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
SOME years ago during a few days in Bologna Italy, home since 1096AD to the oldest university in the world, I was privileged to see in its ancient library a copy of the 1662AD work of Robert Boyle, from Lismore. A university is for ever a piece of educational infrastructure, vital to the wellbeing of any city.
Waterford has sought university designation for over 80 years without success. Not because the case was unclear or unjustified, but because our Cork neighbours didn’t want it to happen. In recent weeks, Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar were on local radio across the South East giving support for the proposed TUSE. Leo Varadkar assured people on Wexford’s South East Radio that the Wexford campus of the TUSE is in the National Development Plan. For this to happen, WIT must sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Carlow IT on April 28 next.
Unfortunately, the university designation sought by Waterford for decades has been toxically politicised in this region. WIT, the institution which has led the way for 50 years, has been marginalised and its leadership ruined for base political reasons. It has been ground down and sidelined in a vicious partisan way. In what was almost a human rights abuse, WIT being successful in Waterford city, was undermined by senior politicians in Wexford and Kilkenny and starved of funding, investment and new buildings since 2011. Its ability to host extra students has been curtailed and its new engineering building has been systematically and shamefully delayed. No one can deny this. Anyone who thinks otherwise is, quite frankly, an idiot. No politician in either of those two counties has ever supported any initiative or investment in WIT, despite it providing excellent degree level education in most difficult circumstances, to thousands of their youngsters over the years.
‘This is not the university the region needs, but rather a political legerdemain to fool the natives, while preserving the elite market position of the existing universities’
Instead of a quest for excellence, a base and relentless envy has arisen, resulting in Fine Gael’s 2018 TUSE proposal, made while Leo Varadkar was Taoiseach. This is not the university the region needs, but rather a political legerdemain to fool the natives, while preserving the elite market position of the existing universities.
Everyone involved in education knows this. Many in politics understand it. The people of Waterford can see it. WIT, the regional leader in undergraduate student numbers, research initiatives and PhD education, is to be put at risk through a grotesque failure by government to nominate it as the lead institution in the TUSE merger process. Simon Harris wants WIT and IT Carlow to be equal, even when they are not. Bertie Ahern, as Taoiseach, came to Waterford in 1997 and told the local university action group that “new universities are not established in Ireland, but grew organically (like UL and DCU) from vibrant roots”!
Politicians in Wexford have made no secret of the fact that they want the engineering faculty of TUSE in that town, which will mean moving WIT’s engineering faculty to Wexford or a competitive splitting of the faculty between both places. Wexford has had outreach from Carlow IT for 25 years without attracting investment or students, yet given the current politics of the situation, one of the first decisions made by a new TUSE will centre on delivering a Wexford campus. The demands of the Irish electoral cycle mean that this must be in place or thereabouts by 2025, before the next general election. Fine Gael needs something to point at! There are no objections against delivering something logical to Wexford, but the expectation that something can be landed fully made, or worse, removed from WIT and dropped in Wexford, will damage both existing third level education in WIT and in a TUSE. That reality has not percolated through the politics involved.
M/s Varadkar and Harris have refused invitations to discuss the issue with Damien Tiernan on WLR in order to starve Waterford concerns of national publicity. It’s a clever strategy which exposes the intended direction of travel. Politicians usually love ribbon cutting, but neither the new Primary Healthcare Centre on John’s Hill, the new St Patrick’s Hospital or the new Dunmore wing at UHW have ever been officially opened. Have Fine Gael ministers disdain for Waterford, or are they afraid to face the hornet’s nest they have created? It will be interesting to see who announces the start of the second cath lab, due to commence in Quarter 1 of 2021 (before March 31 next)!
A Gang of Four (Simon Harris) appointees to a new TUSE board, in January 2022, after amalgamation, will meet (where?) and decide everything. Is Waterford, the oldest city in Ireland and largest urban settlement in the South East for the past 1,000 years, to play second fiddle to Carlow town? Our Oireachtas members, Chamber of Commerce and 21 of our city and county councillors are prepared to risk this. Even FUSE appears stymied? Were they shown some “Third Secret of Fatima” material about WIT/ TUSE and believed it all, like a novel by Dan Brown: “Why we believe people who have lied to us?”
We have seen nothing or heard nothing except talk, spoof and waffle! Let’s buy a car sight unseen, condition unknown, mileage not disclosed, previous owners not counted, age or registration not determined, condition and colour immaterial, to be delivered at night and with no guarantees on anything. Send money now, like one of those Nigerian Lotto scams. Are we that naïve? If any of our Oireachtas members have a piece of paper (the image of Chamberlain, post Munich 1938 is ineradicable) with all the relevant guarantees solemnly listed thereon, then let’s see it.
Mr Varadkar came here in July 2017 as Taoiseach and made us a fateful promise. “This is a great city – historic, resilient and proud. However, I fear that, in recent times, the city has regrettably lost some of its confidence. Many in the city and city region feel that Waterford has fallen behind, has been neglected, even forgotten. And, it’s not hard to understand why. Until the 1970s Waterford was bigger in size than Galway. Today Waterford is significantly smaller. Galway has benefitted from having a successful university, an increasingly vibrant city centre, new industries, and falling unemployment. Limerick has too. The people of Waterford could be forgiven for thinking that Ireland’s oldest city seems to have fallen behind in health, industry, education and infrastructure. This must change. So long as I am Taoiseach Waterford will not be neglected or forgotten.”
I could not have said it better myself, but Joe Biden could. “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Varadkar’s promised support vanished as he left for Cork. The WIT engineering building was on the table that day, but never delivered, the underfunding continued. The buzz words of the age are “balanced regional development” or “levelling up” as it’s known in Britain. Waterford has “levelled down” the flour mills, Halls Grain stores, Waterford Ironfounders, Kiely’s Brewery, Swift’s furniture factory, Waterford Crystal at Kilbarry etc. etc. Certainty about Waterford’s regional role as in the Ireland 2040 Plan and copper-fastening a Waterford HQ, governance and funding for a TUSE, is essential. When is it our turn?
We face a nine months gestation to the TUSE if government deadlines are met. If Harris’ Gang of Four destroy Waterford in January 2022 as many people fear, our Oireachtas members, councillors, Chamber of Commerce and others will find themselves sitting unhappily on the corpse of a dead horse named WIT. The onetime favourite!