Brexit or not, the borderlands are changing…

Recently amongst all the usual Brexit coverage, the Economist took a different angle when assessing the impact of any sudden change to the border here. They went to Derry/Londonderry and presented a story very different to the doom and gloom of a hard border.

The City Deal package, currently still under negotiation, was planned not just with the city in mind but the entire cross-border region. The Derry/Strabane district including the northern Donegal area have a combined population of over 350,000 people. Large swathes of northern Donegal are suburbs feeding the factories and businesses of Derry city with skilled labour every morning – Monday to Friday (approx. 15K commuters daily). As noted by the Economist, Donegal county council and DCSDC form joint delegations when touting for trade in America and elsewhere.

In Letterkenny, there are plans for the large market town to be granted full city status by the Dublin government. It has a fully-fledged independent ‘institute of technology’ which offers degree and non-degree courses and training; plugging the skills gaps for the region (in a way that Ulster University should observe).

It should come as no surprise to any reader that border areas (north or south) experience ongoing levels of underinvestment.  What is different about the Economist’s approach was that they made the point that whether Brexit occurs or doesn’t, this region was looking beyond the border. Derry somewhat leads the way as it is the only Northern Ireland settlement to be included in the Ireland 2040 plan. For the other border regions of Armagh city area, Enniskillen/Omagh and Newry this could prove to be a massive loss.

Like Derry’s work with Donegal, Newry has had a thriving cross border trading zone with neighbouring Dundalk – since the GFA and the A1 dual carriageway. Building on the strengths of large North-South ‘city regions’ could finally bust the myth that all economic development needs to be Belfast centric. However, it still proves difficult as ‘super councils’ (even more devoid of ideas than their predecessors) have been dumped with a remit of ‘economic development’ to which no joined up approach can ever be successful.

Contrary to many of the suspicious mutterings of some, the DUP and Sinn Fein have much more to gain from the economic success of this place than they do in making it Dublin or London’s costly burden. It has been calculated that the uncertainty created by the Stormont hiatus has cost our economy £1bn in new investment. This we can ill afford, £1bn of investment in the wake of mass job losses this week should shock all into action.

Any new executive cannot be ‘business as usual,’ we cannot have flagship policy being solely based on a patronage system of whom the ministers and parties deem appropriate for funding. The British-Irish council should be used as a vehicle to draft serious cross-border regional plans that would have agreed ringfenced funding. This may tackle the temptation in some of our reps to get an ‘easy win’ of building yet another business park (with no business) or for spurious reasons divest programmes within such a vacuum of accountability.

There does seem to be an acceptance in DUP/Sinn Fein circles that the lack of primary legislation was quite damning in the last administration. I would propose that a good start to the cross-border city regions idea is that each ‘city region’ have its own statute clearly outlining the powers of the authorities within them and setting out accountable objectives which would also compel all public bodies to regional investment targets (Invest NI – take note!).

Might I add for those who will inevitably comment with ‘unity is the answer’ that any reunification of Ireland will not reunite our community here. The scars of internal division seep into the economy too and the sooner we realise this, the better.

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