I spent a few days in Donegal and Derry last month. Both are geographically isolated within their respective jurisdictions. But they are at the epicentre of Brexit, exposed more perhaps than anywhere else in Europe. Donegal is the only county in the Republic accessed via Northern Ireland from many places in Ireland, including Dublin.
Three thousand people cross from Donegal to Derry every day to work. Many cross in the opposite direction. Both counties are heavily invested in agriculture, which Brexit threatens in a hundred different ways. Donegal has a strong fishing industry. Post-Brexit, the UK is determined to take back control of its territorial waters, which poses an existential threat to Ireland’s fishing communities. Given all of this, the people of Donegal and Derry could be forgiven if they were reacting to Brexit with an air of despondency. But they are not. In fact, they’re doing the opposite, and I found example after example of innovation, determination and cross-border cooperation.
Greencastle is a small fishing town on the Inishowen peninsula, at the mouth of Lough Foyle. Its fleet fishes in UK waters. Its catch is driven to Ireland through Northern Ireland, and to Europe through the UK. The fishing co-op and its members are some of the most exposed people to Brexit to be found anywhere. But when we met, what they wanted to talk about was investment.
They’re upgrading their own facilities. A breakwater, half built, needs to be completed. This will allow safer landings and the building of a deepwater quay. And this quay is, well, the key. It would allow more and bigger trawlers to dock. It would get around the current tidal restrictions. And it would also allow big cruise ships to dock. This is not wishful thinking. The Londonderry Port & Harbour Commissioners run the port in Derry City. They too want the deepwater quay at Greencastle. Some of their team were instrumental in bringing cruise ships to Ireland in the 1990s. They believe 30 ships a year to Greencastle is a reasonable estimate, with tourism opportunities across Donegal and Derry.
This joined-up way of thinking is also being seen at local government level, where a simple but profoundly important mindset shift is under way. And it is this – stop thinking about Derry and Donegal as separate places with separate planning requirements, and start thinking about them as a single region. Let me give you a few examples. If you’re thinking about where to spend a heap of money on motorways, the population of Letterkenny, at around 20,000, won’t make the grade. But link it up with Derry and Strabane (now under the one local government authority in Northern Ireland), and include the hinterland across these three centres, and you’re at well over 300,000 people (Derry is the fourth biggest city on the island of Ireland). Now the road makes sense.
So too do a lot of other things. For example, until recently Derry City buses travelling west from the city centre would stop at the Irish Border, turn around and head back. Now the buses are beginning to cross the Border. Altnagelvin is Derry’s hospital. When its required capacity is being calculated, it has for years been the population of Northern Ireland that was considered. But recently, the regional population has started to be factored in. Letterkenny Institute of Technology is now also working with colleges in Northern Ireland. This new way of thinking is being driven by a collaboration between Donegal County Council and the Derry City and Strabane District Council. They are securing funding, identifying opportunities for better public services, jobs growth and infrastructure investment. They have published a comprehensive report on Brexit, the threats it poses, and how these should be tackled. This crossborder initiative is the best physical manifestation I’ve found on why it’s imperative that no border controls of any kind are allowed to return.
In the face of Brexit, the determination and innovation of the people in the North West, on both sides of the Border, should be applauded. But more importantly, it must be supported. A decent road connection is required to Belfast and Dublin. Money to upgrade the A5 was allocated years ago, but for various reasons it hasn’t yet happened. Broadband roll-out, whenever that finally gets off the ground, will help – but why not consider expanding the programme to the region, including around Derry and Strabane?
Investment in the deepwater quay at Greencastle should be prioritised, along with other targeted capital investments. Any ideas the UK government has about reducing access to UK waters for the Irish fishing fleets should be resisted.
Taken on its own, Brexit is a long list of bad news. Simply minimising the damage isn’t enough – Brexit can be used as the catalyst to do a lot of smart things we should probably have been doing for years anyway. And that is exactly the spirit being demonstrated in the North West.