Nelson Mandela maintained that: “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” That was certainly the case this week as the Enterprise Minister at Stormont, Arlene Foster, hailed the latest unemployment figures as a reflection of Northern Ireland’s “strengthening” economic position. After a seventh successive fall in the monthly rate, the minister’s enthusiasm was understandable.
It is unlikely, though, that her joy was being shared by the hundreds of people who were queuing to find out what was on offer at a jobs fair in Derry’s Millennium Forum, at the precise moment the new statistics were being released. The Employment Minister, Dr Stephen Farry, had talked the event up: it demonstrated that “despite the current economic climate”, employers were still looking to recruit both seasonal and permanent staff and showed that there were employment opportunities for jobseekers.
Those opportunities are few and far between. The new jobless figures showed that Derry had five of the top ten wards for the percentage of residents claiming benefits, including the first and third (the Strand the Diamond respectively) They were joined by Westland (6th), Rosemount (8th) and Creggan South (9th). Strabane's East ward (2nd) vied for top spot, while Limavady's Greystone languished in 7th.
The latest statistical evidence presents a sobering and timely reminder that when the party mood wears off in Derry, stubborn, serious, deep-seated problems remain to be resolved. The city will swap its prized crown as the first UK City of Culture for its more familiar crown of thorns as unemployment capital of the North.
Interestingly, the two Derry ministers in the Stormont executive were on the road (or in the air) this week, battling hard on the economic front. Martin McGuinness was in New York with Peter Robinson, wooing potential US investors, while Mark H. Durkan was in Coleraine, showing solidarity with the 300 DVA staff in the town, whose jobs are in peril. The ministers deserve to be applauded for their efforts to prevent the North’s economy from becoming a desert.
But surely, at some point, attention has to be targeted on the economic crisis laying waste to the North West.
The former US Speaker, Tip O’Neill (who served under three different presidents), recognised early in his towering career that, “All politics is local.” It is a lesson that Peter Robinson has certainly learned over the past 12 months.