An Old Sore

Posted By: November 22, 2013

Fifty years ago, the flagrant decision to deny Derry a university became the perfect symbol of Unionist anti-Catholic bigotry… And the issue still rankles this Derry columnist.


Denis Bradley, Irish News ( Belfast). Friday, November 22, 2013
ISN’T it strange that I have become reluctant to mention Derry and the university in the same sentence? Probably because the word ‘whinger’ springs to mind. Those who have attached the whinger word to Derry have done their work well. They have made more sensitive souls check the whinge barometer before expressing an opinion. Those who control third level education have also done their work well. They have convinced a lot of people, including a lot of powerful politicians, that there is something tainted and selfish in demanding a university for Derry.

Fifty years ago Derry thought it was getting the second university. It didn’t. It went to Coleraine. That left a sour taste in Derry mouths, so sour that some commentators trace our ‘troubles’ back to that decision. The university that was built on green fields outside Coleraine didn’t work too well because 20 years later the new university was amalgamated with the polytechnic in Jordanstown outside of Belfast. Magee College in Derry was tagged on to the merger to make it look more respectable. The split was roughly 15,000 thousand students to Jordanstown, eight to Coleraine and about 4,000 to Derry. After a fair amount of pressure from the political and business interests, the university recently admitted that 4,000 students could hardly be described as a university campus and that any growth from now on should go to Derry to bring student numbers to 9,000. The pressure arose out of an economic assessment, accepted by all political parties, that Derry had little economic future without a university campus of reasonable size. Any fair minded person would admit that settling for 9,000 was probably pragmatic and certainly unselfish. It wasn’t a full blown university and it wasn’t precisely what you would expect in an ancient regional capital. But Derry had become accustomed to settling for half a loaf.

No wonder then that I nearly fell out of the bed the other morning when I heard Raymond McCartney of Sinn Fein say, in a radio interview, that 9,000 students was probably over ambitious. I really did fall out of the bed the next morning when, on the same station, Richard Barnett, the vice-chancellor of the university, said that he agreed that 9,000 was overly ambitious and that it would take many years to grow the campus to those numbers but perhaps in the next few years it might be possible to reach a target of around 5,000.

This is the same university that says it now has to move out of Jordanstown to move to north Belfast. The buildings in Jordanstown, they say, are no longer fit for purpose and that universities are best situated among the infrastructure and busyness of a city rather than in the seclusion and isolation of green field sites. They are proposing to spend over £200 million in establishing an expanded campus in Belfast. No cognisance that it would be simpler, cheaper, fairer or as they say in political circles, more equitable, to move the courses to Derry. No tolerance either for the proposal that a compromise would bring half of the courses to Derry and half to north Belfast.

Few people outside Derry realise just how deep the anger and hurt about this issue is. It won’t bring hundreds or thousands on to the streets to protest. Those days are gone, at least for the present. But the memory and the ongoing failure to even acknowledge never mind rectify that hurt confirms the deep distrust of the west towards central government. It is doubly hurtful that the issue doesn’t get commentated upon or debated much outside of Derry. The university and the political parties react as though it were a local matter, of little interest to the rest of the north. If that is true then there is very little political sophistication or foresight among those who claim leadership.

Fifty years ago the Londonderry Sentinel, a mouthpiece of unionism, wrote the following: “But let there be no doubt the fact that Londonderry is setting out on an uphill struggle because there will be the most stubborn resistance in Belfast to any effort to secure a university for Londonderry.”

A year later the same paper’s front page headlined: “Londonderry, ancient seat of learning, second city of Ulster, outraged by the government’s decision refusing its claim for a university will present its demand for justice at Stormont tomorrow.” Fifty years later and we are going around the same bush.