University of Ulster: Magee Expansion

Part of Adjournment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 5:30 pm on 17th September 2013.

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Photo of Colum Eastwood Colum Eastwood Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:30 pm, 17th September 2013

Given what Mr McCartney said, I am reluctant to get too combative, because it is important that we speak with one voice on Magee.  In fact, we have been speaking with one voice on the 'University for Derry' campaign since 1964, when unionist and nationalist leaders came up here to protest against what was a very unjust decision.  It is important to put it in that context, because the people of Derry have been living with that decision since then.  I think that they understand very clearly the importance of education and the link that that has to developing an economy. 

We have made a tremendous effort in Derry this year to prove that we are not going to allow our past to determine our future.  I stood and watched the largest loyalist march in Northern Ireland go through the city centre of Derry with no problems whatsoever.  The very next day, we had the all-Ireland fleadh and the greatest celebration of Irish culture in the world.  So, I think that Derry knows well what its job and responsibility are to deliver on the economy. 

However, it is very difficult for all us whingers — as the Enterprise Minister would have us called — to deliver on those promises when the fundamentals are not right.  The road system is not right, and the higher education system, clearly, is not right. 

I remember the day that the One Plan was launched because I happened to be mayor.  I spoke alongside the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and 9,400 places by 2020 was the headline figure.  I want to make it clear that 9,400 was our compromise, because we recognise — Mr McCartney gave the figures — that cities of a comparable size need a much greater number than 9,400 full-time students.  However, we took that for starters.  Mr Ramsey is right to say that the One Plan included that commitment, but, unfortunately, that was never really followed up in the Programme for Government.  I made the point at the time that the Programme for Government  said that we would "develop" the One Plan.  There was no specific target for or commitment to the most important part of the One Plan, which was the Magee expansion, and there was no specific commitment in a number of other areas. 

That was one of the major failings of the last period.  The SDLP was not the party that changed the "speaking with one voice" phrase or put up posters saying that Magee was guaranteed.  If you do that, you have to be prepared to help to deliver it, and we will engage and commit to any process that brings people together to try to deliver on that promise.  We will not let the Executive away in the smoke either, because the University of Ulster has a commitment and the Minister has a commitment.  However, we really need the whole Executive to say, "This is our commitment now.  We want 9,400 students in Magee, and this is how you do it."  I think that everybody would come up to the mark.  That is the spirit in which we approach the issue.  We will engage in any process to try to help to deliver it, and I am happy to see and support economic plans and cases being made.  The economic case is as clear as day:  an expanded university with the right courses at Magee would make a massive difference to the economy of Derry, Donegal, Tyrone and all the surrounding areas.  So we will support anything that will help to make that easier, but it has to be pointed out that the case has already been made — it has been made repeatedly. 

It is difficult for us to see the University of Ulster committing to a £200 million project in Belfast.  We do not begrudge Belfast a £200 million university project, but people in Derry see that and do not see anywhere near an equivalent commitment to our city.  However, we are here to be positive and supportive.  We hope that the Minister will get the support from his colleagues around the Executive table to deliver this, but a political will needs to come from every single part of the Assembly and Executive to make it happen.  If we do not deliver, in 50 years' time, people will not thank us, because this mistake was made 50 years ago and still has not been corrected.