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
ON February 11, 2020, David Cullinane famously sang in a pub following his stunning electoral victory. Before launching into song David gave his supporters an unfiltered political assessment of the situation. Waterford’s politics had been upended.
Late that night, he told his supporters that he had received more first preference votes than the four Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates put together. More first preferences votes than Mayor Damien Geoghegan, Senator John Cummins, Minister Mary Butler and Cllr Eddie Mulligan, all put together. He had shown up Waterford’s old Fianna Fáil stalwarts who had told him he would never be a councillor, never be a TD, and now he was on the cusp of being a minister. Astutely, he checked himself. The only thing that could stop him from becoming a minister was if Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael came together for the sole purpose of denying Sinn Féin power. If that happens David told his supporters they would stand two candidates in Waterford so they can boot Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael out. David displayed his formidable political antenna, before continuing into the better reported parts of his midnight presentation.
Behind him was a banner saying ‘Stand up – Fight back’, he was introduced as a man who had received an unbelievable mandate to deliver for Waterford. David describes himself as a fighter for Waterford. He has ridden the anger at Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael’s abandonment of Waterford and the South East. He manned the barricades, carried the banners for cardiac care and the hospital in general, for the lack of economic development and attention from our D4 SoCoDo overlords.
‘There is something unbalanced and almost Orwellian in the equation, our naïve belief versus their proven antipathy, which should have alarm bells ringing’
The last few elections in Waterford have been about channelling anger. In 2011 anger was turned at Fianna Fáil stuffing up the economy and at Martin Cullen’s treatment in cabinet. In 2016 and 2020 it was vitriolic anger at Fine Gael and the twin issues of losing control of the hospital to Cork, and the forced merger of WIT into a technological university, when a full university was what was asked for, promised by Fine Gael, and needed. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, under Cork tutelage, have responded in predictable ways, ignoring Waterford until it comes back to heel and accepts its place as a lesser county-town style county, the next Carrick-on-Shannon, Ennis or Cavan. Like Proust in “À la recherche du temps perdu”, we have our memories. Our city before its status and facilities became economic fodder for our more politically advantaged neighbours? Fancy a VEC anyone?
Yet, this week David lined up with the Government as the technological university process was forced through despite union worries about its content and direction and turned on (in a Damien Tiernan interview) the other person who brands himself as a fighter for Waterford, Matt Shanahan. Maybe David, John Cummins, Mary Butler, Marc O’Cathasaigh and the Chamber of Commerce et al, are absolutely correct in grabbing the TUSE project and accepting the political promises of a minister and a party who have hardly delivered to Waterford? Maybe belief in the process will do the trick and we can trust the people who for 10 years took an axe to the status of our city, our hospital and embedded a deliberate policy of denying WIT courses and investment, while simultaneously bigging up Carlow IT and declaring it the equal of WIT? The Public Private Partnership for the proposed new WIT Engineering Block is still not signed. Talk of buying the Crystal site has evaporated. The uncertainty over the HQ location and governance on their own should have been enough to foment vehement political concern from our political opposition, but did not… Matt Shanahan and all our local councillors excepted! There is something unbalanced and almost Orwellian in the equation, our naïve belief versus their proven antipathy, which should have alarm bells ringing.
Anyway, the TUSE ship has sailed, WIT’s governing body has signed off on the application and the allegedly apocryphal statement by Phil Hogan that “there will be a university in the South East and the name Waterford won’t be over the door” will come to pass. I feel our city has been politically humiliated, distanced from its peers and betrayed by Fine Gael policy over the past decade to drive it into the realms of the county towns, but while many locals do not trust them, hope springs eternal etc. Maybe Simon Harris and Leo Varadkar will declare for WIT and the regional city their Ireland 2040 plans for? Maybe my analysis is completely wrong? Should the investment promises be fulfilled and TUSE turn out to be the successful university of scale Waterford needs, it will be happy days and I will gladly and publicly recant.
David Cullinane himself has an interesting history with the Technological University. My understanding is that it is formal Sinn Féin party policy to sign on to the merger and rationalisation of the Institute of Technology sector. Readers may recall that David made great political hay in Dublin taking WIT leadership apart when he sat on the Public Accounts Committee, which one presumes to be one of the reasons why they were so timid in the TUSE negotiations. And boy, have they been timid! I hope for all our sakes that we are not seeing an early sign of David preparing himself for Dublin power, for Sinn Féin will surely be in power after the next general election and a ministerial career will beckon for him.
None of us could bear the thought of him walking the same road that Mary Butler and many of our TDs have done in promising deliverance for the constituency in opposition, only to leave their Waterford anger behind as they hit the Red Cow and the proximity of power. Only time will tell.
And speaking of time, you might remember that the powers that be gave a public commitment that the second cath lab at UHW would begin construction in the first quarter of 2021. It was announced in Aug/Sept 2018, nearly three years ago and despite all the huffing and puffing, work still has not started, although local contractor Tom O’Brien has been declared the successful bidder for the job. It reeks of deliberate delay designed to suck the good out of the project. SSWHG management in Wilton in Cork must have special training in delaying UHW projects. Maybe they could tell us when work will actually start, because at this rate it will be Q3 before a brick is laid on our second cath lab, within a hairs breath of three years since it was agreed. Meanwhile, we believe in the process!
I hear that there is a council webinar coming up shortly with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar in attendance where some new directions for Waterford city will be discussed.
The only new direction we want to see is investment. Fine Gael knew in 2008 that a university was necessary for Waterford. They promised it and reneged on a UL equivalent facility in favour of a geographically dispersed entity which solves political aspirations and may end up leaving WIT weaker than it is at present as TUSE locations compete politically for funding. Odds on we will face a 20 year dogfight just to get the TUSE established and I will go to my grave believing that a single University of Waterford would deliver for this region in every facet of regional education and development to a level far beyond anything TUSE might ever achieve. But of course, we weren’t worth it!