LOCAL councillors have intensely scrutinised Ulster University’s commitment to Derry with one representative suggesting it is going to “smash and grab” City Deal money.
Members of Derry City and Strabane District Council’s Governance and Strategic Planning Committee heard how Council is forging ahead with the next stage of the City Deal.
It is anticipated that the UK government investment package of £105m will be at least matched by a similar commitment from the NI Executive and will lever further investment from project partners and other third-party sources leading to an overall investment of around £300m.
According to Council, part of the City Deal will be built around growth of the Magee campus and scaling up of research and innovation assets in health and life sciences, personalised medicine, cognitive analytics and artificial intelligence amongst other projects.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Ulster University (UU) representatives, including Dr Malachy O'Neill, Provost of the Magee campus, were on hand to speak about projects at Magee and answer questions about its role in the City Deal.
For example, a UU rep spoke about the development of a Personalised Medicine Centre of Excellence and how it would focus on harnessing the power of Genomics to predict and diagnose inherited and acquired disease and to personalise treatments and interventions.
While welcoming the progress report and information around four key projects a number of Parties and councillors were sceptical. A letter from Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, David Sterling, warning that Ulster University is not ready to deliver a medical school for Derry did nothing to ease those concerns.
Mr Sterling said UU is not proposing to finance the Magee medical school from within its own resources and he “must ensure value for money for the taxpayer”.
SDLP Cllr Sinead McLaughlin told the meeting there was “no ambiguity” in the letter from Mr Sterling and that plan B should be explored.
Cllr McLaughlin asked UU what they could do now to demonstrate their intentions and commitment to Derry, suggesting that healthcare courses, such as physiotherapy and radiotherapy, could be relocated from Jordanstown to Magee. They could be as successful as the nursing course at Magee, in her view.
“Ulster University needs to put its money where its mouth is, and move courses in without further delay. What level of commitment and progress are we going to see from Ulster University?”
She said the City Deal requires UU to declare “we are going for it”, adding, “health sciences must be aligned with this city and region. If they leave Jordanstown and go elsewhere then that sends the wrong message.”
In response, the provost said there has been “tremendous growth” in the Stratified Medicine and Sport, Physical Activity and Health courses at the Magee campus. Alongside the Nursing course it is putting the campus in an “incredibly strong position”, he claimed.
Independent Cllr Paul Gallagher said: “There was talk of data, if the university’s reputation was presented at the top table it wouldn’t look well.”
He told the meeting that any promises of expansion have all gone to Belfast while courses have been stripped from Derry and he suggested David Sterling has alternative plans for investment.
“This looks like a smash and grab, we’ll take the City Deal money and then we’re away. Will these projects be easily shifted?
“Are those in leadership positions walking around being led by the hand by an organisation that has failed this city for decades?”
Cllr Gallagher remained unconvinced and suggested the Council needs to look at plan B.
Meanwhile, Cllr Gary Donnelly, Independent, said UU has failed to deliver on its promises and instead engaged in “systematic dis-investment, almost destroying the integrity of the Derry campus.”
“It doesn’t take a genius or professor to work out what a properly funded would do for citizens in this district.”
He also urged UU to give a “binding commitment” and asked what Council could do if these “promises” were not upheld.
Sinn Féin Councillor Mickey Cooper thanked Dr O'Neill and the other representatives for outlining their progress. He referred to a letter from Mr Sterling, saying “further delays are unacceptable”.
Cllr Cooper believes the university is “moving in the right direction” and can see “progress” in the past six months. He added that he was “very positive” in the face of “negativity”.
His sentiments were shared by DUP Councillor Alderman Hilary McClintock who said the Council has always given cross-party support to university expansion. She described Mr Sterling’s letter as “disappointing” but wished UU “well in pushing forward”.
Meanwhile, People Before Profit Cllr Shaun Harkin said the Council had outlined its corporate position before the summer recess when it passed a motion to examine all options, including that of an independent university in Derry.
He said the Derry University Group (DUG) described investment at Magee as the “Christmas present that was often promised but never arrived”. People desperately want expansion at Magee, he said, but are doubtful it will ever happen.
Cllr Harkin also questioned the rationale of putting university buildings on the waterfront given there is a “climate emergency” and water levels are anticipated to rise.
Mr O’Neill gave assurances that UU’s intentions are “genuine”, pointed to the consolidation of I.T. courses at Magee and said that each City Deal partner has to contribute 10% to its project meaning UU would be expected to provide a minimum of £10m.
If you have a story or want to send a photo or video to us please contact the Derry Now editorial team on 028 7129 6600 for Derry City stories Or 028 7774 3970 for County Derry stories. Or you can email [email protected] or [email protected] at any time.