Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Deirdre Heenan: Mover and a shaker

As pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Ulster she combines academia and administration with a burgeoning media career. Will politics be next in Deirdre Heenan's sights, ask Alex Kane.

Professor Deirdre Heenan
Professor Deirdre Heenan
Professor Deirdre Heenan
Professor Deirdre Heenan

Glamorous is a description which tends to accompany Deirdre Heenan. Shortly after she became the first female provost of Magee College in Londonderry, in 2011, she was summed up as "smart, stylish, sexy and juggling being a mother with a high-profile career as an academic, broadcaster and author".

Around the same time she won the Most Glamorous Professional category at the IN! magazine Glamour Awards.

Some women would take offence at this sort of description, yet it's hard to avoid the sense that she quietly enjoys it and uses it to her advantage – both personally, and professionally as the University of Ulster's pro-vice-chancellor (communication).

She is a member of the Institute for Research and Social Sciences and has published widely on healthcare, education policy, social care and devolution.

She is also a co-founder and former co-director of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.

This was launched in October 1998 as a resource for everyone – particularly political parties, Government departments, lobby groups and academics – interested in changing social attitudes as Northern Ireland moved from a conflict to a post-conflict era.

Many of its findings have been instrumental in shaping and steering policy in the Executive's Programme for Government (PFG). For nine months in 2008, she served as a policy adviser in the Office of First and deputy First Minister.

In June 2011, the Minister for Health, Edwin Poots, announced a review of the provision of health and social care services in Northern Ireland, providing a strategic assessment across all aspects of the services and the extent to which the needs of and Social Care Board, was asked to complete the task in an ex officio capacity: but the minister also appointed an independent panel, which included Heenan. The Compton Report, published in December 2011, is one of the most important reports to have been produced about health provision here and stirred up – and continues to stir up – controversy.

Deirdre Heenan was born in Annaclone, Co Down and grew up on a small farm run by her parents, John and Lelia. She was the fifth of seven children – two boys and five girls.

She attended Banbridge Academy, followed by the University of Ulster (a last-minute choice, as it happens, because she had originally intended to go to England to study law) where, as she modestly puts it: "I had a traditional academic career".

That career, so far, has consisted of a BSc (social policy), MSc (education), PhD (social policy) and a postgraduate certificate in higher education.

In 1995, she was appointed to a lectureship in policy studies at the University of Ulster, becoming a professor in 2007, then provost and pro-vice-chancellor.

Her first job was a Saturday job as a record counter girl in Woolworths, Banbridge. She then, over five summers, worked as a waitress, receptionist and chambermaid on the east coast of America: indeed, she made it to the US before she made it to Belfast, spending six weeks with relatives in New York when she was 16.

She takes her role as pro-vice-chancellor very seriously: "It is to ensure that people understand the distinctiveness and strengths of the University of Ulster.

"The knowledge economy is the future for Northern Ireland and we need to be at the forefront of chronological change. The brain drain is a serious issue for NI as we export many of our brightest and most able. We need to attract them back to lead and drive economic development."

On the particular challenge facing the University of Ulster, she says: "University is viewed as an ivory tower, removed from reality and largely irrelevant.

"The challenge for UU is to raise awareness of contribution to economy, cultural and social life. We need to ensure we are not viewed as a soft target for cuts by devolved Government."

One of her key roles has been spearheading the campaign to increase student numbers at Magee College, a place she has described as a "hidden gem".

The college has grown from just 273 students in 1984 to 4,000 now and the university is lobbying the Executive for an additional 1,000 full-time undergraduate places.

She also clearly commands the respect of politicians (she has also been appointed as the only Northern Ireland voice on President Michael D Higgins's council of state) and key players within the civil service. But is that going to be enough for her?

She enjoys politics. She enjoys talking about it and writing about it. Her media career, which began a few years ago as a newspaper reviewer on Radio Foyle, has blossomed and she now has a regular slot on BBC's The View.

The role of political commentator always looks easy to people who don't do it: but it requires you to be measured, articulate informed and viewer-friendly.

She has all of those qualities and is usually more interesting to listen to than the politicians on the programme. Yet, in terms of her university/academic/administrative career, there maybe isn't all that much further she can go.

Given her obvious interest in devolution and Northern Ireland, it is reasonable to wonder if she could ever be tempted into a new career as a political representative.

She has all of the talents required to be a key player in a post-conflict Assembly and her knowledge of health and social care (she has just been commissioned, along with writing partner Derek Birrell, to write a paper on the integration of health and social care) would be invaluable.

That said, it is unlikely that she would become involved with any of the existing parties.

Away from the day job she has been married to Rory for almost 20 years and lives in Derry with their three sons, Jack, Harry and Matthew. At home she relaxes by watching football (an avid Man U supporter), walking and running, and two years ago even met the Rev Jesse Jackson. Shortly afterwards he sent her a poster of him with Martin Luther King and signed to 'Sister Deirdre, keep hope alive'. It now hangs in her office, "providing inspiration".

Whatever she chooses to do, it's likely that Deirdre will become an increasingly influential voice here: as an academic, researcher, adviser and commentator.

She is ferociously intelligent and ferociously ambitious: and it is that ferociousness which has propelled her so far. So get used to seeing her – she is going to be a mover, shaker and opinion-former here for a long time to come.

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