Tá lúchair orainn a bheith anseo inniu chun an cur i láthair seo a dhéanamh don choiste. Tá lúchair orainn a bheith anseo leis an Chathaoirleach agus le baill an choiste. We are delighted to have the opportunity, on behalf of the north west, to make a presentation to this committee. We met members of the committee when they visited Derry city recently and we found that meeting very worthwhile and useful. We commend the committee on the work it does and the positive change it wants to effect for the entire island.
As the Chairman outlined, I am the chairman of Donegal County Council and joint chairman of the North West Strategic Growth Partnership. I am joined by Councillor Gus Hastings of Derry City and Strabane District Council, who is also the chairman of the North West Regional Development Group; Councillor Bernard McGuinness from Donegal County Council, the vice-chairman of the North West Regional Development Group; Mr. John Kelpie, chief executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council; and Mr. Seamus Neely, chief executive, Donegal County Council. I apologise on behalf of the Mayor of Derry who is otherwise engaged today but wanted his apologies to be acknowledged.
The brief we received for today's meeting was to make a presentation on the limitations of the committee, the way in which Brexit will affect us, the work we are doing in our counties and region to propel the areas we represent forward and the ways in which the committee can assist us in that work. To provide some perspective on these issues, we will each cover a specific topic as part of a coherent presentation and in an effort to avoid duplication.
Derry is the fourth largest city on this island, as has been recognised by the Government in the national development plan. The cross-Border region served by Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council has a population of approximately 350,000. We expect this to be recognised and we want the region to be treated as a major centre and city region on this island. It is important for the growth and prosperity of the people and counties we represent that this is realised and understood, as it has been in the national development plan. A memorandum of understanding has been signed by me, as chairman of Donegal County Council, John Boyle, as Mayor of Derry City and Strabane District Council, and the chairman of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. We pay tribute to the Northern and Western Regional Assembly for holding a meeting in the chambers of Derry City and Strabane District Council. It was a momentous occasion because it was the first time a regional assembly held an official meeting outside its jurisdiction. The meeting was a beneficial exercise as members of the assembly acquired first-hand experience of the co-operation, partnership and symbiotic relationship between Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council, and were able to see that we in the region are one people.
As a Donegal person, Derry is the city I recognise as my city. Everybody on my side will recognise that also. The people of Derry recognise that Donegal is very much part of their extended boundary limits and region. Derry and Donegal people share the same surnames and there has been great interaction between them for generations. It is most unfortunate that political decisions were taken that did not reflect the will of people living in the region and did not benefit them. The result was that the symbiosis and partnership of many years broke down to some degree. We restarted that partnership in the mid-1990s and we are now working with each other.
Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council are working on a cross-Border basis like no other jurisdiction in Europe. We are working for the benefit of both areas, rather than competing with each other. If we can get a company, an economic driver or an educational driver - anything that benefits any part of the region - to locate in the region, it does not matter to people in Donegal if it locates Derry and vice versa. We realise that the benefits will be to the north west and we will work together, collaborate and co-operate to assist in any way we can.
Approximately 35% of the population in the north west are aged 25 years or younger. We have the youngest population in Europe. We are very proud of this and want to build on it. We have to work harder than other parts of the island, however, to retain the young population in the region we represent. We will ask for assistance in doing this. The region has some 40,000 third-level students at the Magee campus of Ulster University in Derry, the North West Regional College and the Letterkenny Institute of Technology.
We have two major hospitals, namely, Letterkenny University Hospital and Altnagelvin Area Hospital on the outskirts of Derry. We must remember that the Government pumps a significant amount of money into the services available at Altnagelvin because it is funded on a cross-Border basis. It is also important to recognise that the services available at Altnagelvin, such as cancer and cardiac services, are dependent on the critical mass of the population of Donegal. The cash injection by the Irish and British Governments was made because a critical mass was established such that it could be argued that those services were sustainable. Effectively, things such as hard or other borders or changes to the cross-jurisdictional code that is currently in place would create difficulties not only in terms of movement, but also on a human level and in terms of making arguments to sustain services that serve the people of the region.
We are a subregional economic driver North and South. Our symbiotic relationship incorporates our critical mass and the economic drive and delivery in the region. We are very proud to be able to entice businesses or investment into our region by reason of the critical mass that is established throughout the Border region, including areas such as Donegal, Derry city, Strabane, Tyrone, Omagh and Limavady. The population level of our region means that we should have services equal to or better than those in most of the rest of the island. We have worked hard together to establish those services. There is a perception in the Border counties from which we come that those services may be in danger because of decisions that might be taken. It is a somewhat frustrating time. Equally, it is a time of great thought with very little foresight. There is substantial fear among people in our region that the consequences of decisions that may be made in Westminster will impact more on our region than on any other in Europe.
On my way to this meeting, I crossed the Border from Lifford into Strabane. If one is travelling from Donegal to Dublin, our capital city, one must cross the Border twice. On the geography of Donegal, its longest land border is with the North. Only 3% of its land border is with the Republic of Ireland, totalling fewer than 10 km of border with County Leitrim. We are connected to the Republic of Ireland by an umbilical cord. It is important that the Border between Donegal and the Six Counties be strengthened, cherished and worked on. We must ensure that it is not weakened and that nothing is allowed to stop progress or collaboration.
The infrastructural need of our region is the greatest challenge we face apart from Brexit. Donegal is the county furthest from Dublin, but there is very poor road infrastructure to the county and its towns. Services taken for granted in many other counties are absent in Donegal. We have no rail line. There is an airport, which is located very much to the north west of the county. We are almost totally dependent on road links to our county. The promised upgrade of the A5-N2 road network has been on the cards since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in the late 1990s. However, there has been little or no impact on the ground in that regard and that has held the region back. When representatives of the committee were in Derry, we asked that the progression of the A5-N2 be fast-tracked and made a major Government priority. We repeat that request and ask that every effort be made by the committee and all Members of the Oireachtas to further its progression. If one looks at a map of this island, the north west is the only area not connected by a major motorway or dual carriageway. It is an area in which we will fall further behind if the A5-N2 is not progressed. In the context of the impending decisions on Brexit, the lack of that road infrastructure puts our region at a serious disadvantage. Were it not for the great relationship built by the executive members of both councils and copper-fastened by the elected representatives of all political persuasions of the councils, we would really be struggling. We have stepped up to the plate in terms of putting Donegal, Derry and Tyrone on the map. We want to continue in that vein and see support from the Westminster Government, the Stormont Assembly and the Irish Government. It is important that the A5-N2 be progressed and not shelved or put on ice. We need progress, not buzzwords. We want to see shovels in the ground because the project is of such importance to our area. We ask that that message be taken back to the Government. The road would allow us to realise our economic potential, retain people within our counties and regions and be more connected with the rest of the island of which we are all part. It is incumbent on all Members of the Oireachtas to understand that we are as deserving of such infrastructure as any other part of the island.
Derry city is the only city region in the UK and Ireland on a jurisdictional border. Up to 20% of the employees of Donegal County Council cross the Border daily. Similarly, many thousands of people leave Donegal daily to work in areas such as Strabane, Omagh and Derry city. The free movement of people is of great importance in the area. It must be recognised that we are a special case because of the cross-Border jurisdictional nature of Derry city, the environs of which spill over well into Donegal. We must not allow anything to impact negatively on free movement in the area.
For many years, planning on each side of the Border was done on a back-to-back basis. However, since the fabulous news of the Good Friday Agreement and the work done by committees and Members of the relevant Parliaments in regard to its implementation, Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council have started working face to face. We are talking to each other, working together, finding out what can be good for the region and understanding its needs as a whole rather than those of each individual county. County boundaries in the Republic of Ireland are important but, where necessary, must be overlooked. Equally, the Border between Donegal and Derry city and Strabane must be overlooked for the benefit of all the people of the area. That has been done. We must ensure that nothing is done to curb the good work that has been completed or undermine the relationship that exists between the two councils.
The final point I wish to address is Brexit. We should not talk too much about Brexit today but it is important to stress that, no matter what happens, the situation under any deal that is reached will be less favourable than what is currently in place between our counties. No matter how good we are told a deal is, it will not be as good as the current situation. There has been reference to green cards and people being worried about insurance. Those are concerns of a very practical nature. However, delving into it more deeply, the potential impact in terms of healthcare, education, the free movement of people and goods and tariffs is frightening for people in Donegal and Derry. The potential impact of Brexit on normal day-to-day lives is flabbergasting. We wish for the current situation to be maintained. The Government has been doing very good work on behalf of all the citizens of this island in being constructive with the EU and the UK regarding what will come after the date on which a decision is made, whether that be 12 April or a later date. It is important that the real and negative impacts on the people of our region be taken into consideration in any negotiations, discussions or talks on Brexit.
The people who are making those decisions must know their decisions will change lives for the people from our region. It is important that point is emphasised. I will now ask Mr. John Kelpie, chief executive of Derry City and Strabane District Council, to continue from where I left off.