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19 May 2022

McLaughlin: Derry will always be Belfast's poor brother unless skills and higher education inadequacies are addressed

In an exclusive interview with The Derry News, the SDLP MLA for Foyle, Sinéad McLaughlin, reveals of a productive meeting with Invest NI regarding the image held by many in the North-West of Belfast getting more than the lion's share of investment compared to Derry. But she warns that the Executive needs to do more to help city create a more level playing field in terms of developing a highly-skilled and educated workforce in order to make the region more attractive to potential investors

Sinead McLaughlin

Sinéad McLaughlin: "What I have a really big problem with is that the policy from the very height of government here is not balanced towards Derry."

Derry will always be the “poor brother” to Belfast, warns Foyle MLA Sinéad McLaughlin. “until we address the inadequacies of skills and higher education within Derry”.

Ms McLaughlin, who will be aiming to retain the Foyle seat for the SDLP in May's Assembly election, has just finished a two-hour meeting with Invest NI, the non-departmental public body of the Department for Economy.

There has been much rancour from the North-West towards the body who only last month felt compelled to defend themselves from a motion passed by Derry City & Strabane District Council that called for an immediate review of them.

Barbs have been flung their way over the past year such as Invest NI coming down with 'Belfast-itis' and having an 'allergy' towards Derry.

Harsh but when the figures show Invest NI helping to bring more than a thousand new jobs to Belfast only for very little to be going the other way, then maybe Derry has a valid grievance.

Ms McLaughlin sat down with them to see how both the city and Invest NI can move forward in a more positive way that benefits all parties.

She said: “We spoke for two hours about all things investment in Derry and how we can improve outcomes. We did talk intensively regarding the investment announcements in the past twelve months in relation to the 1500 plus jobs in Belfast and precious few in Derry. We also talked about the barriers to investment and how we can work better collectively in order to get better outcomes.

“I also talked about complaints that I had received regarding companies that were not getting the support that they required in order for them to deliver their investment to Derry. We talked about that in relation to the provision of an assured-skills programmes from Invest NI.

“So we hope we have ironed out those concerns and that those two investment propositions can go forward with support from Invest NI but they're not over the line yet. We hope that we've contributed to unlocking some of that potential.”

However, Ms McLaughlin concedes that Invest NI could do without having one hand tied behind its back – the hand that is inclined to spread investment towards the North-West.

The Department of Economy and its Minister – Gordon Lyons of the DUP – could, insists McLaughlin, be doing more to help create a climate in Derry and the North-West in developing a highly-skilled and educated workforce that would make the region as attractive to investment as Belfast is.

She continues: “We're down to policy here. Let me be very clear – Invest NI have a certain job to do. They do it under a certain terms of reference.

“What I have a really big problem with is that the policy from the very height of government here is not balanced towards Derry.

“Until that changes and until we have higher education skills here in the North-West, we can't compete with Belfast because we don't have the level of skills provision.

“And until Invest NI are instructed within the programme for government, are instructed within their department on sub-regional targets, then investors will gravitate towards where the highest levels of skills are.

“This is a problem that Invest NI can't solve. But it is a problem that government has failed to resolve for fifteen years and it can't go on any longer because outcomes will always be the same as we're not competing on a level playing field.

“The Economy Minister (Gordon Lyons) and his Department have a significant role to play here because it is within their remit to be actually ensure that there are sub-regional targets so that other regions within Northern Ireland can be supported.

“So that means you need to tilt support in their direction but as well as that, there also has to be investment in the programme for government for higher education.

“We have been talking for many, many decades about the expansion of the University (of Ulster) but well-paid jobs and high-level skills are co-joined – they go hand in hand. Without one, you don't get the other and we haven't got one in significant numbers.

“Until we address the inadequacies of skills and higher education within Derry, we will always be the poor brother.”

The collapse of the Executive at Stormont has not helped matters. Although the next election is only just over two months away, investment from businesses could still be faraway for Derry.

Should Sinn Féin become the largest party in the Assembly after May's poll, all eyes will be on the DUP to see if they will work under a Nationalist First Minister or, as they've been threatening of late, will they spit out the dummy in a fit of pique and ensure the Executive remains in a state of collapse.

If that happens, McLaughlin warns that businesses who had been considering investing in Derry and the rest of the North, could be reticent in doing so and maybe move camp elsewhere – such as the Republic of Ireland for example.

She said: “The one thing that businesses love is stability – absolutely. Investors, in a way, want to ensure they are working in an environment that is settled and not at risk.

“There's a lot of economic uncertainty out there with cuts and inflation et cetera – so they gravitate towards stability.

“If you have political instability and you demonstrate that your environment is, potentially, always going to be in waves of political instability – such as the Executive going down now and when it last went down for three years – that doesn't augur well for external investors, but also our own indigenous investors.

“If you have budget instability and the prospect of not having multi-year budgets in place for the foreseeable future, it gives investors the opportunity to say: 'OK if I am spending my money, where do I need to spend it where I can get the best bang for my buck and an environment that is conducive to growing my business?'.

“At the minute, there is too much uncertainty within our economic development here because of that instability.

“We have got a great asset in terms of the Protocol because we have got a trading opportunity within two jurisdictions. And yet we are not maximising those opportunities because of the political fallout and the instability around it.

“No other country in the world would drop the ball with a competitive opportunity advantage, but we have.

“It's very obvious that if you're not working towards a programme for government and if you're not working within an economic strategy that's brought together with other government departments, then you're actually working in isolation and you're dependent on investors finding you rather than seeking them.

“We've got a 10X (delivering a 10 times better economy for the North) economic strategy going forward for the next ten years.

“That was developed within this current two-year mandate. And while the strategy has developed, it's the actual action plan and implementation of that strategy going forward for the next ten years that's really important.

“But you need a government in place in order to see and scrutinise how a strategy is being implemented by the arms length agencies that directed to work on your behalf.

“Who's looking after all of this? It's not government.”

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