Northern Ireland news

Cross border John Hume University should be located in Derry

Fine Gael TD Colm Burke believes a cross border John Hume Memorial university would "right a wrong".
Colm Burke TD

Derry is the fifth largest city on the island of Ireland, closely matching Limerick in population size. Of the six largest cities on the Island, Derry is the only one without a university.

The decision in 1965 to establish Northern Ireland's second university, now Ulster University, in Coleraine and not in Derry was strongly influenced by political and sectarian considerations. Had the right decision been made in 1965, Northern Ireland might have followed a different path in the decades that followed. Nationalists would have seen that a politically frozen system might be capable of change by peaceful means. John Hume subsequently claimed that the decision not to build the new university in Derry was the immediate cause of Northern Ireland's Civil Rights movement and reduced the space for a peaceful solution to the sectarian divides within Northern Ireland.

It is never too late to right a wrong. However, I suggest that the ambition to have a full university in Derry should not be constrained by any border. Derry, the second largest city in Ulster, is the capital of the North West region. The Irish government, under the leadership of An Taoiseach Michael Martin, is committed to the concept of a 'Shared Island' and is prepared to back that commitment with substantial funding.

I believe that a university for the North West based in Derry is an ideal project for a Shared Island approach. The existing colleges of higher education in the region could be incorporated into the governance and academic structures of the new university. In this regard, the Institutes of Technology in Galway, Sligo and Letterkenny have plans to establish a Connacht/Ulster Technological University. I think it is important that those campaigning for a university in Derry should engage directly with Simon Harris, Minister for Higher Education, and his department on policy issues surrounding the provision of higher education in the North West region.

The educational, social, and economic benefits of a full university in the North West, with its main campus located in Derry are compelling. It would bring new energy and dynamism to the region. Educational stakeholders and communities in the North West should be involved in a deep consultation process in preparing a mission statement for the new university and how it might reflect and respond to the needs of the people and communities in the region.

I have previously suggested that a new university for the North West region might be called John Hume Memorial University. The level of national and international respect and goodwill for John Hume and his achievements is enormous. The establishment of a university in his honour would garner widespread support and significant public and private funding in Ireland, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and from the Irish diaspora and friends of Ireland all around the world. A university in John Hume's name would attract academics and students from all around the world.

Reflecting John' Hume's absolute commitment to non-violence and the pursuit of peace, an Institute for Conflict Resolution and Peace Studies should be a major element in the new university. Over time such an institute, I believe, would make an important contribution to finding solutions to complex political conflicts around the world.

The new university might also have a school of Ulster/Scottish studies reflecting more than two thousand years of intertwined history between Scotland and Ulster. It might be called the Colmcille/Columba School.

The very strong literary, musical, and cultural traditions of the North West should be represented in a School of Literature and the Arts at the University and it might be called the Seamus Heaney School.

A new university should also have strong engineering and business departments focussing on new green energies and sustainable economic development. Derry is ideally positioned to be a leader in renewable energy technologies, particularly in the marine area.

The promoters of a new regional university in the North West should have big ambitions. A new university should not see itself in a regional context only. It should be open to the world. It should have ambitions to be a university attracting staff and students from a wide range of countries and from every continent. From the very beginning it should concentrate on building strong academic linkages with American, European, British and Irish universities. Africa, South America and Asia should be included as part of an outreach development strategy.

City regions are the drivers of social and economic development all around the world. One hundred years ago Ireland and Ulster were arbitrarily partitioned, based on a sectarian headcount. Derry City was unfairly cut off from part of its natural hinterland in Donegal and Sligo. Its potential has never been fully realised.

A new regional university for the North West with its main campus located in Derry would be a dynamic agent for positive change at regional, national and international level. We are all living through a period of great uncertainty. A new university for the North West in my opinion, would provide the leadership skills required to meet the challenges to come.

Colm Burke is Fine Gael TD for Cork North-Central and party spokesman on health.

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