Nelson McCausland: Queen's University has to address perception as 'cold house' for Protestants
University's response to controversy like Prof Brewer's Brexit blunder is to do nothing, writes Nelson McCausland
A recent intemperate outburst by Professor John Brewer highlighted a problem at Queen's University, Belfast. Donald Tusk certainly ratcheted up the rhetoric over Brexit when he spoke about "a special place in Hell" for the promoters of Brexit, but Professor Brewer tweeted: "Special place in Hell for no-deal Brexiteers. Hell is too good for them."
John David Brewer is an English sociologist and a professor in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's. He is also a professor in the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, which was launched by Queen's in 2016.
His outburst attracted widespread criticism - even from some Remainers - and councillor Peter Martin, a DUP representative from Bangor, wrote to Queen's vice-chancellor, Professor Ian Greer, about the matter. There were also some messages of support for Professor Brewer and Professor Tony Gallagher tweeted that he was "proud" of his "friend and colleague".
Dr Joanne Murphy, a senior lecturer at Queen's Management School and wife of former SDLP MLA Conall McDevitt, extended her "sympathies" to Professor Brewer, claiming he has been subjected to "huge abuse" due to his remarks.
However, there seems to have been silence from Queen's University itself. Indeed, that seems to be the normal response to outrageous statements by senior academics.
Dr Peter Doran is a lecturer in the School of Law and the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, which also includes Professor Brewer as one of its academics. He was a Sinn Fein election candidate for the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2017 and, during the election campaign, he was asked to condemn the murder of Edgar Graham, who had also been a law lecturer at the university. Edgar Graham was shot by an IRA gunman in the grounds of the university in December 1983.
Peter Doran spoke of his "profound sorrow", but refused to condemn the murder and his refusal drew heavy criticism. So, what did Queen's University say? And what did Queen's University do? The answer appeared to be nothing.
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So, what are we to make of such incidents, whether it be the refusal of Dr Doran to condemn a murder, or the outburst from Professor Brewer?
Such incidents certainly tell us something about the individuals, but they also tell us something about the university. I was particularly struck by the number of people who are coming to the view that the university is now a "cold house for Protestants". Whether that is right, or wrong, there is certainly a widespread perception that there is an equality issue at Queen's and that is a perception that needs to be addressed.
Last year, the university declined a request from An Cumann Gaelach QUB for Irish language signage across the university campus and Sinn Fein hit back. Two Sinn Fein politicians met senior staff at the university and the vice-chancellor issued a statement saying, "I wish to apologise unreservedly for any offence caused. I would also take this opportunity to reinforce the university's commitment to the Irish language."
So, perhaps it is time for the university to meet with mainstream representatives from the unionist community to consider their perceptions. Indeed, the letter from the DUP councillor may well be an appropriate way to open that conversation.
Universities play an important and influential role within society and, therefore, openness, inclusion, equality and transparency should be priorities.
This is about much more that an outrageous statement by Professor Brewer; it is about how people across society view the university and about how academics connect to and relate to our different communities in Northern Ireland, including cultural communities. Now, I have a personal affection for the university, having spent a very enjoyable year there studying for a Diploma in Education. But that was back in 1973 and we are in a very different world today.
Whether rightly or wrongly, there seems to be a perception among many unionists that the university has become something of a "cold house for unionists", so it's time to really talk about it.