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Sean Haldane has eyes on poetry post at Oxford University

By Ivan Little

Published 05/06/2015

Sean Haldane
Sean Haldane
Seamus Heaney
Paul Muldoon

Forget the furore swamping Fifa and Sepp Blatter, a Belfast man is at the centre of another charged election in the supposedly more civilised game of poetry.

Former RBAI pupil Sean Haldane (72) is one of five candidates up for the post of professor of poetry at Oxford University.

But don't be fooled by the innocuous-sounding nature of this intellectual locking of highbrow horns. For the last but one election in 2009 was mired in such controversy and claims of dirty tricks that it made the front pages rather than just the literary sections of British newspapers.

One candidate, Derek Walcott, withdrew from the race after stories about allegations of sexual harassment earlier in his career were leaked. After that, the award-winning writer Ruth Padel was duly elected as the first woman in the post, but she resigned after it emerged that she had been the person who leaked the damaging stories about her rival

Two Ulstermen have held the 300-year-old Oxford post in recent times without causing any ripples. Seamus Heaney was professor from 1989 and Paul Muldoon was in the post for five years from 1999.

And now Haldane is hoping to make it a Northern Irish hat-trick in his second crack at the crown.

He finished in third place in the last election and now he is using social media to bolster his campaign, tweeting a few lines from his poetry every day to his online followers, who number just 63.

Haldane was born in England, the son of an Army officer who returned to live in the Cavehill area of his native Belfast after the end of the Second World War.

He was two at the time he came back, and he once said that "living in Belfast was like living all the time on top of a bomb that was about to go off". He added: "I had an English accent but an Irish name, so both sides tended to give me a rough time." He told the Belfast Telegraph that he and his friends at Institute had a sense of foreboding that Belfast would explode.

He added: "We were all very conscious that something dire was going to happen if things weren't fixed up."

Haldane, who still visits Belfast to see brothers and other family members, went on: "At RBAI, I had an influential teacher who was a sort of a Protestant nationalist, and my friends and I set up debates with pupils from Catholic schools in Belfast, which was something of a first at the time."

Haldane, who is married to a French-Canadian woman and speaks Italian, Portuguese and German, said that in the "unlikely" event of his being elected to the Oxford University post, he would be pressing for a greater recognition of poems in languages other than English.

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