‘The most important issue to come beforethe city this century’
Today (October 10) marks Magee College’s 150th anniversary: as the seemingly Sisyphean endeavour of securing for it its rightful place as a 21st century third level centre of excellence continues, we look back at a major misstep in the institution’s illustrious history.
On February 10, 1965, Sir John Lockwood’s report on higher education in Northern Ireland recommended that a second university be located in Coleraine - at the time, a small market town with population 12,000.
The decision whipped up a storm of controversy in the jilted second city of Londonderry.
Controversially, Paragraph 221 of the report had concluded that Coleraine alone could “provide the residential facilities, which must be made available in the critical years ahead and it has amenities, which can be greatly developed.”
This was, of course, a reference to the army of landladies on the North Coast, who had been a supplier of digs to summer holiday makers for generations.
But there were also ominous references, in Paragraph 221, to the apparent need to avoid a case, where local authorities would “be influenced by other considerations, which could impede development and progress” at a new university.
And in Paragraph 215 the report stated: “It is also essential that the development of a new university should be able to proceed smoothly and successfully through the planning and later stages unaffected by political considerations either at local or central government level.”
What these “other” and “political considerations” were, aren’t explicitly spelled out in the report itself, but according to a note of a meeting of the Lockwood Committee, which took place in June 1964, following its visits to both Londonderry and Coleraine, the remark was made that: “Derry gave the impression of a frontier town and had never lost its siege mentality. The pioneers of the new university might have to spend their energies needed elsewhere on staying non-aligned in the ‘cold war.’”
Whilst forgoing the need for state-of-the-art new student accomodation blocks held an undeniable appeal for penny-pinching officals, there remained the strong and unshakeable suspicion that Londonderry was rejected for political reasons as shall be seen later.
Today the Sentinel looks back at how the recommendation was pushed through by the Government of the day despite the mobilisation of a strong cross-community lobby in the Maiden City that fought a doomed campaign to overturn the snub.
Just two days before Higher Education in Northern Ireland: Report of the Committee appointed by the Minister of Finance - or the Lockwood Report - was published, a large meeting was convened in the Guildhall to protest against the report’s anticipated recommendation in favour of Coleraine and to organise the University for Derry Action Committee (UDAC).
It was attended by a number of local notables and characterised by impassioned speeches and a striking show of unity between nationalists and unionists.
In the eyes of the Unionist Mayor AW Anderson it was no less than: “The most important issue to come before the city this century.”
In a speech conspicuously oblivious to the official Unionist Party line, he enthused that: “Whatever the results of the report we must remain united.
“If it decides that the university must go somewhere else then we must fight that. I do not care what the Government’s decision is or whose Government it is we must fight for Derry and Londonderry.”
Nationalist leader Eddie McAteer warned that: “The Government might be able to slap down the men of Derry. They might even be able to slap down the men of Londonderry. But they cannot slap down the men of Derry and Londonderry.”
The tangible fervour summoned by the speakers arose out of speculative anxiety that had been caused by an after dinner speech by a former Mayor, Sir Basil McFarland, who in late December 1964, had expressed doubt that the Lockwood Report would “do Derry much good.”
When it was published on Wednesday, February 10, 1965, there was uproar at the recommendation, not only that the second university be located in Coleraine (Paragraph 221), but further, that the Lockwood Committee saw no alternative to the discontinuance of Magee University College, which was gearing up for its centenary celebrations in October 1965 (Paragraph 226).
Along with the report a Government white paper accepting all its recommendations, save the one concerning Magee, was also published prompting the UDAC to up its campaign and organise a huge protest on Thursday, February 18.
This protest was backed by the Londonderry Corporation at a special meeting on Wednesday, February 17, when it was resolved to attend as a body at Stormont the following day and present the Prime Minister Terence O’Neill with the Londonderry case as well as “several attractive and suitable sites” that it proposed could be used for university purposes.
The demonstration involved a motorcade of over 1,000 vehicles travelling from Londonderry to Stormont, while in Londonderry itself a two-minute silence was observed with schools, shops and public houses closing for all or part of the day.
At Stormont the Londonderry delegation, led by Anderson and McAteer, was met by the Prime Minister, who was unsurprisingly non-committal regarding the UDAC complaints.
However, he must have been alarmed at the dangerously large crowd assembled around the Carson monument having had the prescience to be fearful of the potential strength of the lobby, which could be raised in support of Magee.
He had raised the potential for a reaction at a Cabinet meeting two months earlier.
Eddie McAteer was confident that the visible show of strength could be used to bring pressure on the Prime Minister: “I persuaded him to look out from his window at the crowds gathered in front of the building. No person could fail to be impressed by such a large display of heads.”
McAteer wrongly regarded this as a “moment of realisation,” which given subsequent events it obviously was not.
A young John Hume, Chairman of the UDAC and a senior co-ordinator of the protest, also viewed Londonderry’s case as “unanswerable” and expressed confidence in the people of Northern Ireland’s “normal sense of justice,” but it turned out that O’Neill was doggedly determined that the Government endorsement of Lockwood be upheld.
Two weeks later, the Lockwood Report came before the Northern Ireland Parliament in a debate that would last for over sixteen hours and, which would effectively deal a hammer blow to the UDAC.
The debate was characterised both by the unflinching determination of the Government to railroad the report through, and by the general opposition of the majority of speakers to the Government’s motion, which moved: “That the Report on Higher Education in Northern Ireland (CmD. 475) be taken into consideration and the Government Statement thereon (Cmd 480) be now endorsed.”
Anger was voiced that the Government had not allowed the Lockwood Report to come before Parliament for discussion before it had issued its white paper endorsing it.
There was also discontent at the fact that the party Whip was being deployed to ensure that potentially disaffected unionist members voted for the motion.
Of the 32 members who spoke in the debate only four came out in favour of the Government, if the Prime Minister and the Minister of Education, Herbert Kirk, are left aside.
These were Alexander Hunter (Carrick, Antrim), Robert Simpson (mid-Antrim), Phelim O’Neill (North Antrim) and naturally, Joseph Burns, who as Member for North Londonderry, was representative of the Coleraine interest.
Others, such as Walter Scott (South Tyrone), Dinah McNabb (North Armagh), George Hawthorne (Central Armagh) and Harold McLure (Queen’s University) showed varying degrees of concern, in their speeches about the Government’s handling of the affair but in the end voted in favour.
In this they were joined by a future leader of the Unionist Party, Harry West, who was then the Minister of Agriculture and a Member for Enniskillen, and Edward Jones, the Attorney General and a Member for the City of Londonderry, neither of whom spoke in the debate, but as members of the Government, were particularly obliged to go against their consciences, which were thought to favour Londonderry.
Edward Jones had been in an unenviable quandary since early 1965 as a consequence of the dual position he occupied as both the Attorney General and the MP for Londonderry.
Though instrumental in convincing Herbert Kirk of the need to reassure the public in Londonderry over the future of Magee by making his “strongly-held” views on the matter “extremely clear” to the Minister of Education, Jones found it difficult to walk the tightrope between his constituents and the Government through a tense February and March 1965, according to the Cabinet minutes of the time.
Leading up to the debate in Parliament the Attorney General continually stressed that while he would do his best to further the interests of Londonderry he was bound by the “collective responsibility” of Government and had to act correspondingly.
This was made clear in a letter to CJ Bateman at the Cabinet Secretariat on February 11, 1965.
In other words he sided with the Government endorsement of Lockwood in spite of pressure from his own constituents.
His vote against their wishes in March almost led to the loss of his safe Unionist seat in O’Neill’s “smashing electoral victory” of November 1965, when the Ulster Liberal candidate Claude Wilton secured 46.8 per cent of votes polled.
Significantly, Jones had suggested to the Cabinet in early February that when the debate in Parliament came around: “We are likely to have against us all the opposition, plus Messrs. Warnock and Nixon” and that “this in itself is running the matter pretty fine irrespective of the situation in Londonderry.”
As it turned out, this was a conservative estimate. It was not only Robert Nixon (North Down) and Edmond Warnock (Belfast, St Anne’s) who refused to support the government, but also Desmond Boal, a Londonderry man representing Belfast, Shankill, and David Little (West Down), who came out in disagreement.
This unionist dissent, combined with the predictable opposition of the nationalists and the Labour Party, was not enough to overturn the Government’s decision.
David Bleakley, the Labour Member for Belfast, Victoria, who had been present at the public meeting in Londonderry on February 8, led the opposition, due to Eddie McAteer’s fear that “a careless word of mine might be picked up, altered and used to transform the debate and shunt it onto the usual Protestant-Catholic lines so as to provide a relief for the harried forces in the Cabinet opposite me.”
His amendment to the Government motion, which moved, “that this House takes note of the Lockwood Committee Report and welcomes the declared intention of the Government to establish a second university; and furthermore that this House is of the opinion that the new university should be located in the area of Londonderry City,” was defeated by 27 votes to 19 and the Government motion carried by 26 votes to six.
The party Whip had done its job with only Desmond Boal, who would later blaze a trail with Ian Paisley during the foundation years of the DUP, voting twice in defiance of it, while Robert Nixon voted in support of Bleakley’s motion. Little and Warnock abstained.
It was claimed with some justification that if Parliament has been left to a free vote then the margin of eight would have been reversed.
This was plausible, given the two unionist abstentions, the instinctive leanings of West and Jones, and the fragile loyalty of at least three other Unionist Party members who voted with the Government - John Kelly, Harold McLure and William McCoy, perhaps providing the best examples.
The opposition furiously alleged that in the denial of a free vote “the spirit of democracy has been strangled...and it will have dangerous repercussions in other ways in times to come.”
This may have been true but there was little the Londonderry lobby could do.
The Government’s obduracy in combination with the grudging allegiance of the Unionist Party backbenchers was enough to sound the death knell to Londonderry’s university aspirations.
The key factor, of course, was the refusal of a number of individuals to desert their party and vote according to their inner convictions.
This attitude was summed up by the statement of David Little, who whilst vocally opposing the Cabinet, said that he could not vote against them as he had “no mandate either from my constituency or from my association to vote on an issue such as this - an issue, which might perhaps result in the defeat of the Government.”
After this demoralising defeat at Stormont on March 4, 1965, it became increasingly obvious that there was to be no reprieve.
Notwithstanding this the UDAC and the Mayor AW Anderson, took a defiant attitude, protesting at the undemocratic conduct of the Belfast Government and vowing to make an appeal over its head to Westminster, in an attempt to secure a rejection of Lockwood’s recommendations.
Already, there was evidence of marginal support for Londonderry’s case at Westminster.
The Labour backbencher, Hugh Delargy, for instance, immediately prior to the Stormont debate, had thrown in his lot with the “united front” in Londonderry, claiming the Coleraine decision to be “quite absurd.”
And a few weeks earlier, Eveyln King, the Tory MP for South Dorset, who had defected from Labour in the early fifties, had demanded an explanation from Herbert Kirk, of a number of letters from Rev. Dennis Coles, an English staff member of Magee, who had complained that: “The position here is quite serious. Derry has a large Catholic population and it would seem to be for this reason that a small group of influential unionists are anxious to site the university in Presbyterian Coleraine.”
The letter was sent on February 20, 1965.
The appeal to London came to nothing and it seemed that contrary to the Mayor’s belief, the defeat in Parliament was a “death blow” to the city’s chances.
The UDAC might have continued its campaign into the summer of 1965 but there was, from March, an air of resignation surrounding their chances of success.
By the end of March the Corporation had begun to concentrate on the development of the Municipal Technical College in the city, according to the minutes of its education committee.
And by May a future had been decided for Magee, as a constituent college of the new university.
Visibly, wheels had been set in motion that it would be impossible for the UDAC to stop.
According to Cabinet minutes from May, 1965, Terence O’Neill said: “There could be no reversal of a course to which Ministers were totally committed.”
Dead and buried though Londonderry’s hopes were after March 1965, the Lockwood controversy contained a final sting in the tail, delivered by the renegade North Down Unionist MP, Robert Nixon, who made a startling speech at the Middle Liberties Young Unionist Association in Londonderry on May 6, 1965.
He made a number of allegations, one of which was that there existed an influential group of “nameless, faceless men” in Londonderry unionist circles that had advised the Government against siting the new university in the city, and that it had also been opposed to industrial development in Londonderry, due to its profile as a ‘Papist city.” This was reported in the Derry Journal on May 11, 1965.
In addition, Nixon claimed that a member of Cabinet, who he declined to name, told him that the Government had directed the Lockwood Committee to site the new university in Coleraine. This was reported in this newspaper on May 12, 1965.
Naturally, these allegations caused quite a stir and were thought somehow to relate to the references in Lockwood to “political” and “other considerations” that might have influenced the location recommendation.
The report refers to “political considerations” in paragraph 215 and “other considerations” that could “impede development and progress” in paragraph 221.
But another factor given by Lockwood for selecting Coleraine was that the landladies of Portrush and Portstewart could save the Government money if it put a university on the North Coast.
As it happened Nixon’s claims merely exacerbated existing suspicions current in Londonderry that the duplicity of a small number of local unionists had been central to Londonderry’s rejection.
Contrary to how this is somehow portrayed these suspicions were not confined to the nationalist community.
Some unionists at the time suggested Coleraine had had “little interest in the university project until they were ‘asked’ to make a claim for it.” This feeling was reported in the Sentinel of May 12, 1965.
More damning, however, had been the resignation earlier in the year, of Raymond Wolsley, from the executive committee of the North Ward Unionist Association in Londonderry on the grounds that two leading unionists on the committee had apparently been “sabotaging the city’s future by instructing Stormont to let the city run down.”
Plainly, Nixon’s indictment only confirmed the belief that a quotient of local unionism was unwilling to see development in the city, including the establishment of a university, for fear that it would destabilise the local power structures and endanger a finely balanced unionist hegemony.
Needless, to say, Major GS Glover, President of the Londonderry and Foyle Unionist Association and the Prime Minister denied Nixon’s allegations roundly and the Government ignored calls from the UDAC for a public inquiry.
Tensions showed little signs of abating, however, and were heightened when the Nationalist MP for mid-Londonderry, Patrick Gormley, followed up Nixon’s bombshell by announcing who he claimed to be the “nameless, faceless men” at Stormont on Wednesday, May 26, 1965.
Those he named were, Major GS Glover, former Mayor and President of the Londonderry Unionist Association, Rev. RL Marshall, a retired Professor at Magee, Rev. John Brown, a lecturer at Magee, Mr JF Bond, Secretary of the Londonderry Unionist Association, Robert Stewart, treasurer of the North Ward Unionist Association, Dr WR Abernethy, Governor of the Apprentice Boys, and Sidney Buchanan, the editor of this newspaper at the time.
All of this was reported by Mr Buchanan in the Sentinel on June 2, 1965.
These fresh allegations shook the foundations of the cross-community alliance.
Buchanan, bemoaned Gormley’s disclosure with the comment that “it did little to foster the spirit that both the Ulster and Éire Premiers were endeavouring to create and which has found application and expression in recent times, especially over the university issue.”
Minister for Development, William Craig, - who would much later go on to defect from the Unionist Party and lead the Vanguard movement - criticised Gormley’s comments as “most reckless, unwarranted and irresponsible” and said that they were made “without the slightest shred of evidence to establish a prima facie case.”
Whatever of the “nameless, faceless” charge, allegations that elements within local unionism were not in favour of accelerated development of the city are borne out in Cabinet documents from the time.
For example, on February 19, 1965, during a meeting between the Londonderry Unionist Association and the Prime Minister and Education Minister at Stormont it was made plain that it was the long-standing policy of some to oppose industrial development at it could lead to “political problems” and possibly the loss of unionist control of the Corporation.
A letter from JA Oliver, a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Development, to the Cabinet secretary on February 17, 1965, stated: “Frankly, we find it difficult to be of much assistance to Londonderry County Borough.
“Logically, the next step would be to prepare a ‘Mathew Plan’ for the development and ‘towing up’ of Londonderry and the North West area. But the internal stresses are so great and the attitude of the city to modern planning so completely obstructive that one cannot conscientiously advise that course at present - not until there is a change of attitude on the part of the city council.”
The Mathew Plan (1964) was, of course, a report recommending the establishment of a new city - Craigavon - in County Armagh.
In the North West Lockwood was very much seen in the context of this report, as well as the Benson (1963) and Wilson (1965) reports, which dealt with the reduction of railways in the west and industrial development centred around Belfast, respectively.
But despite the lukewarm attitude of some local unionist towards industrial development it appears the university issue was viewed different.
The February 19 meeting with the Prime Minister, for example, had been headed by Major Glover, who was later named as an apparent “nameless, faceless man”
But according to the Cabinet minutes he had made it clear that: “We should bring the new university into being immediately but place it in Magee and proceed from there to develop without prejudice to the bulk going to Coleraine.”
Ironically, the majority of the “nameless, faceless” men believed it to be critical that some compromise be arrived at over the university question, in order to quell the public outcry.
Edward Jones, who hadn’t been named but who had to vote with the Government, wrote on February 11, that western unionists needed something with which they feel they may “wash their face.”
The retention of Magee - despite Lockwood’s recommendation that it be discontinued - was the fig leaf they were offered.
A half century on, as the local institution holds its 150th year celebrations and the battle for expansion continues, the question “what might have been?” begs.