Derry’s politicians should stop playing the victim and make more friends and influence people

Steve Bradley’s chastening post on  Derry part 1 is remarkable for its detailed analysis and the volume  of  comment in response -greater I think than for any of the usual subjects I’ve seen in a long time.   Certainly it touches a nerve with me. I left my Derry home to go to school in Coleraine and never lived there again after the fateful year of 1969 when the old order quite suddenly and easily fell apart, an arresting fact its critics tend to ignore.

Part 2  is less convincing although fair enough as far as it goes . Derry is far from unique. It grew from an industrial base that declined like innumerable other places within the British economy. Places in Ireland ‘s west and south had less of a base to lose and  little contact with the blighting effect of the Troubles . More power to the Republic for developing them over the last  30 years. Not so long ago the boot was on the other foot but we all move on.

Just for the record, the photo of leaders of the  University for Derry  march to Stormont shows in between the organising secretary John Hume and Eddie McAteer, the Nationalist party leader and Stormont MP for Foyle,  the guy with the chain, the unionist mayor Albert Anderson, later a junior Home Affairs minister.  Not all the unionists were Dr Robert Nixon’s “faceless men” shamefully plotting to prevent development in order to cling onto the tawdry vestiges of local power.

John Hume leading a protest march to Stormont over the issue of placing the new university at Coleraine.

In answering the question what should be done about it, it would be more beneficial not to sit back satisfied with the usual political answers, the gerrymander and historic discrimination against a Catholic majority, the loss of the Donegal hinterland etc. Their historic validity doesn’t help us much to find solutions unless they force us into examining ourselves as much as blaming others past and present.  One conclusion from Bradley’s posts must surely be that Derry’s problems extend beyond the old communal struggle, now that the age of institutional discrimination is over. Without labouring the point, it is obvious that the policy challenge cannot be answered by ideological slogans whether of the left or the right or nationalist and unionist. The nationalist vision of an integrated north-south economy is a long way off at best and will hardly be expedited by Brexit. But that doesn’t mean that north-south development can’t be part of a bigger package involving all the parties to the GFA which in tbe post-Brexit environment will be more important than ever. British public investment will remain the essential factor long into the future.

Some will say of course that social and economic discrimination are as strong as ever.  Derry has proved a fertile field for the individual voice of protest and polemic like the socialist analysis of Eamonn McCann ( this piece is bang up to date)  or the liberating public confessionals of Nell McCafferty.      However compelling  their writing,  the business of economic  prescription is not really their thing. Passive analysis is not enough

It’s not as if various anciens regimes made no efforts to develop Derry.  The excellent  locally produced history Atlantic Gateway records great energy and innovation to develop a mercantilist  linen economy with the American colonies from 1700; Derry merchants based in Philadelphia shipping immigrant labour out;  exporting  flax seeds for  linen manufacture back home .  In the end they were defeated by economies of scale further to the east.

Remarkably that pattern continued in one form or another until almost the present day.  The shirt making industry, BSR record turntables, the cross border enterprise of Fruit of the Loom, Courtauld’s, inward investment came and went, undercut by successive waves of global competition and some of the worst excesses of speculative capitalism. Only Dupont dating from the Faulkner period of incentives for the synthetic fibres industry stuck it out,  even though the  IRA murdered its local manger Jeffrey Agate in 1977.

The Derry of my childhood  experienced the last gasp of a local economy based on local ownership.  It had featured mineral water manufacturing and whiskey distilling, bacon curing, iron turning, agriculture markets. A  thriving port was based on coal and grain imports and exporting live animals and timber for pit props in the coal mines.  Derry’s strategic position in world war left behind the Royal Navy base to the mid 60s and a US naval communications base to the early 70s.

Better than most, today’s Derry folk  can beat their own drum. They have been brilliant at self advertisement through popular culture from Dana and Phil Coulter through Fergal Sharkey to Lisa McGee. Derry UK city of Culture in 2013 was a unique opportunity given by a UK committee under the Department of Culture, the first of its kind.

With the end of the Troubles, predominately nationalist Derry had no hesitation  in embracing the unique British and Protestant heritage as a reconciliation statement that could also be monetised, After the Provos stopped trying to destroy it, they together with government turned the Planter heritage of walls, cathedral and siege memorabilia from a symbol of  oppression  into a prime asset for tourism and  deftly grafted onto it the painful legacy of the Troubles. After decades of taking a terrible battering, the old city has never looked better. Millions have been spent on sprucing up the historic sites and the public space. The spectacular conversion of Ebrington Barracks and the construction of the Peace Bridge funded by EU Peace money linking the west and west banks of the Foyle  carry an obvious message of reconciliation and progress. Look closely though, and you can see plenty of dereliction amid the renovation. The  problem is that although heritage has thrown Derry a lifeline as a tourist venue, it can never create enough jobs.

London – Derry’s links with the City of London continue through the Honourable the Irish Society, the group of City livery companies who were the first developers. They still provide great contacts and award useful   grants although not major investment   as far as I know.

So I have a few uncomfortable questions.

I’ve attended many jolly receptions in the august portals of the City of London to sing Derry’s praises and fret about its performance and prospects. Speakers have talked about their laudable individual efforts. But nobody has ever offered a tough and unsparing diagnosis of Derry’s problems and suggested major solutions. Why not?

Although partly discounting the pre-Troubles history in a search for solutions, I’d like to know a lot more about the underlying impact of 30 years of conflict between occupying troops and local guerrillas in such a tiny field of battle.  Has it created a culture of expectant reward, entitlement and status that is out of kilter with modern realities and is bound to breed disillusionment, introversion and loss of morale? In short, Is Derry still a sort of no go area?

If so, what are they going to do about it? The responsibility lies with all sides but the initiative must rest with the newly dominant Sinn Fein.

Bluntly does public investment produce better value for money elsewhere?

With all its travails the population of Derry s has doubled in my lifetime. Why was this and is city now too big to deliver prosperity in the so-called remote region of the north west?  Some may feel this is the wrong question. But please spare me the disgusting accusation that I’m saying they breed like rabbits. Might moving out of the city as teenagers not be better seen as enterprising social mobility rather than the occasion for Danny Boy lament?

Brexit will be a regressive move whatever happens but does it not present a challenge to create more rather than less cross border development?  What are the lessons for the political parties?

Ideas for developing the university campus and the skills base overall  should of course be a major priority but they are medium to long term initiatives. Are there any short term fixes?

What are the elements of a regional strategy not necessarily limited to Northern Ireland, which would significantly improve the prospects of Derry and the north west?  Bear in mind that a lot of cross border thinking concentrates on developing the eastern corridor between Belfast and Dublin where most of the population of the island is located. But nationalists please note. It is more  important to consider development in a UK context where social inequality is very much a political issue and where most of the investment comes from.

Even a functioning Stormont will never wholly manage the local economy. But the refusal of both parties  to raise more of their own revenue emphasises their dependency. The DUP’s confidence and supply deal may have secured an extra £1 billion but it will do little to increase growth in Derry or anywhere else. The question of what can be done is also one about governance, of political parties taking more responsibility for their own conditions in Derry and everywhere and creating a sensible dialogue with the British government.

Looked at narrowly, the DUP and the UUP will presumably want to do all they can check the seemingly inexorable “greening of the West.” The death of Martin McGuinness  robbed Sinn Fein of a pragmatic leader who had developed an understanding of cooperation in politics. Sinn Fein should not misuse their recent electoral success in Derry to rely on their traditional rhetoric of endless complaining to the British government while at the same time  denying its legitimacy. It rules them out as serious players in delivering for Derry and everywhere else. As John Hume might have said, you cannot eat a border poll.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London