Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris. Photo: The Irish Times


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


ONCE again the squeeze is on Waterford TDs. The thorny old question of whether they sell Waterford’s issues in Dublin, or do they sell Dublin’s issues to their Waterford electorate, is in the air. Being in a political party means following the whip. When you are whipped by your party, a TD’s unpalatable choice is to leave their party or try to sweeten the pill before having it rammed down your constituents’ throat. Politics is not a game for the thin-skinned, or for those seeking validation on social media.

On the other side of the squeeze this time, are all the 32 local government representatives elected to Waterford City and County Council. They voted unanimously, in a recorded vote, for more clarity from government on the Technological University, particularly over the headquarters and funding, before WIT is dissolved later this month in a move towards TUSE.

Despite the endless lockdown, 2021 is very different from 2020. The two Fine Gael-led Governments, between 2011 and 2020, were fundamentally opposed to Waterford progressing and getting anything other than angrier. It has been a parlour game in the South East to figure out which individual Fine Gael TDs were strategically opposed to Waterford projects. The cupboard for our TDs during that time was entirely bare. Waterford TDs, who followed the party whip during this wave of destruction, were burned out of office or ran for the hills.


‘It has been a parlour game in the South East to figure out which individual Fine Gael TDs were strategically opposed to Waterford projects’


The 2021 Government is a bit different. The tender for the long awaited second cath lab has been awarded, with construction commencing in May. The public funding element of the North Quays has been approved. Projects are coming through in dribs and drabs, slowly, less than a fair share of funding, but somethings are getting through. National politics is not fully working for the South East, but is no longer actively trying to kill us off. Just look at the recent orgy of Ceausescuesque spending in Cork though: a new €30m runway, an entirely new quarter for Cork city, massive public housing, some new university buildings at €100 million a pop. Like Noonan plundering for Limerick, Micheál Martin is a Taoiseach for Cork. Martin has the ECB printing money. Michael Noonan must wish that largesse was available to him.

Last summer the Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris lost patience with Waterford and sent down a retired civil servant to knock heads together. It does appear that the Minister cut corners in making the appointment, hiring someone with a colourful history of being at the centre of considerable misfortune for WIT over the past decade, and breaching Government procurement procedures. Not that such detail bothers anyone in the Dublin media, it’s Waterford, who gives a shite?

Since then the Minister has publicly threatened all and sundry with his ‘only show in town’ line. He is right. The TU is a side-show of unfunded, insubstantial, make-believe and is not the UL equivalent university of size and substance this region so desperately needs. His phrase also reveals Fine Gael’s underlying strategy of turning Waterford City into a provincial town, a policy underway since 2011. As well as calling the TU “the only show in town”, we are told there is no plan B. Suck up your gruel or else! Is this the way to deal with an educational deficit that has damaged this city and region for generations?

Suggestions have also been made that existing funding commitments, particularly to WIT’s Engineering Building, in planning since 2007 and frozen since 2011, will not proceed until the TU application is on the Minister’s desk. The Higher Education Authority website said on August 18, 2020, “A second bundle of projects is expected to go to tender in Quarter 1, 2021. This includes projects located in Waterford IT and IT Carlow, which are part of the consortium seeking to establish a Technological University for the South East.” There is no sign of it as the Harris, Fine Gael blackmail of WIT continues. Harris is all sticks, no carrots. All this is enough to wonder if Mr Harris instructed his head knocker to get WIT signatures or (more) brains splashed on the TU application?

David Cullinane, the leader of the pack, Marc Ó Cathasaigh, Mary Butler and John Cummins are cheerleading the TU, yet the Minister has been clear. Waterford is getting nothing for signing up for the TU. If goodies were available, as in Cork, Harris would be in Waterford announcing them. His silence and failure to come and discuss the matter with local media or local elected representatives, is politically shocking and displays outright contempt for WIT and Waterford.

WIT risks losing out badly in the battle for the HQ, Wexford is getting a 100,000 square feet campus, and the IT Carlow minnow is to be treated as a fully equal partner to WIT despite its research programme being one eleventh in size. In their public jollying along of the TU, Oireachtas members (led by Mr Cullinane), eyes firmly on party whips and future electoral advantage in Wexford/ Carlow/ Kilkenny, are politically on the hook for making the TU work. If they damage or break WIT through this dubious merger, they will have to pick up the pieces. If the HQ leaves the region’s capital, and the sunny uplands of substantial funding does not emerge very soon, they will be in dire electoral trouble. If you listen carefully, not one of the usual WIT windbags has made a case for the TU. Indeed, I cannot recall one WIT voice in favour of the current proposal.

The Technological University is the first dirty bit of business our TDs have had to contend with in this Dáil. Senator John Cummins, who like his father before him, failed to get elected but found a spot in the Seanad to keep the political dream alive, is a TU cheerleader and must be included. I should also slightly exclude Matt Shanahan, who despite being a supporter of the TU, he, like our councillors, is sensibly asking for clarification before joining the cheerleaders.

Barring a political accident, our Oireachtas members will face their voters in a general election just under four years’ away, enough time to know if they or the councillors called this right. The scorecard is the brain drain statistics, if they have not started to drop, the TU will be an absolute failure. At this point, TUSE looks more like another seismic strategic loss for Waterford, a regional own goal, and a quite remarkable replay of the hospital grouping debacle. Losing strategic control of our region’s hospital forces us to rely on the kindness of Corkonians for our acute healthcare. With the likes of South South-Western Group’s Gerry O’Dwyer and Geraldine McCarthy looking after us, it is surprising that Bishop Phonsie has not recovered his flock. The TU is not as emotive as the hospital, but it is more central to the future of the city and region.

Four Simon Harris appointees to a new TU board will meet in January 2022 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 and Chamber of Commerce are prepared to accept this. Simon Harris has given us nothing but spoof and waffle, so let’s bet the future of our children on him? With most of our Oireachtas members jollying along the technological university, underpinned by threats and bully boy tactics, for their sakes, it better work.

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By Phoenix
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