Tackling the neglect of the North West
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
The appalling neglect and consequent social economic problems experienced in the Border regions, especially the North West, led Derry Sinn Féin Comhairle Ceantair to host a major conference on the potential for Cross Border Economic Regeneration in the Region.
The conference was held last Saturday in the Calgach Centre in Derry City. Over 100 people, including many representatives of community and campaign groups in the Derry/Donegal region, attended.
We need to turn around this centrist attitude of the Executive in Belfast and the Dublin 4 set
The conference also brought together many leading Sinn Féin representatives from across the border regions, including members of the Assembly Bairbre de Brún, Mitchel McLaughlin, Pat Doherty, Barry McElduff, Michelle Gildernew, Gerry McHugh, councillors Arthur Morgan and Gerry MacLochlainn, and the current Mayor of the City, Cathal Crumley.
amazingly wide representation from community groups participated, including the Equality in Further and Higher Education Group, the Galliamh/Shantallow Partnerhip, the Creggan Investment Initiative, the Bogside and Brandywell Initiative, a representative from the Derry Trades Council, the Foyle Basin Council, the Group for Innocence, Truth and Justice, the Amelia Erhart Association, the Foyle Friend Group, the Creggan Network Partnership, the Foyle Fisheries Management Group, the Federation for Ethical Investment Group, Conradh na Gaeilge, the Derry Ethnic Community Group, the Police Liaison Committee and the Moville Shell Fish Association.
They discussed the question of economic regeneration in the border counties, which have been characterised by inequality, neglect and isolation on a wide band of issues. They discussed health, rural decline, waste management strategies, the economy and transport infrastructure, and social needs. The introductions given by the Sinn Féin representatives covered an immense canvas and programme for change in Ireland.
Bairbre de Brun opened the conference with a keynote address, where she spoke of the good co-operation at local level between the Health Boards, and all-Ireland co-operation with her counterpart, Micheál Martin, in accident and emergency, cancer research, health promotion and medical technology, all those issues identified in the Good Friday Agreement for All Ireland cooperation.
However, the minister pointed out, ``we have one of the highest death rates from coronary heart disease and cancer in Western Europe The disparity in health of the rich and poor is an outrage. The evidence is clear - the better off you are the longer is your life expectancy.''
These are deep faults in the health system. There are similar faults in the neglect of infrastructure, and transport, as outlined by Barry McElduff, and in levels of investment and the need for decentralisation, discussed by Pat Doherty.
Michelle Gildernew spoke of inequality evident in both states which has caused unprecedented levels of political, social, cultural and economic exclusion throughout the country. ``Targeting Social Need (TSN) is a phrase that rolls so lightly off the lips of government ministers,'' she said. ``We need an all-Ireland approach, not just to zero waste (so well discussed by Gerry MacLochlainn, in a fine and detailed argument he put to the conference) but ``also to zero poverty,'' she said.
Cross-border is not synonymous with All-Ireland
These fault lines of inequality, each in their own way, highlight the reality that working in the cross-border context is not synonymous, as Bairbre de Brun pointed out, with work on an all-Ireland basis. They address different needs and goals.
Mitchel Mc Laughlin focused on this issue in his summary of the political implications of the day's discussions.
``The All-Ireland strategy addresses the necessity to construct all-Ireland foundations, now, in a range of areas, in preparation for eventual reunification,'' he said. ``The Cross-border strategy addresses the need for delivery of services in an efficient and cost effective manner to communities which have been directly disadvantaged by the imposition of the border.
``The benefits of an all-Ireland strategy are obvious. Benefits will accrue in areas such as energy, transport, telecommunications, economic development, education, health, waste management, agriculture, housing, poverty, rural development, tourism. But the political and policy changes needed to drive them forward are not yet available to us.''
``This is our challenge,'' McLaughlin continued. ``We are not politically strong enough yet to command that these policy imperatives be applied. We are still confronted by the same power blocs, whether it be in Dublin or Belfast, and we are still not strong enough to effect the change that is necessary.
We can and will continue to build, but these issues require building alliances, identifying and creating consensus, if we are to effect that change now.
``We need to ask ourselves some questions. Do we believe that we can address all these issues simultaneously? Will the `scatter gun' approach force change or will it better serve the interests of those who oppose change? Should we adopt a more focused approach?
``For instance, can we build up provision of thirrd level and Further and Higher Education and retain acute hospital services? Can we develop the rail and road systems and simultaneously demand that the social housing deficit be eliminated? We can go through our list, but without a focused approach they will be unachievable.''
Campaigning for the future
Arthur Morgan, Louth County Councillor, addressed the conference on a campaigning structure for the future. ``How real is the economic isolation of the North West Region?'' he asked. ``We only have to look at the recent example of Dublin's decision to bring gas onshore through Galway to Dublin. Who needed it more, Dublin or the whole North West Region?
``How do we turn around this centrist attitude of the Executive in Belfast and the Dublin 4 set? We need to develop a whole new structure that will have the capacity to deliver real change to the whole West, and begin to introduce some of this thing called `Equality'? Who can we depend on to undertake this task?
``In the first instance, it's the people of the areas, the local communities. We must strive to empower them and their political representatives on the local authorities.''
Mitchel reiterated the point in a wider context in his summing up. ``Sinn Féin is aware that we are a campaigning party. It is our defining characteristic as a party. We know that we will not lose our focus or identity by working on consensus issues. Let us radicalise and empower others by demonstrating that change is achievable.
``Local regeneration plans begin with harnessing our anger, our energy, our experience and forcefully directing them towards those who control financial and political institutions. Change leads to more change. Empowerment leads to power.''