Londonderry MP Mark Durkan has suggested the balance of the £3billion bailout of the formerly bankrupt Republic of Ireland by the United Kingdom could be used to help drive economic development in the North West.
Mr Durkan said repayments of the huge loan, which will continue until 2021, could be paid directly into North South bodies and could help support imaginative cross-border developments such as an enhanced university for Londonderry.
He asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ben Wallace, if he will “talk to colleagues here in Whitehall about whether, when we next sit down to serious negotiations about taking Northern Ireland forward economically, some of the money that the Irish Government are having to repay to the UK Government to cover the loan could be earmarked to support north-south funding mechanisms?
“It could also support British-Irish measures through the British-Irish Council, and it could be used to encourage much more co-operation between the devolved regions, the London Government and the south. Such an identifiable pool of money could be earmarked for some constructive and imaginative investments that would release all our energies and capacities, not only in Northern Ireland but throughout these islands.”
Elsewhere, Mr Durkan expressed scepticism at claims the economic outlook has improved significantly for ordinary citizens.
“Listening to the hon. Members for Upper Bann [David Simpson] and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), it would have been easy to be lulled into a culture of contentment with all this talk of economic miracles and the economy going well, or, as the Deputy First Minister put it a few weeks ago, the economy being in a ‘happy place’.
“The reality is that in my constituency the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count is 10.3 per cent, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 4.6 per cent and the UK average is 2.5 per cent.
“The 18 to 24-year-old JSA claimant count is 12 per cent in my constituency in the north-west, whereas the Northern Ireland average is 5.8 per cent and the UK average is 2.9 per cent. The disparities are similar in the child poverty rate.
“Although the emphasis in the previous programme for government, and from the UK Government, has been on the need to rebalance our economy - the move on corporation tax is one part of that - we also need to rebalance our region. We need greater investment in the west and elsewhere.
“We cannot just have policies and benefits that concentrate on Belfast.”
He suggested a City Deal for Londonderry could also be used to support university expansion.
“Will any prospective City Deal include support for further university expansion? Why could there not be a cross-border dimension? We have made a move on corporation tax, but if we are to learn lessons from the south, we must see that it is not just corporation tax that has underpinned its economic performance.
“It is also key investment in higher education and skills and in infrastructure. Those two things are missing in the north. In fact, the Northern Ireland Executive have been going the wrong way on higher education, which is no criticism of the outgoing Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry, who has done a key job on skills and apprenticeships.”