UUP leader Mike Nesbitt says those who preach a shared future in Londonderry need to place the Fountain top of their priorities list.
Mr Nesbitt made the comments during a visit to the Cathedral Youth Club in the estate on Friday (February 14) in the company of former party leader, Tom Elliott, and local party members Mary Hamilton and Ronnie McKeegan.
The visit was ostensibly prompted by a series of sectarian attacks on the predominantly Protestant estate over recent weeks.
Mr Nesbitt explained: “Well, we wanted to just come up and show our support because, as you know, over the last couple of weeks they’ve been having it very tough with sectarian attacks.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s just the odd wrong-thinking youth or whether it’s a more sinister thing, it’s still oppressive and Tom and I just wanted to come up and show our face and say we’re with them.”
The UUP delegation had the opportunity to witness at first hand the sterling work being done by the staff and volunteers at the community hub in the heart of the estate.
The politicians were advised how the Youth Club provided a focus of activity for young people in the area and was key in discouraging any retaliation against the provocation of recent petrol bomb attacks.
But it was also made clear that dereliction - the Youth Club stands a matter of metres from the collapsed former Unionist Party headquarters in Kennedy Place - and social deprivation are chronic issues in the Fountain.
Although the Department of Social Development (DSD) plans cleaning the pavements and replacing damaged street lighting in Fountain Street and recently announced £37,000 for the renovation of a pathway linking New Gate to Bishop Gate, Mr Nesbitt believes much more needs to be done.
“There has to be a political will and then there has to be the resource to come after it in order to fund and develop it,” said Mr Nesbitt.
“But if we’re talking about a shared future, then you have to look at an area like the Fountain, which has become something of an enclave, and say to yourself, are we going to continuously let it run down and just let it take its chances?
“Are you going to say: symbolically it’s so important in terms of showing a vision of a shared future, that we do invest in this, that we say to the people of the Fountain, we are putting you up at the top of the list because you are a beacon, for everybody else, and if the community around, come in and support as well?
“And we can all condemn and keep an eye out for the people, who are throwing petrol bombs and are attacking areas like this, then we can show that there is a better way forward for everybody in this city,” he declared.
The UUP leader said it was his third visit to the estate but his first time visiting the Youth Club.
He believes a lot more investment should be directed to the area.
“Absolutely. I think it’s the litmus test when you say the Fountain in Londonderry. If we are all talking about a fair, equitable...all the things that we talked about during the 1998 agreement, you know, equality of opportunity, mutual respect, mutual trust, those tests are not necessarily being passed in the way we’re looking at for the people who live here in the Fountain,” he said.
A key shortfall in terms of social amenity in the Fountain is the lack of a top quality fixed play park for the children of the area.
Jeannette Warke, Co-ordinator and manager of the Youth Club, said it’s a particular issue that needs to be addressed.
“Every young person has the right to play and it stimulates their growth and so forth. I feel, it’s time now, they started, and looked at the Fountain and saw that we need a proper play park.
“We had to get Cornerstone to come and help us to provide that temporary play park as it is. It’s only a wooden structure, that’s literally there two, no three coming, summers. It’s falling down. We need a play park!”
Last week £1.75m was granted from the £80m Social Investment Fund (SIF) towards capital investment in play facilities in Ballyarnett, Ballymagroarty and the Daisyfield, but not for the Fountain.
Mr Nesbitt said a lot of people have been left in the dark over the SIF allocations, including the Stormont Committee for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM), which he chairs.
“People are wondering: What on earth is going round? It’s £80m that’s effectively been sitting in the OFMDFM bank account for three years.
“Is anybody telling me that dereliction is getting better without that money on the ground? Is deprivation getting better without that money being spent on the ground?
“Absolutely not. Things are not improving. And how can anybody keep the money in the bank for three years and then not explain, openly and transparently, how you’re spending it and why.”
The senior UUP figures left the Youth Club fully apprised of the issues facing the area and carrying information packs providing details of the work carried out at the club. They were also gifted photographs of Londonderry for their Stormont offices.
Mrs Warke welcomed the visit but hoped it wasn’t just another flesh-pressing exercise.
“Let’s see what happens. Look, I’ve done lots of these talks and everything before and hosted these visits and to be honest with you, they go away and that’s the end of it. So let’s just see, let’s not jump the gun. Wait and see what comes out of it and if something positive comes out,” she told the paper.
She said she hoped they were more aware of the issues having visited the club in person.
“I think that’s what it is. It’s all about making them aware of what’s going on here in the Fountain.
“How they can help these young people, how they can sustain this youth club...now they see themselves how important it is, the volume of work that’s coming out of here, and the programmes and projects, the cross-community work, the cross border works, so, I mean, it’s up to them now.”