Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

Students fail test of idealism

Queen's students rejected a bid to ban the sale of the poppy, but only handful bothered to vote. Alex Kane, a politics graduate from the university 36 years ago, asks: where did all the activism of the 1960s and 1970s go?

Queen's student Bernadette Devlin addresses crowds in the Bogside in 1969
Protest years: Students demanding civil rights in Belfast city centre 40 years ago
Two men protest outside the gates of Queen's over the vote to ban the sale of the poppy

I arrived at Queen's University, Belfast, in October 1974. It was the tail-end of the civil rights/People's Democracy generation and the likes of Bernadette Devlin, Kevin Boyle and Michael Farrell had already moved on. It was just a few months after the collapse of the Sunningdale Assembly and a few days after the Guildford bombings.

Enoch Powell had been elected in South Down in the General Election on October 10 and riots and fires at the Maze and Magilligan prisons were daily occurrences. Northern Ireland was a very unsettled, very violent and very unsure place.

Queen's was my first choice. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do in terms of a career, but I was pretty certain that it would be something to do with politics or journalism.

Politics was in my blood. I lived and breathed it. So it made sense (well, it certainly made sense back in my long-haired I'm-going-to-win-a-Pulitzer-prize days) to study politics here in Belfast.

I knew what I was letting myself in for when it came to the Students' Union. I had friends at the university and they had told me that the atmosphere between republican and unionist activists was always intense and often unpleasant.

And it's worth bearing in mind that this was a time when Protestants and Catholics barely knew each other, because they rarely mixed socially, or at schools. So, when a few thousand of us suddenly found ourselves sharing accommodation, lecture halls, tutorials and the Students' Union, it was a huge cultural and psychological shock.

Sadly, however, most of us kept to our old ways and old habits. There was very little mixing and each tradition kept to its own sports, newspapers and parts of the union.

Even in the snack bar, canteen and ordinary bars there were clearly defined "us-and-them" areas: not to the extent of signs and lines, but certainly to the extent of being able to recognise and move in beside "your own sort".

In my four years there I can only remember two couples who dated outside their own "clan" and one of them never felt able to take his Catholic girlfriend back to Ballymena with him. They moved to England in 1977 and never came back.

Political activism was a very big thing at that time and there was rarely a day went by without a speaker coming to address one side or the other.

It was roughhouse stuff, too, with large audiences barracking and orchestrated efforts to drown out what was being said from both the floor and the platform.

Sinn Fein wasn't then the force it was to become in the early-1980s, but there was a very strong, very well-organised republican movement: capable of getting a massive vote out at election after election. Unionism was, as ever, divided, with the DUP, Conservative and Unionists, Vanguard, Young Unionists and a few smaller groups organising their own events.

The Students Representative Council (SRC) was almost entirely composed of unionist/nationalist/republican members and most meetings had very little to do with education, grants or accommodation – but did spend an awful lot of time on local political issues: which resulted in most votes being decided by the balance of the respective us-and-thems on the night.

Nothing had changed by the time I left in 1978 and I remember being very hurt and very angry when I was told that cheers had been heard on December 7, 1983 after the news of the murder of Edgar Graham outside the university had begun to filter across the campus and into the Students' Union. I was hurt, but I wasn't entirely surprised.

And nor was I surprised by those who said throughout the 1980s/90s/00s that the Students' Union remained a cold and unwelcoming place for those from a pro-Union background.

But I was depressed by the poppy debate on Wednesday, because it was a little reminder that the us-and-them mentality that one would have expected to disappear with a post-conflict generation was still there. Or was it?

There was a time when a debate of that nature would have had a full turnout (even in the final weeks of the summer term) and a likelihood of being passed.

But only 15 out of 56 people voted in favour of banning the poppy. Yes, it was clearly an us-and-them debate of old, but there wasn't the passion or aggression, of old. And before and after that motion, the SRC dealt with the sort of stuff you would expect students to deal with. So something has changed. If Northern Ireland itself is to change, then that change will depend on a number of things: how we educate our children; how we socialise and live together; how the next electoral generation reacts to circumstances that didn't exist prior to 1998, and what new thinking arises from the generation of budding professionals presently at university.

The Students' Union became a key player for debate and political change in the 1960s/70s. It was students there who did more than anyone else to challenge the status quo and to set out an agenda for change. Where are the voices for the post-conflict generation? Where is the passion and the agenda? Where is the idealism you expect from students at moments like this? I didn't hear it on Wednesday night.

  • Alex Kane is a writer and commentator @AlexKane221b

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