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
ALAN Bennett, author, actor and playwright, a man dedicated to the idea of equal access to education, from a fairly ordinary background, who attended Oxford on a scholarship, will surely forgive me for plagiarising his phrase to describe Waterford’s long struggle for university designation. It’s 82 years since De Valera closed the Waterford Teacher Training College, our would-be university. Sure that’s what governments do, isn’t it? We didn’t trust them then and the last few weeks dramatically exposed the zero trust Waterford has in the current parties of government. Dreams of a gigantic government blimp adorned with the letters FF, FG, FU, flying over our city releasing golden showers on our aspirations, fill our nights. We simply cannot relax our vigilance on UHW and WIT, the two facilities which most determine our future prosperity and the ability of this city and region to retain its youth. Can we trust anything government says?
In September 2018 Simon Harris told our Oireachtas members that a second cath lab would be built. The CEO of the SSWHG, Gerry O’Dwyer (GOD) assured them that the second lab would be fully equipped to perform cardiac intervention and emergency PCI work. Last week a reply to a Parliamentary Question to the Minister for Health from Michael Lowry was published which indicated that the lab would be diagnostic only. This elicited further parliamentary questions from Matt Shanahan and David Cullinane. John Cummins, who hopes to regain a seat for FG (and who can fault political ambition), is being made to look like, “The boy stood on the burning deck whence all but him had fled” by his government by having to continually resort to fireman tactics. He rightly elicited and published on social media a grovelling assurance from GOD, replete with almost Uriah Heep like Dickensian language that the second lab would be intervention capable and “we will forward a copy of the Purchase Order to you once the order for the 2nd lab has been placed”. Many thanks, kind regards, etc, etc., your umble servant, “Gerry”! The lab tender was advertised on 30th Sept 2020, yet the contract is still unsigned. Do you trust Mr O’Dwyer, the Cork SSWHG, or the Department of Health whose reply to Michael Lowry bears all the hallmarks of their Acute Hospital Policy Unit, clinging to the bitter end to the flawed Herity Report?
‘The latest bauble pulled across our trail, like a bag of offal in a drag hunt, to deflect our attention, is the Waterford Crystal site’
Two weeks ago the proposed TUSE HQ location sparked local outrage as Minister for Further Education Simon Harris included counties Laois, Kildare and Wicklow in the TUSE remit. Senator Cummins was again forced into fireman tactics, bringing Harris into the Seanad to “explain” that his comments were misinterpreted and that someone was making unhelpful mischief. I only included these counties, says Harris, because people from them go to third level in the South East, without explaining at all why he excluded Tipperary, which sends hundreds of students to WIT each year from his statement. Would you trust this man to deliver anything to Waterford?
Anyone who listened to Damien Tiernan interviewing ex leader of the Labour Party will understand the situation we now find ourselves in. Howlin, myopic parochialism incarnate, accused Mr Tiernan of being “myopic” about Wexford’s quest for an equal share of everything that’s going in the TUSE process, without ever acknowledging that Carlow IT has had a campus in Wexford for 25 years. What did that deliver to Wexford even while Howlin was Minister for Public Expenditure? Howlin now wants three separate and equal units of the TUSE, without even thinking of what Kilkenny might be allocated, if the TUSE is established. I doubt there is anyone who would deny Wexford something in this process but what Howlin wants is absurd and will destroy any hope of having a competitive university of scale in this region. But then he and Phil Hogan were the men who ensured that Enda Kenny’s pre 2011 election pledge for a university in Waterford was dragged down. They can forever boast, “We stopped it”. That’s their awful legacy!
Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris want Waterford to gamble WIT and everything it contains on the roulette table against Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny influence and hope for the best. Neither Wexford nor Kilkenny have any stake in this gamble. Not even the most abject Paddy Power five bob each way punter would accept those odds. Waterford must trust that we will be looked after by a Minister and Party who have dragged UHW through the mire over UHW cardiology and resources. We’re being asked to believe the TUSE process will work fine. We might be poor, but we‘re not stupid. We have not seen any plans, remit, funding, or anything from this government except verbiage. The latest bauble pulled across our trail, like a bag of offal in a drag hunt, to deflect our attention, is the Waterford Crystal site. “We are looking at it,” says Leo. Well so are we! We’re sick of looking at it. So what, the owner, Noel Frisby has categorically denied that the site has been sold to anyone.
Is this shaping up to be the biggest rob ever perpetrated? Waterford, the oldest city in the country and the biggest urban centre in the South East for the past 1,000 years, must accept it cannot have what Limerick and Galway have. As the exception to city status we must confine ourselves to the ambition level of Athlone, Sligo or Letterkenny. We must “learn to share”, even while the oleaginous Simon Harris blathers on about the “centrality” of WIT to the TUSE process. The whole gimcrack edifice is meaningless and unfit for purpose. It changes nothing. Anyone wishing to see the real direction of travel should examine the Ireland 2040 Capital Tracker Index, which monitors all government projects being built within that plan. The North Quays are listed but Waterford and South East projects are as scarce as hen’s teeth. A proposed new Engineering block at WIT (with planning since 2009) and already deferred three times, may start in 2022 and be finished in 2025. It will increase student numbers by 1,030. This is the limit of government vision for WIT and TUSE. The cost is undisclosed. The new multi-purpose €150m building being built in NUI Maynooth will increase student numbers by 3,370. A new UCC building to start in 2022 will increase student numbers by 4,500. Yes, you read that right. A new UCD building will increase student numbers by 3,300.
The reason there is no clarity from Simon Harris for WIT and the TUSE is that UCC and UCD are already prepped to continue gobbling up students from this region. The TUSE dreamed up by FG’s Richard Bruton in 2018 changes nothing. It will not: be aligned with the existing universities, have funding like them, be able to borrow like them, or have academic and economic freedom like them. It will be a spancelled entity tied to whatever bastard compromise emerges across the South East over the next 50 years. WIT’s research budget is 11 times greater than Carlow IT and that’s just one indicator, but that research and academic excellence will be lost in a sea of competitive inter-county bickering, the start of which we saw last week. Our folly will be visible in 20 years when we look back at what, in essence, is a name change to WIT, while the existing universities add massive capacity and steal our future.
Bin the TUSE.