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Why I can't sign the petition condemning anti-Protestant bias at Queen's University

Professor Liam Kennedy

But Professor Liam Kennedy hopes he is not obliged to change his mind by the volume of evidence of a 'cold house' for unionists


Queen’s University is the subject of a petition claiming the institution is a ‘cold house’ for unionists

Queen’s University is the subject of a petition claiming the institution is a ‘cold house’ for unionists

Students celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the Holyland

Students celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the Holyland

Queen’s Students’ Union president-elect Grian Ni Dhaimhin

Queen’s Students’ Union president-elect Grian Ni Dhaimhin


Queen’s University is the subject of a petition claiming the institution is a ‘cold house’ for unionists

My esteemed colleague and friend Ruth Dudley Edwards has called for signatures for a petition that speaks of "the continual alienation of Protestant and unionist students at Queen's University Belfast and all other universities". Once again I find myself on the other side of the fence from Ruth on issues as diverse as Brexit, Europe and the Orange Order.

My problem is with the premise to the petition, that is that Queen's has become a "cold house" for those from the Protestant and unionist community.

This is a sweeping generalisation that surprises me. It may be true. I just don't know. I cannot sign.

The controversy has erupted because the president-elect of the Queen's Students' Union endorsed a picture showing women with guns and the pro-IRA legend "Ni saoirse go saoirse na mban" ("There is no freedom without the freedom of women").

Sure enough, without the guns and the military garb, this could be a feminist statement. The choice of language and images bring the real meaning home. This is Tiocfaidh ar la-land.

It is hard not to see this as supportive of political terror and that should disturb not just unionists, but nationalists, socialists and feminists, who stand by the democratic traditions of Irish and British society. Virtually all students, in fact. That said, student life is a time for experimentation and silliness as well as intellectual endeavour.

There is time for Ms Grian Ni Dhaimhin to explain more fully her social media posting which, on mature reflection, is only worthy of a 'cabog' (a redneck in the Irish language, or should that be green-neck?).

It might not be a bad idea either to meet with those from the unionist minority of students who feel aggrieved.

The bigger question is whether or not the northern universities are hotbeds of sectarianism, as the petition suggests, and whether or not unionist students are alienated from university life by virtue of being from a unionist background.

The obvious solution is to conduct research into the issue and ask unionist students about their "university experience". At the moment we are in the world of anecdote and assertion, hence my agnosticism.

In my own case, I can summon up only one instance of sectarianism in my time as a lecturer. This was in the early 2000s. I happened to meet an old friend, the father of one of my students, at a social event. The family is Presbyterian of a very liberal hue.

He told me that, just after one of my seminars (the topic may have been the Irish famine), a woman student shouted at his son as he was leaving the tutorial room: "All unionists are bigots."

I made a point of talking to the student later on about this. He confirmed what his father had said. More worryingly, he went on to say, because his name was Patrick, some fellow students tended to forget his cultural background and lapse into derogatory comments about Protestants and unionists in his presence. I reported this to the head of the department, but I don't think anything came of it.

It's only a single swallow and all that. But, as I write, it comes to mind that, during the worst days of Freshers' Week in the Holyland in south Belfast, drunken students appeared on radio and television saying that older residents should realise the Holyland was a "student area" and, if the residents did not like it, they could get out. This was as much ignorance as arrogance as the students were in fact the newcomers.

In fairness, the universities and the QUB Students' Union have done much to mitigate these problems, but it is depressing that the tendency to exclude or expel the 'other' came so naturally to young people. And where did that reflex come from? The deeper problem is that tendencies to exclude and expel the 'other' are embedded in both unionism and nationalism. At their extremes, both are aggressive cultures and the extremes feed off each other.

Historically, the expulsive tendency has been associated more with Protestantism and loyalism: witness the Armagh disturbances of the 1780s, attacks on Catholic homes before and after the defeat of the second Home Rule Bill in 1893, and the mass expulsion of Catholic workers from the shipyard in July 1920. Sectarian assassination accompanied these assertions of raw, ethnic prejudice.

But the tendency is also present in Catholic proto-nationalist and nationalist tradition, from peasant atrocities visited on Protestants during the rebellion in Wexford in 1798, through the politico-sectarian insurgency of the Rockites in north Munster in the 1820s (involving rape as well as killings), to a murderous attack on Protestant churchgoers at Darkley in 1983.

Even the great statesman of Irish nationalism Eamon de Valera entertained ideas of ethnic purging. "His deepest belief," according to the historian John Bowman, "was that Ulster unionists were only entitled to remain in Ireland on the condition that they renounced their unionism and opted for Irish citizenship." Remarkably, at a Fianna Fail ard fheis in 1939, he floated the idea of a reverse plantation, that Ulster unionists would be encouraged to emigrate to Britain and Irish emigrants to Britain would be brought back to replace them.

A Belfast newspaper - not this one - from time to time refers dismissively to loyalists as "planters", or the descendants of planters, which, depending on tone and context, can be part of a quasi-racist discourse. It is also poor history, but that's another story.

The trouble with this article is that I have talked myself round to worrying about what may be a larger and more pernicious problem than I had first thought.

My (possibly idealised) view of university life at Queen's and at Ulster University is that campuses are places of intellectual enlightenment, offering students from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to meet each other, to exchange ideas freely and to learn from each other. And, in the context of a deeply divided society, to learn not to fear or humiliate the 'other'.

The alternative vista - of campuses as theatres for culture wars that verge on sectarianism and racism - is an appalling one.

It is time to learn more. Universities are good at that kind of thing. My dearest hope is that I will not feel obliged by force of evidence in a year or two's time to sign the kind of petition that is currently circulating on social media. But, then, I don't do social media.

Liam Kennedy is Emeritus Professor of History at Queen's University Belfast. His book, Who Was Responsible for the Troubles?: The Northern Ireland Conflict, 1966-98, will be published by McGill-Queen's University Press in the autumn

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