Omagh: Searching for reasons to be cheerful in difficult times
The Belfast Telegraph’s penultimate Tell Us About It roadshow in Omagh discussed topics as diverse as integrated education, shopping appeal and depression. Here we publish extracts from the interaction between the public and panellists.
Education, the economy and trade were all high on the agenda during the Belfast Telegraph’s Tell Us About It debate in Omagh on Thursday night.
The seventh of eight debates across Northern Ireland produced a lively discussion hitting on several key themes affecting the west Tyrone community.
With plans for a cross-community education village at Lisanelly, integrated education was one of the major topics on the agenda.
So too was the economy, with a debate on what could be done to boost Omagh’s appeal as a shopping destination. The topic of tackling depression was also raised.
The panel — chaired by Lynda Bryans — included West Tyrone councillors Glen Campbell and Paddy McGowan; Michael Cunningham, who is managing director of the Recyco recycling company; Loraine Griffin from Omagh Chamber of Commerce, and Martin Hill, representing the Belfast Telegraph.
Here are some of the key points from the debate.
QUESTION: What can be done to boost Omagh’s appeal as a shopping destination?
Paddy McGowan: “Omagh is thriving against all the odds. The town has a difficulty in that there isn’t a big area for shopping. Work is progressing on three major projects which, if they come to fruition, will really enhance Omagh. One of them is at the old Scott’s Mill where the proposals include a cinema and large shopping arcade. Also, on the Derry Road, there are plans for a big shopping mall. I think there is a great future for Omagh.”
Glen Campbell: “Omagh finds itself in a positive position because there are proposals on the table which each have a huge degree of merit. It is very positive in terms of the jobs that could be created from the construction sector and from the new businesses. They are exciting developments and, if they proceed, they will attract people into the town. We have the magnificent Strule Arts Centre and Omagh at night is an enviable sight. So even in these difficult times there are reasons to be positive.”
Loraine Griffin: “We are very optimistic about Omagh’s future. We have a lot to offer as a shopping destination. We have multinational businesses coming to the town and a very good independent sector which brings people into Omagh. The chamber of commerce is working very hard with the council and other agencies to promote Omagh in the run-up to Christmas and beyond. We are also looking at social media, and are using the theme Omagh: What’s Your Story? It is quite a unique marketing strategy and one we are very excited about.”
Michael Cunningham: “If these new projects do happen then well and good, but we have to deal with the here and now. That means coming up with imaginative proposals for bringing people in. Maybe a creche facility – if people spend £100 or more in Omagh they can leave their children in a creche for a few hours. We should be looking at bussing people in as well. Also, are we going after cross-border trade enough? Derry, Enniskillen and Newry have all benefited but there is a belief Omagh isn’t tapping into it enough.”
Martin Hill: “There are a lot of exciting things going on in Omagh, but in the independent sector it really comes down to finance. There is a story in the local newspaper, the Ulster Herald, tonight about a businessman whose overdraft was reduced from £137,000 to nothing overnight. In the independent sector it is about banks’ confidence and engendering confidence so that the banks will lend to smaller businesses.”
QUESTION: Six per cent of children in Northern Ireland are educated in integrated schools, so why does the provision of shared and integrated education here fall so far short of the public demand for it? (From Nigel Firth, principal of a local integrated school).
Glen Campbell: “Integrated education has great benefits and there is a wider debate which needs to happen. There is a project for a cross-community education campus at Lisanelly which makes economic sense in terms of shared facilities and integrating schools — if not completely, then at least on the one site.”
Nigel Firth: “I think the shared campus is a fascinating and imaginative idea. In terms of trying to shape Northern Ireland for the future, let’s bring people together in any way we can. Integrated schools offer the ideal blueprint and I think Lisanelly is an amazing idea.”
Paddy McGowan: “There is a lot of work to be done before widespread integrated education can come to fruition. The churches have a very strong hold on schools. We can’t just turn round overnight and force children into the one place. It may well come at a time in the future, but we’re not ready for it yet. Lisanelly is a very good start, but we need to know what’s going to happen there.”
Martin Hill: “Half the schoolchildren in Northern Ireland are educated in the maintained sector. Before we get too far on, we have to ask the Catholic parents why they send their children to Catholic schools. Is it down to a Gaelic cultural thing or simple academic excellence, better schools, better results and so on? We can’t afford duplication of schools. We have crumbling schools with declining rolls, each with a minibus sitting rotting in the car park. We just can’t afford it.”
Michael Cunningham: “If the Lisanelly campus goes ahead — and the vast majority of schools have signed up for it — my fear is that outlying schools will all close. Education will be centralised in Omagh, hitting jobs. The reality is, however, there is not a penny out there and the Lisanelly campus is a pipe-dream. I can’t see it happening.”
Loraine Griffin: “Lisanelly is a very exciting development, not just for Omagh but for all of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I would like to see it go further. Rather than just bringing the status quo together, we should be thinking much further ahead, creating something like a super-school. We can’t go on having two of everything, it makes no economic sense.”
Glen Campbell: “The Education Minister has visited Omagh and is very supportive of the project. We will be pushing to make sure the money is there.”
Michael Cunningham: “My worry is the vacant sites that will be left behind by the schools who relocate. Who will buy them? There are plenty of vacant sites around Omagh already that can’t be bought because banks will not provide the finance.”
QUESTION: Could the media and political leaders focus more on talking about job creation rather than about the lack of money? Should people be encouraged to set up businesses as an alternative to job hunting and could students be educated to be good employers as well as good employees?
Martin Hill: “The Belfast Telegraph has been campaigning to have corporation tax lowered in Northern Ireland, in order to encourage inward investment. As a newspaper, we have to cover job losses if those are happening, but we also carry the stories about successes and job creation.”
Michael Cunningham: “There are still opportunities out there. The Belfast Telegraph is also campaigning to get value for public sector money. There’s an opportunity to cut rates bills by 35% and create 50 jobs if bin collections were put out to private sector tender; let the councils tender too if they want. Waste can also be used as an alternative fuel source, but trying to deal with local councils and get them to take on these ideas is like getting blood from a stone. I think we’re getting bad value for money from our rates.”
Loraine Griffin: “The problem in this area is we have an overreliance on public sector jobs; there’s no doubt we do need to expand the private sector and we do need more entrepreneurs and people do need to think like employers as well as employees. There is a huge problem with waste in our public sector.”
Glen Campbell: “We do need to be solution-focused, we can’t just be doom and gloom. We need proposals to make efficiency savings and to get better value for money at all levels. Following the Review of Public Administration which should have gone ahead, Omagh District Council is working closely with Fermanagh in order to make savings. We live on an island of 6.2m people and we have replication of everything — bodies promoting tourism and job creation, health services — and we believe there’s a lot of potential for money to be saved, we want an all-Ireland approach. We want to make savings before we attack the public sector any more.”
Paddy McGowan: “Waste is one of the most serious problems that all councils face, and will get worse, and recycling is a big issue.
It’s a very expensive issue at that. If you were to read one of our local newspapers, millions and millions of tonnes of waste has been dumped illegally in our countryside. I know Michael’s (Cunningham) intentions are good and he does a very good job, but I don’t think it’s as simple as recycling waste at the moment. These things are not as simple as they might look. The idea of private sector tenders is being reviewed and that day may not be far away.”
QUESTION: I work with Aware Defeat Depression. One in four of us suffer with depression. If you had depression, would you talk about it? If you knew your GP or MLA had depression, would you trust them?
Michael Cunningham: “Depression is a very serious illness and I think it should be talked about more, it can be a taboo subject. People should talk about it, get it out there and deal with it. If GPs have it, so be it.”
Loraine Griffin: “These things affect people differently, so I just can’t generalise.”
Glen Campbell: “I think we need to encourage people to talk about mental illness. As much as we’d think it’s not, it is still a taboo subject that people don’t like talking about. In a previous job, I worked at a company supplying equipment to an event in Belfast which was being held for Suicide Awareness Week. There were a lot of young people there and it was a very powerful event. I think people, given that type of opportunity, can talk about mental health and I think that’s very important. I would trust my GP or MLA. Everyone in their life is likely to suffer from some form of mental illness. It might take them some time to get back on track but shouldn’t impair their abilities.”
Paddy McGowan: “Coming from a family background of somebody with depression, I am very well aware of it, I can assure you. I have great sympathy for those people and there is more depression about than people realise. The current situation we are all in is making it far worse too. As far as trusting my MLA; if I thought they had depression and weren’t dealing with it, I would tell them to have it dealt with. There are great outlets for help, in this town as well, where people with depression are very well looked after. I don’t think my GP having depression would concern me. Coming from that background, they would know what to do and where to go. Depression cuts across all classes, it knows no bounds.”
Martin Hill: “Cuts and job losses and changes to welfare benefits aren’t going to help the situation at all. I’d like to think if I had depression, I would have the bravery and the courage to talk about it. If my GP or MLA was suffering from depression, I might admire them more for talking about it. Certainly I would have no hesitation in confiding in my GP if they had depression.”
10 facts about Omagh
1 Omagh is the largest town in Co Tyrone, covering a population of 22,182, according to the most recent estimate.
2 The town is said to owe its origins to an abbey founded in 792AD, making it one of the oldest in Ireland.
3 Omagh is twinned with East Kilbride in Scotland and, L'Haÿ-les-Roses, France.
4 In 1689 on his way to try and end the Siege of Derry, James II arrived at Omagh. Supporters of William III burnt the town. James’ rebellion later ended in defeat at the Battle of the Boyne.
5 The town's large military barracks closed in August 2007. There are plans to turn the site into a shared education campus.
6 Famous visitors to Omagh have included the Queen, Prince Charles and former US President Bill Clinton.
7 Omagh has a history of flooding and suffered major floods in 1909, 1929, 1954, 1969, 1987, 1999 and, most recently, June 2007.
8 The town has a strong association with music. Songwriter Juliet Turner is from Omagh, so too 1992 Eurovision Song Contest winner Linda Martin.
9 Other famous people include best-selling author and newspaper columnist Martina Devlin and former Irish rugby international Willie Anderson.
10 Healy Park, Tyrone GAA’s county ground, has a capacity nearing 25,000, and was the first GAA stadium in Ulster to erect floodlights.