‘The extent to which Waterford city is valued by the system and the permanent government, is something we might all think about. What is our role, what do we have to have? Are we worth it?’
LEO Varadkar spoke to Brendan O’Connor on the Marian Finucane show a few Saturdays ago about the proposal to support Waterford Airport. This came after the burst of mock outrage in the Irish Independent which, with VE Day size headlines announced “Ross’s €5m funding for airport with no flights”. The subsequent media frenzy, when overspending on the National Children’s Hospital has reached hundreds of millions, upset people locally. It is hard to understand why actual money was announced for other regional airports while “a conditional promise” was announced here. This different treatment cuts to the heart of how Waterford people view Fine Gael.
We have a sensible proposal from business and local councils backed by substantial investment. Government took over 15 months to make a decision. Maybe they thought the backers would go away and solve their problem? Anyway, for some reason Leo Varadkar felt that he had to defend the decision and was, in his terms, trenchant in defence of “Waterford, a city, in a region that has not done well. Civil servants gave advice against the project but that’s what they do. There was also advice that there should not be a second cath lab, but one will be developed. People there feel everything they try to do is subject to review and report and I have some sympathy with that. If this was announced for Limerick or Kerry would there be any outcry?” Was he serious?
The Taoiseach has said nice things about Waterford before, but action has been in short supply. The UHW mortuary case is instructive. He came to Waterford (the day after dropping €70m in state investment in Cork) with hands hanging. Instead of capitulating on the mortuary, which he knew would have to be conceded anyway, he proceeded (as a diversion?) to slap down the UHW pathologists. He knew there would be an outcry, so he apologised and moved on. Astute political analysts suggest the whole thing was a Varadkar special. Micro managed to the last on his media grid, without giving anything to Waterford other than a 15 year old “priority” project.
We have listened forever to projects in Waterford being described as “parish pump”. Delivery to Waterford over the years since independence has been so hit and miss that when we do get something out of the system, it becomes subject to endless political analysis. The comparison most quoted has been the €9 million in state funds for the Galway Arthouse cinema. There was media criticism of that project but no one suggested it was “parish pump”. This springs from the notion endlessly circulated by an unquestioning national media that anything for the western city is on a “because we’re worth it” basis. Galway is valued by this country and always has been. Its role is clear. As one time government minister Michael D Higgins opined, “Galway has to have these things”! The extent to which Waterford city is valued by the system and the permanent government, is something we might all think about. What is our role, what do we have to have? Are we worth it?
An honourable man
In recent days there has been some agreement between the various unions on the way forward for a merger between WIT and Carlow IT to create a TUSE. It is more than interesting that the proposed new Tech University will not have the word Waterford in its title. You may recall a quote to that effect from political begrudgers in the Kilkenny People at one stage? Retired government minister Martin Cullen was in town recently for the local elections. He suggested that Waterford should take the TUSE proposal as another step on the road to fuller university status.
We might look back at the time when Prof Kieran Byrne was the president of WIT, the Port Report was completed and university status for Waterford city seemed within our grasp. When the history of that period is written people will look back askance at some WIT staff/political connections. There seemed to be a determination to undermine local university aspirations at the time. They were not alone. The resistance to a university in Waterford has been fierce. Intellectual pygmies in the Higher Education Authority and the Department of Education and at the FF cabinet table of the time conspired to prevent the oldest city in the country achieving what educators like Dr Ed Walsh of UL had long declared to be its inalienable right to university status.
The aspirations of WIT were used against it. The career of Prof Kieran Byrne was undermined as WIT and indeed Waterford were shot down. His long legal action is now over. In another life Waterford would have had university status under the presidency of Prof Byrne and we would be celebrating him as a freeman of the city. It was not to be, but the seeds he set will inevitably blossom. He has an honourable place in the local community and that should be publicly acknowledged.
This autonomous university was established by the first president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, in 2010. It teaches through English. It is interesting from our point of view in that its first medical students, from 2015, graduated as doctors in 2019 from the university medical school. The medical school was established by UPMC who also have a hospital at Whitfield in Waterford. It’s not that long since the CEO of UPMC suggested that a medical school could be a good idea for Waterford as we are now the only Irish city without one. We have a large hospital at UHW which could easily serve as the base for such a facility and have the third level institution at WIT, which if it was independent could do the necessary.
A medical school was established on the same sort of basis at UL. There is plenty of expertise in the market with international universities like UPMC to do the business. All we would have to do is get over the objections of UCC and Cork medical interests.
The Lord giveth and taketh away?
In this case it’s the Minister for Transport Tourism and Sport Lord Ross of Stepaside who “supported” Waterford Airport. His support for Waterford can be assessed as GAA sources report that redevelopment work on Walsh Park is to be put on hold due to an alleged delay in approved state funding. Work was expected to start on the grounds following Waterford’s Munster SHC game against Limerick, however, county board delegates were informed at a recent meeting that the start date for the work would be delayed. Funding from the GAA, Munster and Central Council is ready to go, but approved state funding has not been released. You can decide yourself who is responsible, Lord Ross plus comrade Halligan or the Waterford County Board. They are supposedly following the proper procedures to ensure that the funding is released, but “there will be no further update until the September meeting of the county board”. This means that the work won’t start (if at all!) until later this year and would not be complete for the 2020 season.
The temptation is to blame government and Lord Ross in this case but I bet any money that Waterford GAA county board, that beacon of sense and enlightenment, is at the heart of the problem. Expecting clubs and supporters across the county to accept a blanket announcement on further news until September is unacceptable.
The odds now are that the work will never be done or will be in such a reduced way that we will never have a proper county ground. Hopeless and tragic all at once!
Sounds like the name of an Italian mobster, but it’s far more serious. Proposals to regionalise the management of the health service, marking a return to a decentralised system abandoned when the old health boards were abolished in 2006, are likely to be brought to Cabinet in the coming weeks by Simon Harris. The new structure for the health system, organised around a small number of “Regional Integrated Care Organisations” would see existing hospital groups enlarged to include other care organisations. It is expected that each regional organisation would have a high degree of autonomy from central HSE structures, with its own board and responsibility for its own budget. The new structure requires legislation to be implemented.
The word at UHW is that the South East hospital group is to be reformed as either an independent RICO of its own or as an add-on to St Vincent’s University Hospital Group with the connection to Cork being broken! Hints suggest that six or thereabouts RICOs will be formed. Why have eight regional cancer centres but a lesser number of RICOs? The South East has the population to maintain its own RICO and the Community Health Office based in Kilkenny still serves the original SEHB region.
If there is realignment between the CHO and hospital network to create a RICO in the South East, should we all not be pushing for it? Or do people fear that the old failures of the SEHB to ensure that UHW or whatever we might then call it was properly resourced would not re-emerge? The problem of political pressure to ensure that all four hospitals across the South East were “equal,” although obviously untrue, was very difficult and constant disagreement led to the endemic underfunding of acute medicine in this region. To avoid that situation in any future South East RICO, UHW must have an independent CEO. Meanwhile, long known capacity issues have again emerged at UHW to highlight the despicable under-resourcing brought to us from Cork and the SSWH Group. Any connection with Cork is toxic for Waterford.