I never expected when I set out for Derry last Thursday that I would return to Dublin the following day with my very own Millennium Falcon, personalised for me by a wonderful group of students from Ardnashee Special School who I met in Derry’s Nerve Centre.
The Led Zeppelin poster on the wall at the entrance to the Nerve Centre, one of the country’s leading creative media arts centres, was a sign that I had arrived among kindred spirits. There I met John Peto, who told me about the work of the centre, notably the Teaching Divided Histories project supported by the EU-funded PEACE Programme.
The Nerve Centre also hosts Derry’s Fab Lab. With links to MIT in Boston, the Fab Lab provides the environment, skills, advanced material and technology to make almost anything cheaply. The day I visited Millennium Falcon clocks were rolling off the production line and one was waiting for me.
What sets the Derry Fab Lab apart is how the project supports peace and stability through the provision of an enterprise and training programme for jobseekers and other interested individuals on a cross-community basis.
I was visiting Derry for the first time, to see for myself some of the amazing work that is taking place there, funded by the European Union through the cross-border PEACE and INTERREG programmes. I found a lively city steeped in history and bustling with activity as it prepared for an attempt on the world Christmas jumper record at the weekend.
I was accompanied by my Northern Ireland colleague, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, with whom I have been working closely since we took up our respective appointments earlier this year. Máirtín shares my commitment to the programmes and I know he is committed to eliminating the obstacles that have slowed up implementation in the past.
We started the day with a visit I had been very much looking forward to: the famous PEACE Bridge which links the Cityside and Waterside of the River Foyle. The Bridge now stands as an international symbol of Derry and the process of peace building and reconciliation. At the Bridge we met the Mayor, , Alderman Hilary McClintock, and spoke to two women, Linda Watson and Nuala Griffiths, who worked closely with the community on the development of the project.
At CAWT – Cooperation and Working Together – I heard from Bernie McCrory and Tom Daly about the innovative work they are engaged in on cross-border health and social care, to enable health services to be more accessible within border areas. The project really does involve cooperation and working together.
At the Derry campus of the North West Regional Science Park at Fort George, I met Philip Maguire and Mervyn Watley from the Northern Ireland Science Park and their partners John-Andy Bonar and Henry McGarvey from the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, where the Science Park is co-located. Both campuses have been successful in attracting new businesses, mainly in the ICT sector, in a region that has not traditionally been strong on ICT start-up activity.
Finally, a quick visit to Foyle Books just inside the City walls equipped me with a history of Derry for my next visit.
My visit to Derry brought home to me, in ways that no official briefing could ever hope to, the important work that PEACE and INTERREG is funding on the ground and why it is vital that these programmes continue, even after the UK leaves the EU. Too much good work has been done to stop now.
And so I set course for Dublin with my new Millennium Falcon, which now occupies pride of place in my office, and acts a reminder of a meeting with a wonderful group of students and the innovative and creative work they do.