Civil service chief under-fire after he said Derry medical school 'not viable'
Politicians have hit out after the head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) said a medical school in Londonderry cannot go ahead because there are neither the funds to pay for it nor a Stormont minister in place to sign off on the project.
As reported in the Belfast Telegraph on Tuesday, David Sterling's letter to the chief executive of Derry and Strabane Council stated that Ulster University (UU) had made no provision for the medical school in its budget, and compared this to a failed project proposed by the UU for its Springvale Campus in west Belfast.
Mr Sterling said a final decision was a matter for Government Departments, specifically Health and Finance, but added that "ultimately it will be for a future Health Minister and Executive to decide on key spending priorities".
Sinn Fein Foyle MP Elisha McCallion said Mr Sterling was wrong in his analysis for the need to have a minister in place, which was out of kilter with other political opinion in the city.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MLA agreed with Mr Sterling about the need for a minister but said he would also support the case for an independent university in Derry.
He said: "University expansion is what's critical here so we'll support whoever can make that happen.
"We've been let down so often that the end result of this is that we will undoubtedly need an independent university for Derry.
"The critical point is that we need a minister to make this decision. Elisha McCallion's analysis is badly wrong about that and it's time we faced up to it.
"I am not content to watch this opportunity pass us by.
"A functioning Assembly should provide the direction necessary to deliver this project."
Aontu councillor Dr Anne McCloskey shared Mr Eastwood's sentiments about the need for ministers to be in place, and to perhaps look beyond UU to deliver the project.
She said: "I'm outraged, but not surprised at the recent announcement by the civil service that the graduate entry medical school in Derry will in all likelihood not happen.
"As a GP for over 30 years, I understand too well the problems in primary care provision in the north, and particularly west of the Bann."
She said she fully accepted the argument that UU "is unlikely to be the best vehicle to deliver the long overdue investment but for once, they are not the main obstacle".
She said that the project "needs a minister of sign it off, and there is no executive in place to do so".
Ms McCallion said the issues raised by Mr Sterling are "out of date."
She said: "The response from the head of the civil service to Derry City and Strabane District Council on the issue of the medical school has been disappointing.
"The issues he raises are out of date and irrelevant and do not recognise the work UU have done in taking this issue forward along with other partners.
"I have now written to the head of the civil service setting out our position and urging him to take this process forward.
"I will be meeting with him and the permanent secretary of the Department of Health to urge them to support this vital project."