A tragically missed opportunity

The newly digitised public archives for the early years of the Troubles now available on a special CAIN-PRONI site are a gold mine. Straight away my heart aches at the what-might- have- been in the official papers about setting up a new university in 1964 –5. This was Derry’s great rebuff when the city lost out to a green field site on the banks of the Bann outside Coleraine. Often recalled as a unionist plot to keep down Catholics it was like most things, never as simple as that. But  read this for a remarkable piece of prophecy.  From my memory as a schoolboy at the time, I think (subject to correction) Roy Henderson was Town Clerk for Londonderry, here writing secretly to the Prime Minister Terence O’Neill.


However, whatever the reasons may be, the fact is that theNationalists in Londonderry – particularly those who aremembers of the Corporation – appear to have joined wholeheartedly with the Unionists in presenting a united City and a united claim for the establishment of a University in Londonderry. If the claim is successful much good may ensue locally not only socially, economically and culturally butalso perhaps politically.

If on the other hand the claim fails I foresee very great difficulties for Londonderry -difficulties °which are bound to have repercussions throughout the Province.

If in addition the Joint Anti- Submarine School at H.M.S. Sea Eagle should wind up then I shudder in contemplation of the consequences. Those consequences could conceivably follow a pattern something like this :-

(a) Local Unionists and Nationalists work together to establish a University at Londonderry;

(b) The effort fails;

(c) Disillusioned Nationalist leaders either resign or are discarded by their disillusioned followers;

(d) Sinn Fein or other extreme elements take control of the local Nationalist people;

(e) Many Unionists become disillusioned and cynical also with results which can only be guessed at;

(f) Violence would not be an impossibility.

At the time, this case may have seemed overwrought in the fastness of Stormont Castle.  At any rate O’Neill  the great reformer completely ignored it.  Had we not adopted proper planning procedures just like GB? 

The Lockwood Committee of outside experts deciding on the case for a second university had no axe to grind (although some said they exceeded their brief by naming a location). Nobody in those days foresaw the massive expansion of university education we have today, of which this “Robbins” era project was only the first step.

The Cabinet papers show anxiety over the impact over closing Magee and signs of a search for a compromise. There is no hint of overt anti –nationalism in an era when unionists were more unguarded in their public comments about nationalists than they since became. (Though they do go no about the need for ” quiet and tranquil sites” – did they think that Derry’s leafy Northland road was anything else, or was this code for a Catholic town)?  But nor is there any sign of anybody Thinking Big.   

Londonderry Corporation however gerrymandered, was solidly in favour of expanding Magee.

Teddy Jones then Attorney General and City of Londonderry MP was caught in a bind between his constituents and ministerial collective responsibility. His letter to Cecil Bateman, soon to be head of the civil service,  recounts how over tea in the members’ dining room he fends of a delegation led by a certain John Hume with a pledge to try to make Magee a constituent part of the new institution. He also fears that unionist rebels might combine with nationalists and NI Labour to defeat the university for Coleraine plan – a threat not to be contemplated (though revealing that he shares such a political thought with a civil servant.)

Intriguingly Teddy hints at the hidden agenda of the “faceless men” – (so called by the renegade Bangor Unionist MP Robert Nixon). These were leaders of he local Unionist association who behind the scenes were discouraging fellow unionists from presenting a united front with Catholics. Indeed they existed. But the main point is that they failed in Derry at least.

The Unionist mayor Albert Anderson, (later to be a Home Affairs minister during the internment period) led a great united demo to Stomont along with John Hume. It was magnificent but it was to no avail – at least in the short run.

Would a University for Derry have made all the difference and forestalled the Troubles? Not by itself perhaps. but as part of a more prudential policy towards Catholic majority areas? Or would the university in Derry have been destroyed before it got properly off the ground?.

At the very least, the saga shows a unionist community unhesitatingly plumping for local solidarity over sectarian domination and leaves us with a lesson that still applies today.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London