A Special Report is content that is edited and produced by the Special Reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report, but who do not have editorial control.

‘The outcome of Brexit is not going to define Derry’

Optimism prevails in Derry despite challenges and overwhelmingly Remain vote

 Peace Bridge: A tangible example of how Derry has benefited from membership of the EU. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Peace Bridge: A tangible example of how Derry has benefited from membership of the EU. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

For a concrete example of how Derry has benefited from the EU, look no further than the Peace Bridge.

The pedestrian bridge, which spans the River Foyle to link the city centre to the Waterside at the former Ebrington army barracks, is the most tangible example of how Derry has benefited from membership of the EU. The £14 million structure, funded under the EU’s Peace III programme, is symbolic of not just the city’s links with the EU, but also Europe’s contribution to peacebuilding in Northern Ireland.

From the Peace Bridge or indeed most of Derry the border is only a few miles away. Donegal has always been regarded as Derry’s hinterland, and the invisible border that exists today is the result of the peace process, as well as shared membership of the European Union.

In the talks leading up to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, shared European membership was a point of commonality; among the consequences of Brexit, many argue locally, is that it has instead emphasised division.

A no-deal Brexit is just incomprehensible for a city like Derry

“Brexit put the Border back into people’s psyches,” is how school principal and cross-border worker Marie Lindsay sums it up.

This area is staunchly pro-EU: in the Brexit Referendum in June 2016, Derry’s constituency of Foyle returned the fourth-highest Remain vote in the UK, at almost 80 per cent.

When the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, visited the city in May 2018, a banner was hung from the city’s walls as a reminder: “Derry Voted Remain”.

“A hard Border would be a complete and utter disaster,” warns George Fleming of Fleming Agriproducts. Based in Newbuildings, Co Derry, the company manufactures agricultural equipment and sells their products all over the world. “That’s based on my experience of having to deal with a hard Border.”

“A no-deal Brexit is just incomprehensible for a city like Derry,” says Gavin Killeen, managing director of Derry-based company NuPrint, which makes and supplies labels and packaging for the food and drink sector.

“The vast majority of businesses here that are of any size or scale trade across the Border and we’re the ones that are going to be impacted.”

Cross-border city

Marie Lindsay:“Brexit put the Border back into people’s psyches. ”Photograph: Getty Images
Marie Lindsay: “Brexit put the Border back into people’s psyches.” Photograph: Getty Images

In the 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, the disappearance of the Border has allowed Derry to become a truly cross-border city. In the village of Muff, Co Donegal, more than 50 per cent of its inhabitants come originally from Northern Ireland and cross the Border daily for work or school; in Derry itself, newer housing developments to the west already reach out to the Border, if not beyond.

“Derry is already a cross-border city,” says John Kelpie, the chief executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council (DCSDC). “About 40 per cent of the functional economic area of the city regionally actually lies in Donegal, in that triangle of Derry Letterkenny Strabane which is the urban core of that city region.

“Derry is the only city which will straddle the European Union-UK border in the years ahead.”

For the local council, making the most of the opportunities which come with this cross-border connectivity is a key part of their plans for the future.

DCSDC’s strategic growth plan is both the framework which will guide the “North West City Region” to 2032, and the city’s protection against Brexit.

“We don’t have a separate plan if Brexit happens a different way,” says Kelpie.

The plan is a balance between ambition and realism

“Clearly there are big challenges – there are very few regions that have such a significant economic frontier running right through its core – but there’s also a significant opportunity assuming the other impediments to trade are mitigated through the Brexit process.

“We have done an analysis of what a no-deal, hard border Brexit might result in from an economic point of view in this area, and the reality is it will make things even more challenging than they currently are, but the solutions are exactly the same projects that we’re working on to improve our economy anyway, it just makes them more urgent.”

Strategic Growth Plan

Regardless of Brexit, the strategic growth plan aims to deliver 15,100 new jobs by 2032; cut the employment rate to 2.6 per cent and have an average wage of £25,000.

Derry and Strabane have long suffered from high unemployment rates and a legacy of underinvestment; three-quarters of residents live in areas which have a higher unemployment rate than the Northern Ireland average, and five of the ten most deprived Super Output Areas in the North fall within DCSDC’s remit.

To meet the aims of the strategic growth plan, infrastructure development – especially the A5 Derry to Dublin route and the dualling of the A6 Derry-Belfast road – are key; so too is the expansion of student numbers at Ulster University’s Magee campus in Derry, and the opening of a graduate-entry medical school.

Jobs will be based on connectivity: both physical and virtual. “Our big growth areas economically have been in health and life sciences, in digital and creative technologies, in financial technology, in all of those emerging knowledge-based industries as well as tourism and the traditional areas of growth,” says Kelpie.

Work is already underway on the A6; work on the A5, which has been beset by legal challenges, is expected to begin shortly

Work is already underway on the A6; work on the A5, which has been beset by legal challenges, is expected to begin shortly. A business case for the long-planned medical school is currently with the Department of Health, though a decision is unlikely to be made in the absence of a functioning Executive.

“The plan is a balance between ambition and realism,” says Kelpie. “Just because projects haven’t been delivered up until now doesn’t mean we don’t continue to strive for their delivery.

“If they are the right projects for the economy then they must be delivered. Ultimately a plan that projects 15,000 new jobs by 2032, and which has already delivered 5,000 of them in the first four years is proof that, while ambitious, it is also deliverable.”

This, according to Kelpie, has been one of the great benefits of EU membership. “It has broadened the horizons of the people who live here, and the removal of the border has provided more opportunities and given people a broader view of the world, and that will continue.

“We are trying to improve this place whether Brexit happens or not. No matter what form it takes, Brexit and the outcome of Brexit is not going to define this city region.”