Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

The absence of leadership that has left us all at sea

Ed Curran
Ed Curran

A weekend tour along the north coast of Ulster, from Donegal to Antrim, is a salutary experience in these days of economic recession.

Malin Head, the most northerly tip of this island, marks the spot from which people waved their last goodbyes as the emigrant ships set sail for America over a century ago.

What tears were shed? What anguish must have filled the Donegal air as friends and relatives assembled on the rocky promontory and watched their loved-ones leave these shores, often never to return? The emigrants sailed up the Foyle estuary and, as they turned out into the wild Atlantic, their final sight was of bonfires lit on Malin Head.

Today, sad farewells have returned to haunt many a home in Ireland, north and south, as the jobless figures rise and a new generation is forced to go abroad to seek a livelihood.

An estimated 50,000 young people are expected to leave the Republic this year - and who knows how many more from Northern Ireland?

There are no emigrant ships, no bonfires. The vapour trails of transatlantic jets, spiking out from the coast of Ireland, signal a 21st-century route for the new heart-breaking exodus. North, south, east and west, there is no escaping the recession, nor any sign of it ending soon.

We are all in this together, suffering the same economic scars as were evident as I travelled from the breath-taking natural beauty of Malin Head and the Inishowen peninsula to the equally stunning landscape of counties Londonderry and Antrim.

Pristine new holiday homes in Donegal are for sale at knock-down prices. Pockets of housing developments on the outskirts of towns and villages remain unsold and deserted.

From Greencastle in the Republic, I take the ferry and arrive at Magilligan in Northern Ireland.

Women and children are queuing outside the Magilligan Prison entrance to visit inmates. It's a pathetic sight, a reminder that crime is likely to increase as the jobless figures rise.

Benone's golden strand nearby and the Causeway coast scenic drive present a different image of a land with an unmatchable quality of outdoor life. But even amid such magnificent scenery, the signs of recession are inescapable.

Portrush has become a tarnished stone in the midst of a jewelled crown. A recently erected sign at the entrance to the town proclaims 'Home to US Open champion, Graeme McDowell'.

If I were Graeme, I might not feel all that proud to have such an association. Recessionary gloom exists around Portrush's every corner. Northern Ireland's premier seaside resort has fallen victim to the property market collapse more severely than most other towns.

Just as the eye takes in the new apartment blocks, sold and unsold, which have been replacing the old terraces in recent years, so there is no escaping the dismal, run-down nature of many streets.

What I recall from my childhood visits to Portrush, such as the Metropole Hotel, is now dangerously derelict and roofless. Down Kerr Street, building after building is crumbling and dilapidated. For sale signs are everywhere. Sold signs are hard to find.

Where will it all end, we may well ask ourselves. Judging by the performance of the Stormont Executive and the parlous state of the Republic's politics, no answer blows in the gale-force winds of this recession.

Another week passes and Executive ministers continue to contemplate their collective navels, as they have been doing for months over public spending cuts.

The ministers employ more consultants and announce more public inquiries. No-one seems to be able to break the cycle of inaction.

The procrastination of our Stormont politicians is beyond comprehension. What are they playing at?

As Stormont sat beyond midnight last week, the five leaders of the south's main political parties debated the future on television - not an encouraging experience, either.

They bickered among one another and engaged in blame games. None appeared willing to acknowledge any part in the Republic's economic mess.

Meanwhile, the Stormont Executive continues to fiddle while Northern Ireland's economy smoulders, if not burns. Property prices continue to fall. The percentage of unemployed worsens by the month.

No-one may be lighting any bonfires on Malin Head anymore, but the leaving of Ulster is under way again in earnest and a message of despair is ringing out across this island. Never was political decisiveness and leadership more needed. Seldom can it have been so sadly absent.

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