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Londonderry and the City of London

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2013

It is a great pleasure to open this debate on the 400th anniversary of the start of the relationship between the City of London and County Londonderry. This debate provides an opportunity not only to mark the past but to discuss the future, as Londonderry faces the need for a renewed economic impetus as it continues to emerge from the decades of the troubles.

I suppose that my own experience and knowledge, having been born in the mid-1960s, was of Northern Ireland being the centre of all the troubles, and we are all very grateful that those terrible days—certainly the terrible death toll during the troubles—are behind us. I particularly recall the terrible death toll of 1972 when, as a young boy, Northern Ireland seemed to be a watchword only for these issues. Of course, we cannot be complacent. Only this morning, we hear news of certain issues—not in Londonderry, but in Belfast—that ensure that the security services and others must remain watchful and vigilant in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, we can all be glad that the terrible days that scarred the Province and made such an impact on my own generation are now thankfully behind us.

This year—2013—is the 400th anniversary of the foundation of County Londonderry by a royal charter from King James I.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman from the very depths of my heart on securing this tremendously important and timely debate, and it is a very historic debate at that. He talked not only about the past but the future, and he is now moving on to discuss the events of 2013 and beyond. Does he agree that the recent event in the Guildhall in the City of London was a tremendous marker of the 400th anniversary and that we can build on the links between London and Londonderry to ensure that the economy becomes the driver, to ensure that young people who are deprived are given the opportunity for employment and to ensure that we really build on the history and legacy of the past 400 years?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and naturally I will come on to this issue later. I only hope that the coffers of the City of London will be strong enough to ensure that we will not have to wait another 400 years until there is another such glorious dinner in the Guildhall.

Of course, part and parcel of the creation of Londonderry was the creation of the Honourable the Irish Society, which was created by the same royal charter of 1613. I am sure that everyone here in Westminster Hall today is aware that the relationship between London and Londonderry is one that has had its fair ups and downs during the past four centuries. More importantly, however, the relationship between the City of London and Londonderry presents unique opportunities. In many ways, with the recent focus upon the Northern Ireland economy, the timing for this debate could not be more apt.

I am sure that hon. Members are conscious of the economic problems that we face in Northern Ireland today. The massive imbalance between the public and private sectors is the largest in any British region, and that has created a reliance on public funding that gives rise to some real challenges, particularly in the current economic climate. That imbalance, combined with below-average employment, means there is a strong and pressing need for increased private investment across the region.

I think that all parties in the House accept that urgent action is needed to help to remedy this problem, and I am pleased that the Government have assembled a working group to assess ways in which such investment can be achieved. Although I obviously do not represent a Northern Ireland constituency, I hope that I can play a small part in trying to ensure that that process bears some fruit. I have no doubt that the Treasury and the Northern Ireland Office, alongside their counterparts in the Northern Ireland Executive, are working very hard to find solutions to these problems. A growing, strong and resilient Northern Irish economy will benefit the whole UK.

As Northern Ireland looks for opportunities to boost its economy, this year presents County Londonderry with a distinctive position to begin to address some of the issues that I have mentioned, by utilising and building upon its historic connection with one of the centres of global business, finance and the arts. It is towards this purpose that the City of London, the Honourable the Irish Society, Derry city council and Coleraine borough council have been working together to mark the anniversary with a lasting economic and cultural impact.

Earlier this month, the City of London hosted a day of activities designed to boost County Derry’s visibility as a place to invest in among businesses and investors here in London. That day included an inward investment seminar, organised under the auspices of Derry city council and Coleraine borough council and their respective chambers of commerce, with valuable help from Invest Northern Ireland. The seminar was addressed by a series of business representatives, as well as by Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and the mayors of both Derry city council and Coleraine borough council. It highlighted the potential of the growing technological and digital sectors in the region, as represented by the dedicated digital development projects of Digital Derry and Digital Causeway in Coleraine.

We only need to look at the evidence. The completion of the Project Kelvin communications link will provide County Londonderry with the fastest data link with north America in the whole of Europe. Derry city council is committed to becoming the first city in the UK with 100% fibre-optic broadband availability, and of course the university of Ulster is an industry-focused university with world-class technology research facilities and a dedicated school of creative arts. The digital sector can act as a key selling point upon which to build a modern vibrant economy for Londonderry and for Northern Ireland as a whole.

As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, the seminar at the Guildhall was followed by an absolute first for the city of Londonderry: a dinner at the Guildhall hosted by the City of London corporation and facilitated by Invest NI, on the theme of inward investment. At that dinner, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Deputy First Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the lord mayor of the City of London and the governor of the Honourable the Irish Society all spoke. As someone who was there, I was glad that the speeches were relatively short and the toasts commensurately long, which is the right way round. It was an occasion that should not be underplayed, and it signalled the intention of all those involved in the Northern Ireland Executive, the City of London and—I hope—here in Westminster to move forward and foster a strong working partnership between County Londonderry, Northern Ireland as a whole and the City of London at the highest possible levels.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Although I represent a Belfast constituency, I am proud to say that I was born in Londonderry and lived there for the first 11 years of my life, so I want to see it do well and succeed. Does he agree that with the initiatives that he has referred to—the dinner and the special events, particularly this year—it is important that there is follow-up and follow-through on the part of Invest NI and others? I say that because, wearing my hat as a former Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in Northern Ireland, the thing that I learned very strongly is that the follow-up to any action is absolutely key, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in that regard. Achieving follow-up is an inevitable problem of government, and not just within Northern Ireland. For example, one can look at the important initiatives that the UK Government are making in India. Without following those initiatives through, there is a difficulty. It is not simply a matter of a whole lot of politicians putting on a good dinner and everything else, and thinking that the problem is solved. There needs to be concerted action. I very much hope that all members of all parties in Northern Ireland will play their part in that action, and I also hope that, within the City of London, we ensure that we take on this responsibility, too.

It seems to me that, in recent months, the Honourable the Irish Society has been directly engaging with Digital Derry, Derry city council, Coleraine borough council and other local stakeholders. I am pleased to say that that engagement has resulted in the signing of a unique memorandum of understanding between Digital Derry and the Tech City Investment Organisation in London. It is unique in the sense that it is the very first such agreement to be signed between Tech City and any other UK-based digital cluster. Therefore, it gives a great opportunity, as the right hon. Gentleman correctly suggests, to drive this process forward before other parts of the UK have their chance.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Certainly, Londonderry has come a long way since the days of King James. However, to encourage young people to stay within the city of Londonderry and, indeed, within Northern Ireland, we need to encourage the skills side of things. The economy is starting to move forward, but we need to encourage our young people. As my colleague—my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) —has already said, we need to follow up on these activities to ensure that our young people stay in Northern Ireland.

Of course, as I am sure any of the hon. Gentlemen sitting in Westminster Hall today would be keen to point out, Northern Ireland’s education record is actually fantastic; it is the best of any part of the United Kingdom. It is perhaps the flipside of having such a strong public sector that teaching as a profession is rather more highly regarded in Northern Ireland than is possibly the case in other parts of the United Kingdom. As I say, Northern Ireland has a fantastic record on education. However, as the hon. Member rightly points out, ensuring that that education is built upon with skills that are relevant for the 21st century, particularly in the key global industries that I have referred to, is vital.

Following the signing of this memorandum of understanding, a number of angel investors and media outlets have already expressed a serious interest in the development of the cluster to which I have referred. The signing of this agreement is just the first part of a long-term business plan for further development of the tech cluster in County Londonderry. I hope this will culminate in developing deeper connections to funding networks in and around the City of London, with the intention of creating an investment fund for businesses, supported by Digital Derry, and the development of Digital Derry’s Culture Tech festival and the Ebrington creative hub, through closer engagement with the Tech City businesses.

A renewal of this historical relationship would not be complete without reference to the huge potential not only for economic exchange, but for cultural exchange, especially given Derry’s proud record of and status as the UK’s first city of culture. Throughout the year, there will be a huge number of events designed to feed into this, to mark the history of the Honourable the Irish Society and reflect its present role as a cross-community charity.

June will see a joint performance of a specially commissioned anniversary cantata, “At Sixes and Sevens”, which will be performed simultaneously in the two guildhalls of London and Derry-Londonderry. I am a liveryman at the Merchant Taylors, which is one of the sixes and sevens. Hon. Members may be aware that there is a long-standing dispute, going back more than 400 years, between the Merchant Taylors and the Skinners, which has given us this phrase about being at sixes and sevens. That performance links into City history, and it will be a great success in June. The cantata will be performed by Camerata Ireland and the London Symphony Orchestra, in conjunction with the specially formed community ensembles, presenting a musical representation of the shared history of our two cities.

There will also be a programme of lectures, both in the City of London and in Derry, on the history and development of County Londonderry over the last 400 years.

It would be remiss of me to fail to mention the commendable and important work of the Honourable the Irish Society, whose anniversary has provided such a strong impetus for the programmes that I have detailed today. Each year, the society provides around 100 grants to community organisations across Derry, ranging from local sports clubs to youth organisations and senior citizens’ groups. It works closely with a number of schools and has worked with the university of Ulster, to help disadvantaged pupils from local secondary schools to achieve their potential. It also continues to manage and maintain the Bann river system, which contributes so much to the natural beauty of the area.

I am sure that this year will mark a new era for Londonderry and its wider relationship with London. The prospects on which to build an economic and cultural collaboration that benefits all parties are there. Through the hard work and dedication of those involved—at the Honourable the Irish Society, in Derry and in the City of London—I am sure that this anniversary can provide a genuine catalyst for future growth and prosperity.

The hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the Minister have both kindly indicated that they are happy for hon. Members from Northern Ireland to contribute to the debate. I am happy to facilitate that, because I appreciate that they want to do so. However, we need to leave some time for the Minister to respond, in fairness to him and the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster.

Thank you, Mr Davies. I appreciate your urging brevity.

I commend the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on his initiative in securing this debate, which provides a timely parliamentary opportunity to acknowledge the unique, although not always perfect or agreed or agreeable, relationship between the city of Derry, or Londonderry, and London and the wider county. Of course, the plantation remit given to the City of London was not just confined to the city, although a bespoke charter was given in respect of the city.

It is not a day to try to do a “Horrible Histories” version of events, suggesting that it was all just raucous fun and we can laugh about it now. Like others, I do not want to dwell on the past. I am not here to assert the restoration of the Gaelic ascendancy, or anything like that. We will do that on another day in a digital form, I am sure. However, it is important to recognise that the City of London has been making positive commitments to and engaging positively with not just my constituency of Foyle, which embraces the city of Derry or Londonderry, but the wider county. It is not just the City of London corporation that is involved, as the hon. Gentleman said, but the Honourable the Irish Society.

This is not a new interest contrived on the back of the 400th anniversary—the series of 400th anniversaries—that we have been celebrating in recent years, and it is not just occurring since the onset of the peace process and the more benign environment. The Honourable the Irish Society has engaged positively during the difficult times of the troubles with the Inner City Trust, for example, which worked to preserve the fabric of buildings, and helped restore some that had been damaged in the mad IRA bombing campaign that destroyed so much of the heart of Derry city. The Honourable the Irish Society was supportive in a discreet and sensitive way.

The society has a strong relationship with a number of schools in the city, not least some girls’ schools, helping them nurture some of their specialisms, including in science, culture and the arts. In the wider arts field, the City of London corporation and the Honourable the Irish Society have supported the Playhouse and other key parts of the cultural infrastructure of the city, including the Verbal arts centre and other amenities, all of which helped to create the pedigree that was part of the successful bid for the city to become the first UK city of culture. The society and the corporation supported the city in that bid and were helpful to many people who supported and contributed to it.

More recently, the City has helped to forge the partnership between the Digital Derry ventures initiative and Tech City. As the hon. Gentleman said, that partnership is full of all sorts of possibilities into the future.

During the 400th anniversary, people are creating and forging a new relationship—not hung up about the historic issues around the original relationship or any of the history or experience relating to that, but focused on the now and the future. That is why the event in the Guildhall earlier this month, which the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) mentioned, was so important and positive. It was important not just because of the distinguished people who were present —the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, the mayors and the governor—but because there was an inclusive presence, including all sectors in the city and all sections in the larger county, as well. It was positive in that sense and people have gone away with positive ideas and ambitions and a real sense of commitment, which we will, of course, be holding the City of London to. We will be constructive partners who will contribute in a positive way to the City of London, not just by asking for interest and connections, but by encouraging investment and positive engagement by our own businesses in the life of the city and the wider economy here, as reflected in the spirit of remarks at the dinner, and as the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster indicated.

I support the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) in his debate. Like the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), I, too, pay tribute to the City of London and the Honourable the Irish Society on the magnificent event, both the inward investment part of it and the evening part in the Guildhall recently. I do not want to pre-empt what might be said, but some announcements are in the pipeline as a result of that, and hopefully those will be the first of many announcements.

This issue unites communities across Londonderry, the county of Londonderry and all of Northern Ireland, because this is a positive legacy for the future. As the economy rises out of the recession we have all had to endure, people want us to build on that 400-year legacy. We have to drive forward the skills base alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds). We have to create end products and jobs. We have to motivate the small and medium-sized sector to ensure our connections with the City of London blossom into something viable and progressive for young people, and there are already emerging economies, particularly in the digital sector.

We are getting there, but we need more progress. We need Invest NI to be very committed, and it is. We need to see the end product. This is a tremendous day, and I thank the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster and others for their contributions, which I am sure will be welcomed at home.

It is a pleasure to work hard under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. It is an honour and a privilege as Minister of State for Northern Ireland to participate in this debate to celebrate 400 years of history. As hon. Members alluded to, the relationship has not been the easiest at times, but we are where we are today, and we can take things forward for young people and the community in Northern Ireland.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) on securing the debate. In the short time I have been in Northern Ireland, one thing I have witnessed is people’s warmth and enthusiasm for moving on, particularly when I went to Londonderry for the first time. Actually, there was a bit of enthusiasm and warmth for me, which was interesting—people were very welcoming and friendly. More importantly, however, people were saying, “The past is the past. We can’t remove the past. The past is there. But we have to go forward.” The positive way in which Londonderry or Derry/Londonderry—if I get into the semantics, I will get told off again, but there we are—has dealt with the past, and is dealing with the future, could easily be replicated in more parts of the community, and it is important that people do so.

As we have heard, there are 400 years of history. Some of the language early on was interesting. The Honourable the Irish Society got its royal charter in 1613, but some of the language in it would be deemed somewhat inappropriate today. My researchers found a reference to

“the wretched state of the province of Ulster”.

That was 400 years ago; thank goodness we can talk about the Province in a completely different way now. Her Majesty summed things up when she was in Dublin castle. She said:

“With the benefit of historical hindsight we can all see things which we would wish had been done differently or not at all.”

Certainly, in terms of some of the language of the early days, including the plantation, and all that wonderful history—I say “wonderful” in inverted commas—Her Majesty summed things up brilliantly with that short sentence.

Things are very positive in Londonderry and Northern Ireland. We really have to pinch ourselves when we see where we are and how far we have come from the really difficult, dark times Northern Ireland went through. At the same time, as my hon. Friend alluded to, we must not take our finger off the pulse, and we must make sure that we do not drift back into those difficult times. I, too, praise the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and our security services in continuing to keep the peace. What we saw on the TV again this morning indicates that we must remain vigilant and move forward.

This is not just about the celebrations; there are so many things being announced this year that we are going forward with. The G8 is coming to Northern Ireland, and that was the Prime Minister’s personal decision. That is a huge fillip for the economy of Northern Ireland, and it says to the rest of the world that Northern Ireland is open for business; it is a place where people can come and do business. Only three weeks ago, I met the seven biggest Japanese business men in the UK, who had come to Northern Ireland with their ambassador to see how they could invest. I do not want to pre-empt some of the announcements that will come from the county of Londonderry and Londonderry itself, but I know investments are coming from that visit—those involved have told me that those investments will go forward. We need to do more of that and to sell the benefits of doing business in Northern Ireland and, in the context of this debate, Derry/Londonderry.

Does the Minister agree that one opportunity, as part of the 400th anniversary this year, relates to the fact that Londonderry is the UK city of culture? We can start, on a straightforward cultural basis, to build inward investment and events such as the one the Minister alluded to with the Japanese business people.

I completely agree, and I will come on to the city of culture in a few moments.

The Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury have been keen to ensure that we invest. The Secretary of State has taken a particular interest in the city’s broadband technology, and funding has come from central Government here in Westminster to help facilitate that. While I praise what is going on in the devolved Assembly, therefore, we are also trying to do our bit, and we are encouraging people to go forward.

Another important event taking place in Northern Ireland in the near future is the police and fire games. For those who do not know just how important those games are—as an ex-fireman, I would say this, wouldn’t I?—I should point out that they are the second-largest athletic event in the world, behind the Olympics. They are taking place in Belfast later this year, and they are a huge event. In that context, I remember, as a young man, standing in admiration of Mary Peters as an athlete; I now stand in admiration of her for driving and doing things in the community. Very early in my time in Northern Ireland, I was standing on the tarmac at Belfast city airport waiting for His Royal Highness the Duke of York to come in. I had about 15 minutes with Mary Peters, who is the most inspiring person; it is no wonder she became such an athlete when she has so much drive and personality.

The Minister talks about how far Northern Ireland and the city of Londonderry have come, and I mentioned the days of King James earlier. The Wolfe Tones have now invited my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) to one of their events, although, unfortunately, he is very busy. However, that shows how things have moved on. Will the Minister congratulate the cultural organisation the Apprentice Boys of Derry on their contribution in terms of the history of Londonderry and, of course, the famous walls of Derry?

I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating all the groups he mentioned on the work they do in the community. We were talking about how forward-thinking Londonderry is. As the marching season approaches, people can look across the Province at how it has been dealt with sympathetically and with trust and understanding. There are just as many marches, but the community has said, “We want to move on. We want to celebrate our culture and our history, but, at the same time, we want success for our young people and the community.” As the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) alluded to, it is the young people who matter. We are going to hand things over to them in a very short period; life moves on very fast. However, we must make sure that what we hand over is right and proper for any young generation that comes forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster mentioned the society, and I pay tribute to its continuing work, some of which it has carried out over years and in difficult circumstances. That work is not just financial, but involves mentoring in schools and elsewhere. I hope that continues.

The main comment I want to make relates to something that has been touched on several times. It is all well and good having a lovely reception, with lots of nice speeches, and it is all well and good putting the finance together so that such things can take place. That is great: everybody can go out in their bling, and everybody is happy—but then what? Let us make sure that there is truly momentum to take things forward. The momentum we have at the moment can be accelerated. We should not wait for another celebration or centenary to come along, because that will be too late. The announcements the hon. Member for East Londonderry alluded to are coming soon, but let us build on them and go forward as fast as possible, so that we have a better future for everybody across the community. In that respect, I pay tribute to the way in which the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) contributed to the debate. This has nothing to do with divisions; it is about the future, and that is all that matters.

Sitting suspended.