Professor Harvey believes a referendum will be held this decade
A Queen’s University professor who has faced online abuse for his work on a united Ireland is concerned that an “engineered atmosphere” here could put people at risk.
Professor Colin Harvey believes that as conversations inevitably broaden around the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, that constructive dialogue should be “nurtured” and social media companies have a role to play in that process.
Critics have directly and indirectly attacked Professor Harvey, while the DUP was accused of blocking his appointment to a panel of experts to be established to consider a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
In a co-authored piece in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph, loyalist activist Jamie Bryson and Baroness Kate Hoey reiterated their view that there is a network of nationalists which uses the professional status of its members in areas such as law, media and academia to advance nationalism’s political objectives.
The law professor added that much of the current commentary avoids dealing with the substantive matters he has raised.
“My view is that time is better spent focusing on the positive work ongoing on the island and the progressive opportunities that are available for all,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I have been consistently calling for advance planning and preparation for constitutional outcomes that are already agreed and anticipated in the Good Friday Agreement.
“What matters most now is that the detailed work is done. The destructive negativity is either an attempt to derail the conversations or an unhelpful distraction, perhaps it is both.
“People just need to press on doing the homework and preparing evidence-based and credible proposals. I will continue to be part of that collective way and what is happening will not deter me.”
Some people have concerns that if a referendum is held too soon it could de-stabilise the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland. Prof Harvey believes the question will be posed this decade.
He said: "Increasingly, I think any instability comes from the lack of proper planning and the current levels of uncertainty promoted by an unwillingness to engage. Recall that the Secretary of State and the British Government have considerable flexibility, so complacency on this island is unwise.”
Asked if he thinks it is irresponsible for groups and individuals to single him out, he said: “This is a bigger debate than any one person. I am concerned for everyone affected by the atmosphere that is being engineered here. This is a post-conflict society. We all know how this story can end.
“How can we, for example, nurture respectful public dialogue in the world of social media? I believe social media companies have much more work to do in this regard. That is vital because as we approach the envisaged referendums on constitutional change, these conversations are only going to intensify.”
In the past, there were heated debates over a Bill of Rights, but the constitutional question is contested here in a way that other discussions are not.
He added: “Too many of the arguments on either side avoid the difficult planning work. In a post-Brexit environment – where my view remains that we are heading towards concurrent referendums on this island – it would be irresponsible not to prepare. Less drama and more detailed preparatory work on either side of the argument please.”
On May 22, Prof Harvey will appear at an event in Derry named Preparing for a New Ireland alongside Sinn Fein Junior Minister Declan Kearney, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and journalists Patricia MacBride and Aoife Grace Moore.
Speaking ahead of the St Columb’s Hall event, the QUB academic and Derry man described higher education provision in his hometown as “scandalous” and said people have forgotten the transformative impact that universities can have on wider society.
“Existing promises need to be delivered, but in the long-term Derry must have its own university. It really is that simple. The people of the city, and the wider North West region, deserve a revolution in higher education,” Prof Harvey said.
He holds the view that everyone on the island of Ireland will be better off in new constitutional arrangements and do “so much better” economically, socially, culturally and politically together.
“A new and united Ireland has the potential to be a much-improved way of sharing the island in the future. There is a firm evidential basis for concluding that division on the island is bad for everyone, but this is particularly the case for the North. Brexit serves to underpin this conclusion and there is clear merit in returning this region to the EU.”
On his aspirations for the future of this island, he particularly wants to see real socio-economic justice for the most marginalised and vulnerable people here.
The constitutional framework is set out in the Good Friday Agreement. Prof Harvey continued: “If your political philosophy is anchored around the principle of consent, then guess what? At some point people will be asked. So let us ensure that we are prepared and ready when the time arrives.
“And universities and academics will have a vital role in all of that. Not just quietly working away in private but also engaging in the public square in dialogue and debate, as people should rightly expect.”
Prof Harvey served on the NI Human Rights Commission (2005-2011) at the time the advice on a Bill of Rights was drafted and submitted to the British Government in December 2008.
It has never been enacted at Westminster but his view remains that society needs a robust Bill of Rights, and the work of the Commission and wider civil society around this should be revisited.
The momentum had stalled until New Decade, New Approach and the establishment of the Ad Hoc Assembly Committee on a Bill of Rights. That raised expectations that the final stages and eventual delivery were in sight.
The Committee has now adjourned for reasons that have been widely reported but he is still willing to play his part as a panel member and understands that the process has not formally concluded.
The DUP was asked whether it blocked the appointment of Prof Harvey to the panel of experts but no response was provided.