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
IN the relative political quietness of Easter there was time to reflect on recent developments. The awarding of the contract for construction of the second UHW cath lab was a cause for some real celebration. Five years of protest eventually paid off and all our political representatives could feel justifiably proud.
In essence it was a victory for people power. It goes to show that accepting negative government diktat without protest results in “Live horse and get grass”! Without political power, which has been palpable here over the past decade, the only avenue to progress any agenda is to keep hammering away at the politicians.
TDs are elected in Ireland to deliver to their constituency. End of story. That’s the country we live in, dysfunctional at best and open to grab all politicians who never hesitate to push the queue aside in pursuit of the aggrandisement of their own constituency. It’s a political fact of life.
Ireland may have grand plans and grand, national objectives announced with the full panoply of government, glossy brochures, PR agencies, acres of newsprint and media presentations by minister uncounted. But these announcements rarely survive the election of a powerful minister. Priorities change and headline projects for areas without political power can wither on the vine for years, awaiting necessary funding.
‘Promises of the purchase of the Waterford Crystal site and expanded funding for WIT post TUSE merger are typical “jam tomorrow” political get out of jail cards’
Our cause celebre is the new UHW mortuary. First mentioned in 2002, elevated to a HSE priority in 2010, planning permission granted in 2015 and eventually constructed after a political debacle in 2020. Would it have happened without a massive political foot in mouth episode? Anyway, go out to Ardkeen and see the finished product. It has all the architectural bells and whistles one could hope for and given its very visible location at the junction of Dunmore Road and Maypark Lane, a lot of effort was expended to make an architectural statement. UHW is gradually leaving behind the prosaic finishes that so undermined its physical impact.
In the 1970s and 1980s, towns and cities around the country got well designed and impressive looking new hospitals. Waterford got WRH, which in its exterior finishes was (deliberately in my view) redolent of Victorian county home construction. It has been said that all the money went on maximising internal space for a hospital, which was 30% smaller than originally planned and given the times that were in it, there may be truth in that. But important buildings need to look important, especially in this country.
Anyway, the latest welcome news is the announcement of a new ophthalmology theatre for UHW. This has been on the priority list I believe since 2017. It’s a mere child in delay terms. It has been mentioned in despatches for some years and that is another lesson. If a project is on the HSE list somewhere, there is always a chance it will get done.
There has been much talk of several overdue projects for UHW in recent months, such as a new mental health unit and a new orthopaedic wing, which should bring the hospital nearer to being a full spec Model 4 facility. Time will tell.
Still waiting at WIT
The biggest delay of all has hit the long awaited new engineering building at WIT. This was first announced in 2009 and was ready to go until cancelled at the last minute in 2011. Ten years later all that remains of that ambition is a blank site on the Cork Road. In the headlong political rush to create a TUSE, it has again surfaced. It is being held over our heads as far as I can see, as a sword of Damocles. Engage with the TUSE process and sign off on the merger with Carlow IT in a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on 28th April next and all promised will come to pass. That’s according to the Minister for Further Education Simon Harris. You may recall he was the man who gave the go ahead for the second cath lab in September 2018. It took a general election with the election of Matt Shanahan as an independent cardiology candidate and a new Fianna Fáil minister for Health to deliver the project. So maybe, ”put not your faith in Fine Gael ministers” might be a sensible way to proceed?
Last year, a Public Private Partnership (PPP) procedure for a bundle of new third level buildings in Dublin and Cork was announced. It’s amazing that places that needed the investment the least were those who got it first. Political patronage anyone? The Higher Education Authority, that institution formerly headed up by Tom Boland, the man selected out of nowhere by Simon Harris to push the WIT/Carlow IT “merger of equals” through, carries a news item from 18th August 2020 on its website. It’s fairly explicit. “A second bundle of projects is expected to go to tender in Q1 2021. This includes five projects located in Waterford IT and IT Carlow, which are part of the consortium seeking to establish a Technological University for the South East.”
We are now in the second week of the second quarter of 2021 and there has been no news of a PPP for the WIT engineering building. Of course we will be told that the Covid pandemic has caused unfortunate delay, but the conspiracy theorists among us see this as simply ministerial and departmental blackmail of WIT to force the institution into the TUSE merger. With all the recent disingenuous blather about funding to WIT being “increased” and “doubled”, the visible reality is no new investment in teaching space at WIT has happened since 2006. Its course development has been stymied and a long awaited new Business School has been cancelled, while similar facilities are being constructed in Cork and Dublin universities.
Promises of the purchase of the Waterford Crystal site and expanded funding for WIT post TUSE merger are typical “jam tomorrow” political get out of jail cards. Simon Harris has refused invitations to discuss the issue with Damien Tiernan on WLR lest he be questioned about its increasingly evident financial, organisational and governance deficits and for fear that criticism would leak into the national media and undermine the process. If the TUSE will be so good for Waterford should he not be prepared to defend it here, where the impact of his decisions will be most keenly felt?
On the wider local scene we still face delay on the North Quays project, where the necessary contracts have still not been signed by the proposed developer. Funding has been announced by government for the various items of infrastructure that the site needs and one would have thought that these should proceed regardless of what the developers will or will not do? The site will be developed in some way at some stage given its pivotal and attractive location as well as its SDZ status, but most people will not accept that reality until they see some sort of construction underway.
It is noteworthy that every place seems to have its own version of the North Quays under way or in planning at the moment. In Cork its Horgan’s Quay, in Limerick it’s the Opera Centre, in Galway it’s at Ceannt Station, Wexford has its Trinity Wharf development and Kilkenny has its Abbey Quarter. I am sure there are more around the country. Towns and cities stand still for no one. Change is everywhere and it’s a question of keeping up with the Joneses or slipping behind. It is hardly an understatement to say that we need to see action in Waterford!