Hanafin and Cullen clash over Waterford IT status

 

Two Cabinet Ministers sharply disagreed with each other over demands for university status for Waterford Institute of Technology during a meeting with Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators, it has emerged.

The exchanges on Tuesday night between Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin and Minister for Social and Family Affairs, Waterford TD, Martin Cullen took colleagues by surprise.

"It was quite extraordinary. I can't remember the last time that I saw anything like that happen in public with Cabinet Ministers," one Fianna Fáil TD told The Irish Times.

The disagreement emerged after Wexford TD Seán Connick and Carlow/Kilkenny TD Bobby Aylward put down a motion urging the Government to grant university status to the institute, as it has long sought.

Responding, Ms Hanafin said the issue of Waterford IT's status as a university - for which the institute formally applied two years ago - had been discussed at senior level within the Government for several years.

However, she said it was not "as simple" as giving university status to the college, because this would have implications for other universities - all of whom are opposed to extra universities being created.

Waterford and Dublin's Institute of Technology have both applied to be upgraded, though nearly every other institute will also seek promotion if concessions are made to either of them.

The lack of university status for Waterford had not affected the numbers of students from the southeast in third level education, or on employment in the region, colleagues quoted her as telling the meeting.

However, Mr Cullen, who had become visibly more upset as Ms Hanafin went on, according to a number of witnesses, interjected: "That is not correct."

He then went on - to the astonishment of colleagues - sharply to attack the Department of Education's treatment of the institute, and to accuse it of treating the Waterford campaign unfairly.

He then disagreed with Ms Hanafin's assertion that universities in Finland had been told to merge because there were too many of them, pointing out that Finland has 20 universities, compared with Ireland's seven.

The department had traditions dating back 100 years, he said, and it was determined that its vision of the future for education would be heeded, at the expense of everyone else.

The future of the Waterford third level institute is increasingly occupying local TDs' time since most of them attended a meeting hosted by Minister of State for Agriculture John Browne with local chambers of commerce yesterday.

The Cullen/Hanafin row happened after Taoiseach Bertie Ahern had left the meeting and Ms Hanafin took the chair. "I assume that it would not have happened if Bertie had been able to stay for the full meeting," commented one TD last night.

Mr Ahern, who has given considerable comfort in the past to those in Waterford and the region behind university status, is likely to face further pressure on the issue tomorrow when he visits Waterford city.

The formal application to the department by Waterford Institute of Technology seeking upgrading to university status was lodged in February 2006, which led to the appointment of Dr Jim Port in November 2006 to conduct a preliminary assessment of the college's submission.

The Port report was given to the department over 12 months ago and is being studied by officials and Ms Hanafin, though senior political figures insist that it is very positive about the Waterford application.