“Baptism of fire” feels like too much of an understatement when describing my first year in post as Chief Executive of the Derry Chamber. As I took up the reins in March last year, the world was finding itself in the eye of the Covid storm and economies across the globe were shutting down. Since then we have been in and out of lockdowns, we’ve eaten out to help out, seen the Brexit transition period come and go, welcomed ministers and diplomats to the North West, and signed off on some key projects for the North West. And despite everything, I am increasingly optimistic about the future.
My immediate task was to reach out to members and local businesses of all shapes and sizes and listen to their concerns and worries. Business owners and leaders who, through absolutely no fault of their own, had been plunged into financial crisis and precarity and were having sleepless nights about their staff, their families, and their futures. Hardworking people were forced out of work and businesses were left to pick up the pieces to make sure they survived. I have been blown away this past year by the resilience of our local businesspeople but there’s no mistaking that this has been an extremely difficult year for them all.
We have engaged extensively and regularly with our local representatives this past year. We have met with no fewer than 10 government ministers in this time from Stormont, Westminster, Dublin, and Brussels, raising local concerns at the highest level. I must also extend a special thank you to our five local MLAs and our local MP for their priceless support over the past 14 months. They’ve listened to our concerns, they’ve taken on board proposals and ideas from business, and they’ve put party political allegiances aside to work together constructively for the benefit of our city.
That spirit of collaboration has been a recurrent theme during the pandemic. We in the Derry Chamber have worked closely with our counterparts in the Belfast, Newry and Causeway Chambers, defending our regional interests, speaking up for our businesses and demanding answers and clarity from the Executive. We also solidified our relationship with the Letterkenny Chamber through a Memorandum of Understanding, strengthening cross-border ties and committing both organisations to work collectively for the benefit of the whole North West city region.
As we moved towards the summer and after the initial shock of Covid, we began to get used to the new way of living and working, learning new phrases like social distancing, furlough, and flattening the curve. Doing things virtually became the norm as we ran weekly updates, webinars, information events, and even networking events. We hosted our first ever virtual President’s Annual Lunch in March for the first time in our 136-year history, we’ve launched our Learning Centre to help members and their staff meet their training and compliance requirements, and we continue to run a diverse virtual schedule of events on everything from apprenticeships and skills to tax and cross-border working.
Away from the pandemic, there have been moments of real optimism and positivity for the North West. The long-awaited establishment of the Graduate Entry Medical School is a fantastic addition to our region’s strong educational and academic offer. Coupled with the sterling work being done by the North West Regional College, especially on apprenticeships and upskilling the next generation of workers, the North West now has a thriving education and training sector.
The signing of the Heads of Terms for the Derry and Strabane City Deal was another serious boost for our region. With the potential to create 7000 jobs over the next decade and significantly bolstering our capabilities in emerging technologies like robotics, AI, and health tech, the North West can now position itself as a leading location on the island of Ireland for research and innovation and future technologies. Combined with the Irish Government’s Shared Island Fund of €500m over the next five years, there are exciting opportunities for the North West which can dramatically improve our infrastructure and turbocharge our regional economy.
It’s been a privilege to lead the Chamber for the last 14 months and I’d like to thank all the team and the board at the Chamber for their invaluable support. After a seriously tough period for business, brighter days are ahead. More and more of the population is being vaccinated every day, cases are falling, and our businesses are reopening. Recovery is the key now for our economy. The future is optimistic for the North West.