Friday, 4 October 2013

Living Downstream

The announcement that the American firm, Stream, is creating almost a thousand new jobs in East Belfast will take some of the heat off at least one local MLA, the beleaguered First Minister Peter Robinson. His party has been rattled by allegations – from some of the most strident voices in the loyalist community – of ‘neglect’ of working class Protestant areas. The jobs-boost will quieten those critics for a while, although I doubt whether Mr Robinson will be given much long-term credit by his ‘in-house’ detractors.

While welcomed on Laganside, news of the expansion was received with stunned and perplexed disbelief in Derry, where people feel like they’ve been mugged.

It’s ironic that one Programme for Government commitment – concerning the Maze-Long Kesh project – is regarded as a deal-breaker, while another “addressing regional imbalance as we move ahead” – is not. It really has come to a sorry pass when the only people even talking about the need to “rebalance” the economy are the Tories, and their “semi-detached” Secretary of State Theresa Villiers.  

Stream used to run a substantial call centre in Derry, at one point employing up to one thousand people. What a coincidence. The operation there began to stutter around the time the downturn hit, finally giving up the ghost in 2011. The company now maintains a spectral presence of only 15 staff in Derry. The whiff of rodent is almost over-powering.

I’ve no doubt that most people in East Belfast will say that “Londonderry” should take its oil. But the revelation that the East Belfast jobs deal was lubricated by £3m of Invest Northern Ireland cash makes the announcement that bit harder to swallow in the North West, where unemployment – once endemic – now feels like a contagion. It is frightening that in August – two thirds of the way through its stint as UK City of Culture – there were more people signing on in Derry than at the end of last year.

Among them, I assume, were people who worked for Stream in the past. I have no doubt that they are still perfectly capable of doing so. The company’s reasons for developing its Belfast operation sound unconvincing. I can think of three million better ones.  

Executive ministers must have racked up frequent-flyer bonuses aplenty as they traversed the globe – from Brazil to China – trying to drum up business. If investors in far-off Rio and Beijing can be induced to commit to Northern Ireland, then why can’t they be encouraged to go the extra mile (well, 75 miles, actually), and locate in the North West? If there are logistical, or infrastructural, or skills-deficit barriers to such investment, then why aren’t these being tackled? What of the other PfG commitment to “develop the ‘One Plan’ for the regeneration of Derry/Londonderry”?

There has been much talk, on both sides of the Assembly floor, of the need to build a “shared” future. In the Stormont bubble, that energy has been concentrated exclusively on our very narrow definition of ‘culture’. It should be applied with even more fervour, and much greater urgency, to economic development.

I will watch with interest to see how Stream develops its Northern Ireland operation in future; in which constituencies it creates new jobs; and how INI supports it. I will, of course, apply the same level of scrutiny to other economic development as well, with equal fervour.

Politics here is becoming so reminiscent of the sixties that I fear I’m starting to see things only in black and white. Sometimes, though, monochrome provides the clearest view.

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