No break for the Border

 

Michael McVeigh does not give up easily. He has put a lot of time over many years into trying to improve his community, in the Co Donegal Border town of Pettigo. He remembers November 7th, 1995, when politicians flocked to the town to be present when Mary Robinson, the then president, opened Lough Derg Journey Heritage Centre.

The building is still a bright white - unfortunate, given that it is now generally regarded as a white elephant. A brass plaque on the wall, a reminder of the day, says the centre was part of an International Fund for Ireland initiative.

Inside, the downstairs of the building is bare, save for a few bits of furniture left lying around. A small mosaic on the wall is the only reminder that this was once a place that was supposed to attract visitors. Upstairs, a local woman who started a sewing business toils over chefs' suits, along with the three women she employs. She says she's finding it hard to keep going.

McVeigh, a long-time member of ADOPT, the Association for the Development of Pettigo and Tullyhommon, is sounding dangerously close to giving up. Pettigo is in decline and nobody in high places seems to care.

He has no doubt that the Border is to blame. Sitting squarely in his chair, arms folded, he is a builder with a Northern talent for straight talking. "The people around here never wanted a border: it was imposed on them."

He says that, a long way from the centre of both jurisdictions, the town was left cut off from much of its hinterland when British security forces closed roads during the Troubles. Now, authorities on either side are doing little to repair the damage.

Between 1991 and 1996, the population declined by 13.5 per cent, to 320 people. McVeigh says there is no reason to believe there has been any significant turnaround since.

The people of Pettigo have cause for complaint. There is no Bus ╔ireann service, the banks have pulled out and there isn't even an ATM. The doctor for the area is based in Donegal town, 15 miles away, over a bog road that is often very dangerous in winter. A surgery is held two mornings a week.

ADOPT runs a F┴S course; McVeigh says that, with 12 places, it is probably the biggest employer in the area. Pettigo was clearly once a more important place: quite a few imposing business premises have been closed up.

In contrast, other buildings have had obvious facelifts under the International Fund for Ireland initiative, showing cleaned stone and hanging baskets. But funding for a streetfront clean-up, which covered only part of the town, is not going to save ailing businesses.

Roger Timony, a full-time development officer with ADOPT, says he has worked in many areas of the Republic, but Pettigo "is easily one of the most deprived". ADOPT is arguing that because places such as Pettigo cannot attract industry, the State should make the first move.

And as they were the ones to suffer most from the Border and the Troubles, the offices of cross-Border bodies set up under the Belfast Agreement should be located in such areas. The vast majority of jobs created in these bodies have gone to towns and cities that are already well developed.

Tourism would be an obvious money-earner for Pettigo, but Timony says the area has lost out in funding to places such as Bundoran. Because the population is in decline and there are few professional people left living in the town, the voluntary committee does not have a pool of people to draw on when it comes to preparing grant applications and accounts. Because of a lack of young people, it is even finding it difficult to make the committee large enough to meet requirements set down by the EU peace and reconciliation fund.

Changes to the rules governing F┴S schemes are also not taking realities into account, he says. While the strength of sterling has benefited businesses in many Co Donegal towns, Pettigo does not have enough shops to make any great gains.

Lough Derg, with St Patrick's Purgatory, is only a few miles away, but McVeigh says it has very little economic impact on the town, which makes sense given that people generally go on the pilgrimage to practise self-denial.

In a local pub, a pilgrim en route to the island inquires if she can get a cup of tea to take away, which in a publican's mind must be about as bad as two foreigners sharing a glass of Guinness.

But publicans don't have to rely on pilgrims, as there is plenty of passing trade, particularly in summer. It is the crossing that most Northerners use on their way to Donegal town and the south of the county.

Fidelma O'Riordan, who runs Pettigo post office with her brother, says the sterling difference has improved business in her shop. And foot-and-mouth restrictions were also a blessing in disguise, as Northern holidaymakers, who would normally bring their own supplies, had to stock up on rashers, sausages and dairy products when they crossed the bridge a few yards from her shop.

Cigarettes also sell very well, given that they are about a pound cheaper than in the North when the exchange rate is taken into account. Both Irish pounds and sterling are accepted at the till.

While Northerners also now cross the Border for their petrol, O'Riordan says she cannot think of anything that is cheaper in the North, except perhaps bars of chocolate. People in Pettigo go shopping in Enniskillen, but mainly because there is a better selection of shops, she says.

People would gladly cross into the North to take advantage of health and education services, but it isn't as simple as it used to be. Until about a year ago, people in Pettigo could go to GPs in the North, but for a number of reasons, one of them being professional insurance, this has now stopped.

One Donegal GP says she has heard of incidents where people with addresses in the Republic have been turned away from the hospital in Enniskillen.

A spokeswoman at the Erne Hospital in Enniskillen responded that in general anybody from the South who arrives at Accident and Emergency is treated free. She said people are never turned away, but "within reason" - if somebody has a cold or flu, for example, they are advised to go to their GP.

Some Southern patients attend the hospital privately, in particular for the ENT and skin clinic, having been referred by Southern doctors. The hospital also has a block contract with the Southern health authorities to provide an ENT service in a number of Border counties, and consultants from the Erne Hospital travel to these areas to hold clinics. This is paid for by the Southern health boards.

Childcare, surprisingly, is one of the few services Pettigo can boast about. Little Smarties, a sparkling new community playgroup, is packed with multicoloured toys and run by trained staff. A small committee of women took the initiative and secured funding from a range of sources, including a small amount from the authorities in the North.

Now the only problem, says committee member Geraldine Cotton, is to keep it open when the three-year grant from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform runs out. Fewer than 10 children attend the playgroup, although it is clearly an excellent facility. This year's summer camp attracted more than 60 children, about a third of them from the North.

Most families in Pettigo send their children to Ballyshannon for their second-level education, but some also attend school in Enniskillen, about 20 miles away.

O'Riordan says she has been lucky enough to get her son, who has special needs, enrolled in Enniskillen. She believes he is getting a much better education than he would in Co Donegal. A bus from the school comes as far as the Border to pick him up.

McVeigh has also experienced the failings of the Republic's health services. His 25-year-old son suffered a brain injury in a road accident two years ago. He was initially helped by Rehab.

Afterwards, it seemed that as far as authorities in the Republic were concerned, it was enough to give the young man a disability allowance and leave him to sit at home for the rest of his life.

The family has now taken the extraordinary step of buying a house in Enniskillen to get a Northern address, so their son can attend a day-care centre in Co Fermanagh. Otherwise, he would not have been eligible. Instead of sitting at home, he is taking part in a full programme of activities, including computers, yoga and swimming. In Donegal, he didn't get to see a neuropsychologist; now he sees one every week.

Ironically, the failed heritage centre is going to help to improve health services in Pettigo. With the premises that the visiting GP uses described as "primitive", ADOPT, which owns the heritage-centre building, has got backing from the North Western Health Board to turn it into a health centre.

Perhaps, back in 1995, someone should have realised that it was basic services, rather than heritage centres, that the people of Pettigo needed.