Sinéad McLaughlin is an SDLP MLA for Foyle and is the SDLP spokesperson for the economy
For the last 14 years, Northern Ireland has been led by joint first ministers from Sinn Fein and the DUP. This leadership was supposed to deliver prosperity after the peace that was delivered by the leadership of John Hume and the SDLP.
But instead of prosperity, the North continues to have some of the worst economic outcomes anywhere in Western Europe. My city of Derry has the highest levels of poverty, unemployment and economic inactivity. But it is not just Derry that is suffering. It is the same situation in Strabane, West Belfast and East Belfast. These are the areas that have suffered the most from the neglect of Sinn Fein and the DUP.
I will give an example. It was 19 years ago that the Fort George site was agreed to be transferred to the people of Derry from the British government. It was supposed to be transformational for Derry. There were plans to make it a marvellous example of how this place can move forward – exploiting a prime riverfront location that would make our people proud.
Instead, it is still almost empty. It has a telehouse for Project Kelvin – itself another disappointment for delivery for Derry – plus one Catalyst business incubation centre. That is all, unless you now include its use as a stacking area for McDonald’s to eliminate what had been a terrible risk of a major car accident. Now we merely have Fort George waiting for something to happen. Yes, we have the promise of a health hub on the site. But to be honest, we should all be fed up by now of promises waiting to be fulfilled.
Nor is it just Derry. What about another major site transferred to the care of our government on behalf of our people. I mean here, the Maze site. This is the perfect metaphor for joint government by Sinn Fein and the DUP. Row followed by row, lack of delivery followed by lack of delivery.
Which brings me on to our universities. Making Derry a proper university city was one of the demands of the civil rights movement, over 50 years ago. It is perhaps the only demand of the civil rights movement yet to be delivered. Despite 14 years of joint leadership by Sinn Fein and the DUP that demand has yet to be delivered.
There is crystal clear evidence that expanding the higher education sector in NI will be good for our economy. But government in Northern Ireland refuses to be evidence-led. If we had evidence-led government, the finance minister would put far more resources into skills. It would recognize the result of holding down the size of our university sector – not just the economic harm, but also the social harm, the dislocation of families, the loss of skills, the impact on innovation and invention, the impact on our cultural and arts sectors and civic life. The impact on wages and productivity…….the list goes on.
All this flows from the refusal of government to be led by evidence, and expand our university sector, to allow the continuation of a brain drain resulting from having only 60 university places here for every 100 applications. We have a bizarre situation going on here, where the Sinn Fein spokesperson in the South is calling for more funded university places and the Sinn Fein minister in the North continues to preside over capping university places, forcing our young people to leave our island and most of them never to return,
There is no point the Sinn Fein finance minister blaming the DUP economy minister for this failure. Their two parties are in joint leadership of this Executive. They have been for 14 years. They have to step up and get things done, and put aside their constant mutual recriminations and blame game.
And I say this to the Sinn Fein finance minister. He should be more than the pawn delivering on behalf of the British government. He needs to be bold, to be a leader, to think for himself, do more than just accept the way things have been done in the past and the way the British government wants him to act. He needs to deliver for the North of Ireland, not for the British government. He needs to stop playing the fiddle for the British Treasury and start putting together a vision for Northern Ireland, if he needs help on how this might be done – look & learn from the Scottish and Welsh finance ministers.
It is past time for the two largest parties to remember for whom they govern. It is not just for themselves and their party members.
They are leading this administration and they must lead. They must deliver. And that means delivering for those most in need – those who are on the longest health waiting lists; who are leaving school without the skills and qualifications they need; those who are struggling to pay their fuel bills and so have cold homes; those who can’t get or afford childcare and so can’t get a job; those who have no jobs, because there are no jobs in their area; those who are super intelligent, but can’t go to university because there are no local places for them and they can’t afford to move away to study.
Those are the people this joint leadership of Sinn Fein and the DUP are failing. They are living in those areas that are suffering the worst poverty. That is West Belfast, East Belfast, Strabane, Derry. The finance minister, the economy minister and our joint first ministers need to remember this and remember for whom they are supposed to be delivering. Because those are the people they are failing.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.