Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Waterford Institute of Technology

The Phoenix opinion column, which has been running in the Waterford News & Star for more than 30 years, as published in this week’s print edition

WARREN Buffett, the billionaire US investor, once said, “It’s only when the tide goes out that you realise who has been swimming naked.” That’s generally taken to mean that things may look rosy up to a certain point, but if things go wrong, the economic “tide” goes out and weaknesses will be exposed. At the end of a difficult year and decade we must reflect on our situation. The 2008 financial crash and subsequent closure of Waterford Glass saw the economic tide going a long way out here. The glass had covered a multitude of deficits for years but the Kilbarry closure exposed the reality of the local economy. The ruins of the office building are a scar on the nation. The 2011 election with Fine Gael in the saddle promised a university for Waterford but delivered instead a hatchet job to WIT and WRH. The 2016/2020 FG administration delivered more of the same. People jokingly say we would need a Taoiseach from Waterford to get a fair share of national capital spending but we have had Mr Varadkar, who recalled his Waterford roots here in July 2017 while telling us he would never forget us and we would never be overlooked. Did anything change?

The recent North Quays announcement is the first strategic funding for Waterford in a decade. It gave people a great lift. The government funding to our City and County Council, which facilitated what CEO Michael Walsh described as the best budget of his tenure, is enormously helpful to the city. It is amazing that it took a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach and the Covid pandemic to shake the tree.


It is amazing that it took a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach and the Covid pandemic to shake the tree’


Don’t get carried away though with the notion that Micheál Martin is Waterford’s knight in shining armour; he is too much of a Cork man for that. What seems to be emerging from both the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael stables is that Waterford will get state investment, which does not impact on any Cork agenda. Everything else is off limits. Hence, a new courthouse and fire station can be built and even the odd new industry allocated. Welcome funding for the North Quays can be allocated. A new St Patrick’s hospital can be built as can new Primary Health Care centres, school extensions and various road or water schemes.

Most of these came after a struggle and came late. The good was taken out of most of them by political delay, but they are necessary and welcome. These investments are all very much run of the mill for towns and cities all over the country and are best described in the Healy Rae lexicon as “building a new pier at Kilgarvan”! Of course we have seen that these investments, common as they may be around the country, have to be extracted almost unwillingly from a state, which always seems to have more pressing priorities elsewhere. None of them threaten Cork hegemony in any way. It’s only when we get down to the nitty gritty of high level acute medical services and university level education that the blockades imposed by the Coveney/ Martin axis of evil is exposed.

I hear people in the background already saying, “what about the Dunmore wing at UHW”? That has been hugely welcome but reflects an international move from Nightingale type multi-bedded wards to single rooms in pursuit of effective infection control as much as anything else. The building also contains a hospice facility which was paid for by the people of this area and which could hardly be denied to those of us who will die in difficult circumstances. By itself the Dunmore wing, without additional services, changes nothing. It has been the determined pursuit of better services in acute medicine and third level education which has been the hallmark of Waterford’s struggle for equity and fairness in the past decade. 24/7 cardiology, university designation, airport extension all tell a different story.

The Coveney description of the Boundary Commission positive recommendation as “merely advisory” says it all. The 17 years wait for a new UHW mortuary to move from risk/ priority to construction was macabre. 24/7 cardiology is being strangled at birth by a shady, shabby, organised delay in delivering on political and official promises. The complete halt on WIT capital investment over the past decade has been educational apartheid and the recent news that a thrice postponed new WIT engineering block may not be available until 2025 describes a situation that is untenable for any city. This cannot go on.

We all recall the 2013 launch of the new hospital group strategy when Gerry O’Dwyer, Cork-based CEO of the SSWHG (in my view, the most potent adversary of any acute medical expansion at UHW) stood with hospital group designer Prof John Higgins outside UHW. The photos show them accompanied by local politicians, John Deasy, John Halligan, Paudie Coffey and Ciara Conway. All their political careers were destroyed because of the failure of the HSE, UCC and the SSWHG to deliver on the baubles they dangled before our eye. An absolute failure to keep promises made and guarantees freely given. Were they ever meant to be honoured? Surely our motto must now be once bitten twice shy?

Now as the whispering starts and the political and official sleevenery seeks to coax UHW back into the Cork bull pen by promising us long term delivery on new buildings and extra consultant staff, someone somewhere should ask, “Have we not heard this stuff before”? How long will it be before Gerry O’Dwyer and John Higgins both come to town again to hypnotise us with promises never to be kept?

Labour and Fine Gael now have no TD in Waterford. How many more political futures in Waterford will be destroyed by photos bearing undelivered political promises in front of UHW with TDS promising delivery?

Last week Simon Harris, Minister for Further Education, signed the bill extinguishing Cork IT and IT Tralee. This paves the way for the new Munster TU on January 1. I wish the people in Tralee well as their once independent third level institute is swallowed by Cork. Even as I write, the background chorus of nervousness about the future of WIT is gaining ground. Government Oireachtas members, Butler, O’Cathasaigh and Cummins tell us that we must accept the “only game in town” and that WIT and Carlow IT must merge to form the TUSE and get the word “university “ over the door in some form in Waterford? Even Sinn Fein’s David Cullinane is at it.

The TUSE is being deliberately pushed by Fine Gael and latterly Fianna Fáil as a “merger of equals” because both parties have political skin in the game of seeking more seats in Wexford and Carlow/ Kilkenny in a future election. All this plays into the agenda of Cork hegemony where the primacy of UCC and CUH across the south of this country will be politically and financially maintained by government at all costs.

The dogs in the street know that Carlow IT is realistically about half the size of WIT. That has not stopped government from blowing smoke under them as leaders of this whole poisoned merger process and, by extension, pushing WIT to agree to something that self-evidently will not deliver the university of scale that this city and region needs. Some suggest the Waterford “man in the street” does not understand what is at risk here for the future of our children. That may be the case.

However, I believe our Oireachtas members most certainly do understand the sleight of hand that the present government is engaged in. They can put their faith in government and the TUSE to the test at the next election. When that tide goes out we will see again just who has been swimming naked!

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By Phoenix
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