, in only a few months it has grown into a Facebook-based organisation with over 5,000 members, working on a range of projects to improve the city. It’s stated aim is to cultivate a more positive mindset locally and to enable ordinary people to make a difference for the city, and its creation was in part inspired by the failure of politics to deliver locally. Other longer standing groups have also found their voice emboldened and amplified lately – such as the ‘Into the West’ rail lobby group, which is currently channelling local disenchantment over Translink’s plan for the city’s rail station.
An unwillingness to continue accepting second best may also be manifesting itself in less constructive ways, with Dissident Republicans seeking to make inroads locally. It was not by accident that the new dissident political group ‘Saoradh’ held its first ever Ard Fheis in Derry recently. They view the failure of politics to deliver locally, combined with Derry’s high youth unemployment and the uncertainty and threat presented by Brexit, as recruiting sergeants for their cause. Disaffected people who feel they have nothing may also have nothing to lose.
So how did Derry find itself excluded from the Chancellor’s City Deals announcement in the first place? Party politics has rendered Sinn Fein at best luke-warm towards a City Deal for the North West. The SDLP, and in particular its former MP Mark Durkan, seized the initiative on pushing for one back in 2014, and since then Sinn Fein’s political instinct has been to down-play and dismiss it as a result. Even as anger grew in Derry following the budget statement Sinn Fein were still muddying the waters by calling for a bespoke local City Deal that would somehow have a cross-border element. The party has no real influence in Westminster, however, so it is the DUP who appear to have been the villain of the piece here. Their political instinct is generally to prioritise the needs of their support base in the east of the province, and their deal with the Tories has given them unprecedented influence upon the Government. With the Tories knowing little about Northern Ireland, it was the DUP who pressed for the inclusion of City Deals in the Chancellor’s speech. And it was doubtless they who also ensured that Belfast was given the lead role, with Derry not even warranting a mention. Opinion will vary on the extent to which Derry’s exclusion was evidence of either a Belfast-centric outlook or a desire to inhibit Derry from within the DUP – but neither of Northern Ireland’s two main parties have being energetic advocates of a City Deal for the north-west.
Twenty years on from the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland’s second city is showing little signs of any peace dividend or improvement in its lot. Derry still has the highest unemployment in the UK, the worst infrastructure on the island and the lowest university provision. It is still hampered by a weak economy that is abnormally reliant upon the public sector and low-paying retail jobs. Its young people face poverty, unemployment and a lack of opportunities, which leads the brightest to leave annually in their droves (mostly never to return). All whilst a flourishing Greater Belfast continues to absorb the majority of public funds, private investment and political attention within Northern Ireland. In times past this would have led merely to a collective shrug of the shoulders within a city where things have always been so. But just when it looked like Derry had lost its fight, a new home-grown 1960s-style spirit may be bubbling up again on Foyleside. Bolstered by a new confidence and ambition, the city is no longer prepared to settle for second best. New positive civic movements are empowering its citizens to fill the void left by political failure – unfortunately balanced by more destructive forces also assembling. The outrage felt on Foyleside at being unjustly sidelined in the allocation of City Deal status within NI is just the latest example of the city no longer choosing to meekly accept its lot. Many outside of the north-west may fail to fathom what the fuss is about – just as many outsiders doubtless wondered why a caravan was placed across the Lecky Road 50yrs ago. Every fire has its spark, and with indignation burning again in Northern Ireland’s second city it’s unclear where this particular incandescence may lead.
[ii] See article : https://sluggerotoole.com/2016/10/13/educating-ulster-northern-ireland-has-a-chronic-shortage-of-students-whilst-belfast-has-too-many-and-the-west-of-the-province-has-too-few-the-solution-is-obvious .