Northern Ireland news

Lord Empey backs Derry university expansion as 'sectarian' row overshadows higher eduction debate

Lord Adonis said the failure to establish a university in Derry was a 'sectarian scandal'. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

A FORMER Stormont minister who had responsibility for higher education has said he supports the expansion of university provision in Derry.

Lord Reg Empey said the sense that Derry had "lost out" when Coleraine was selected as the location for the University of Ulster needed to be remedied through an "incremental increase" in the number of higher education courses in the city.

The Ulster Unionist peer, who was minister for employment and learning from 2007 to 2010, said it was disappointing that the debate around the expansion of Derry's Magee campus was overshadowed by a row about "what happened 50 or 60 years ago".

Lord Empey was referring to Gregory Campbell's angry reaction to Lord Andrew Adonis's claim that the failure to establish a standalone university in Derry was a "sectarian scandal".

The Labour peer, a former adviser to Tony Blair, said Derry was the only place of its prominence in the UK that did not have a higher education institution with its main campus in the city.

He was speaking on Monday in the House of Lords, where he was seeking to amend the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation ) Bill to improve higher education provision in the north and establish a "university whose principal campus is in Derry/Londonderry".

"It is deeply unfair that Derry/Londonderry continues to lose out because of the historical decision to base the headquarters of Ulster University in Coleraine following the Lockwood Report in the 1960s, particularly since this was made in the context of deep sectarianism that the young people of Northern Ireland do not recognise today and should not continue to suffer from," he said.

Mr Campbell said the Labour peer had previously claimed Derry was “denied its own university” – suggesting he was unaware the existence of the city's Magee campus.

"As with most things Lord Adonis prefers to grandstand for cheap publicity rather than take any action that could actually help," the East Derry MP said.

"Were he truly interested in the university in Londonderry or any of the other issues impacting upon people in Northern Ireland then he would be urging Sinn Féin to lift their devolution boycott."

Lord Empey told The Irish News said the establishment of a medical school in Derry would be "perfect" for redressing previous underinvestment but acknowledged that funding for such a project may not be available.

"I'm not saying the original decision was sectarian but I recognise the legacy of feeling – whether justified or not – that the city somehow lost out," he said.

"In order to remedy that we need to gradually build up the footprint and presence of the university course by course – it's important to put the right curriculum in place to attract student numbers."

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