Thursday, 1 August 2013

Beyond Recall

What does it take to force a recall of the Assembly? How bad do things have to get before MLAs could be persuaded to forfeit part of their extended summer holiday and clock in at Stormont?

A good old-fashioned political scandal can obviously do the trick. The Spotlight programme's investigation into Red Sky’s dealings had our public representatives almost queuing up to tear strips off one another. The Twelfth rioting (and the Thirteenth, and the Fourteenth...) was of a different order entirely: serious enough to warrant not just an Assembly recall, but to demand only the sombrest of demeanours in the House and a mostly temperate debate.

Unfortunately, economic news just doesn’t seem to cut it – either for the politicians or for the media. Let’s face it: humdrum statistics struggle to compete with the lurid spectacle of mob violence.

So, when the latest unemployment figures were revealed - around the time of the riots - they earned scarcely more than a passing reference in news bulletins (and even then, the focus was on the biggest monthly fall in the North’s jobless total in over a decade).

Mission accomplished for the spin-doctors. No in-depth probing of the statistics. No awkward questions for ministers. A ‘good news’ story served on a plate to a willing media, distracted by violent protest. 

Lurking within the latest figures, however, is a crisis which demands attention at the highest level.

The statistics suggest that while unemployment across the North was mostly falling, and fewer people were signing on, the Derry City Council area was bucking the trend – consolidating its reputation as Northern Ireland's 'jobs blackspot'.

The number of people claiming benefit in the city rose by more than 90 (with only Dungannon – among the other 25 district council areas – also recording an increase).

Any complaint about the weakness of Derry’s economy tends to be met with the tiresome but predictable “Whingers” jibe, but it's worth looking at the evidence.

Among the reams of bumpf issued by DETI was a table recording the “number and proportion of claimants” in each of Northern Ireland’s council wards. There are almost 600 wards on the list, and Derry now has six of the top ten (Belfast has two and Strabane and Limavady have one each).

Derry’s Strand ward sits ignominiously at the very top. Remarkably, both it and the eighth worst ward, Rosemount, abut the University of Ulster’s Magee campus. The 41st highest, Ebrington, has been at the hub of many City of Culture events. And, ironically, residents either side of the Fountain-Bishop Street interface – in the Diamond ward – find themselves shackled together at third place.

I haven’t even mentioned the huge number of people in Derry who are deemed to be 'economically inactive', or those who have upped sticks and left in search of work. And those locals who have been lucky enough to find jobs tend to earn wages below the Northern Ireland average.

So, while a Stormont Committee probes the Spotlight allegations, and American intermediaries seek a solution to the parades issue, there’s far less urgency about the need to tackle the other crisis, beyond the Glenshane Pass.

The Programme for Government 2011-15 suggests, “The primary focus of your Executive for the next four years will be to grow the economy and tackle disadvantage.” The First and Deputy First Ministers write in the document that they are “committed to addressing regional imbalance”.

Delivering on the 'One Plan' would be a start, but they would need to get the finger out. The chasmic regional imbalance isn’t being corrected. Clearly, Derry’s economy is in dire straits. But does an economic meltdown – even on this scale – warrant a recall of our legislative Assembly? Apparently not.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paul,

    Interesting article and somewhat depressing for an 'ex-pat' who would someday like to return home - but to what?

    Any thoughts on how this situation can be turned around? Any examples of where other towns/regions have managed to turn things around? I know a lot of towns in US have gone bust since 2008 and even Detroit itself - the one time economic power house of America has declared banruptcy. Check this documentary out; Very interesting to see how failing to modernise and being reliant on one industry killed an entire City!

    Anyway it would be good if you maybe could find something and blog about how towns are recovering, maybe some of the creative ways people are reinventing the economies in their areas.

    I think waiting for politicians to sort this out means we'll stay at the top of this list indefinitely. Let's be honest - it's much easier to play 'local politics' and score the cheap votes than stick your head above the parapet and deal with real issues and risk losing your seat.

    Anyway. Intersting read!