Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Wheel of Fortune

Final preparations are being made to ‘the Derry Eye’, the big Ferris wheel which will briefly dominate the Ebrington skyline and offer a new perspective on the UK’s first city of culture. From Friday, for a £3 fee and from140 feet up, the less faint-hearted will get an exhilarating view of one of the most historic cities in Ireland. (You can, by the way, get a similarly stunning view for free, on terra firma, at nearby Gobnascale).

The Giant Wheel will no doubt be a big draw for locals and visitors alike, but one wonders whether it is an attraction or a distraction. The same site hosted a circus recently and last Christmas it was home to a skating rink. As the ancient Roman empire declined, the satirist, Juvenal, observed that ‘panem et circenses’ – bread and circuses – were the last remaining aspirations of a once great population. Has Derry embarked on a similar path?

It is ironic that the Giant Wheel is being erected on a site managed by Ilex – the urban regeneration company aiming to deliver the “best regeneration any city on these islands has ever seen”. Ilex deserves some praise for Derry’s physical renewal but its economic impact – in admittedly challenging times – has been far less obvious.

April’s new unemployment statistics brought further evidence of how badly Derry lags behind the rest of Northern Ireland. The number claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance in the Strand ward finally crashed through the 20% barrier. A frightening 20.1% of its working age population are now ‘signing on’. The Diamond follows close on its tail – at 19.1%.

Derry has five of the top seven highest claimant rates for council wards. The claimant count for the council area as a whole is 8.4% – well above the Northern Ireland average of 4.9% and far ahead of Northern Ireland’s lowest, Castlereagh (2.9%). Factor in an inactivity rate well above the Northern Ireland average and we are witnessing a deepening economic crisis. Yet the talk almost everywhere else, it seems, is of “recovery”.

Even allowing for the redundancies announced in Belfast on Tuesday, it was still a good day for the city. The software company, Vello Systems, confirmed that 15 jobs were to go, but the IT firm, Novosco, revealed that it was creating 50 new posts at its offices in the Belfast Science Park – a net gain for the city of almost three dozen high value jobs. It would be churlish to begrudge them.

On the very same day, though, there was more bad news for Derry. While Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster – looking radiant in pink – beamed proudly on a tour of Novosco’s offices at Queen’s Island, staff at two workplaces in the second city were bracing themselves for the worst. Nine posts are going at City of Derry Airport (how’s that for a vote of confidence in the region’s economic future?) and another 20 are in danger at the Lough Swilly bus company.

I would love to take our MLAs – all 108 of them – cram them into the Giant Wheel’s pods, and make them spin round and round until they realise their duty to the people living in the streets below. It would provide welcome respite from the current grind of canvassing and, in any case, they seem to enjoy going round in circles. They’re certainly comfortable surviving in their own wee bubbles, cut off from the rest of the world.

The local councillor who was attacked by a dog while canvassing this week should get used to the experience. It’ll be surprising if more politicians aren’t savaged on doorsteps over the next month or so. Cave canem. Beware of the dog. And beware of the voter.  

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