Magee College has been important in the development of Derry and crucial for the development of Derry politics.
Hopes of the North’s second university being built on the foundation of Magee began growing in the early 1960s. In 1963, Londonderry Corporation published a “manifesto” setting out the case for Derry, arguing that “a new seat of higher education (would) help restore the equilibrium of Northern Ireland, educationally, economically and culturally.”
The manifesto won unanimous backing from councillors - 12 Unionists and eight Nationalists.
Terence O’Neill had just taken over from Lord Brookborough as Stormont Prime Minister. Eddie McAteer urged him to announce the university for Derry immediately, so as to consolidate the new feeling of cross-community accord.
Instead, O’Neill asked English academic John Lockwood to lead an inquiry into the matter and report back. This was the first indication of how limited O’Neill might prove to be with regard to the reforms he could force through his party.
Towards the end of 1964, stories appeared in local newspapers, apparently based on leaks from the Lockwood committee, suggesting that Derry was about to lose out. In response, the University for Derry campaign was founded in January 1965, with representation from the Catholic, Church of Ireland, Presbyterian and Methodist churches and with John Hume as chairman. On February 18th, a 1,500-vehicle motorcade snaked across the Glenshane Pass to bring the campaign to the steps of Stormont. Television pictures showed bumper-to-bumper traffic over the mountain.
Within days, however, Lockwood’s report was published. Derry and Magee were left out in the cold. The university was to go to Coleraine.
Nobody could say for certain what persuaded Professor Lockwood to ignore the case for Magee in favour of a dull provincial town. But now it was being openly pointed out there hadn’t been a single Catholic on his committee.
One Unionist MP, Robert Nixon, told journalists that the government itself had put pressure on Lockwood - after having been pressurised by a seven-strong delegation of prominent Derry Unionists begging for the university be located anywhere but in their home town. The seven wanted no truck with the “liberals” on the council who had supported the “manifesto”.
One of the seven “faceless men” explained later that people like himself were afraid that an influx of students from all sorts of backgrounds would change the social mix of the city in ways which would might prove harmful to traditional Unionist interests.
Stormont MPs voted to accept Lockwood’s recommendation by 32 votes to 20. Two Unionists, including Robert Nixon, voted for Derry. Two others abstained. Nixon was expelled from the party.
A few months later, on June 30th 1965, John Hume addressed a packed meeting in Fulham Town Hall on the significance of the university issue. He told the gathering that, “The issue of a university for Derry has changed everything”.
This was hardly an exaggeration. The university issue had exposed some of the contradictions within Unionism which were to break open again a few years later.
It had sharpened the anger of Derry Catholics, who saw the outcome as confirmation that, despite all the promises of reform, nothing had really changed.
It had helped alert politically-minded people across the water to the fact that the mood music from O’Neill’s government wasn’t telling the whole story, that all was not well in the North.
The question of the expansion of Magee has thus been crucial in the unfolding of Derry’s history, and so it remains. Local politicians should bite their tongues before saying on air that the agreed target of 9,000 students by 2020 is “unrealistic”. The remark by a Foyle MLA was a godsend for those who want to constrain the expansion of the Derry college.
Incidentally: Robert Nixon, representing the safe unionist seat of North Down, risked and lost his political career by standing up for Derry. He should be better remembered here.