How do I talk about a topic that has made me feel uncomfortable when I have seen it on the news or heard politicians describing my place of higher education as a ‘cold house’ for Unionists? How do I talk about a topic that so many people with a similar background as me feel is a sensitive issue yet don’t feel like we are listened to when we voice our concerns? How do I talk about a fragile issue that, as far as I can see, is brushed over by such a highly regarded institution?
By no means am I dismissive of the decisive history that our country has or the fact that those who are Nationalist have been discriminated against immensely in the past. To be disparaging of this history would mean we could not move on as a nation towards a more progressive and brighter future for younger generations. As a politics student who has studied Northern Irish politics with a Unionist background, I recognise that I can never fully comprehend the feelings of those with the opposite background to me who have been discriminated against in the past, but I can learn and try to understand the negative actions taken against them. I have no problem with learning the harsh reality of our past. I also have no problem with those who have a different political view of mine, because politics is not necessary for good friendships to form. I don’t believe in political point scoring or zero-sum politics either. Where has that got us in the past? Where will it get us in the future?
What I do have a problem with is seeing a place of higher education, a Russell Group University which does not have concern for which background you are from when you are enrolled as a student, being ‘renamed’ after a paramilitary terrorist in an effort to further provide another “kick in the teeth” for those who are Unionist and attending the university. But even when I saw the image on the news and on social media I, like many others, were really not surprised by the actions of the ‘Lasair Dhearg’ group. It was as if it had become normalized, another ‘here we go again’ moment. But how can this be allowed? What if it was the other way round?
When you type in this recent event into Google Search engine for News, there are only five news articles that appear to have reported this act of vandalism. Just five. And they’re all from newspapers considered to be more Unionist. Why hasn’t the mainstream media with TV channels given any recognition to a provocative act? Why did QUB just simply say “there was an act of vandalism on the front gates” which they just simply removed without any consequences. Talk about an issue being brushed under the carpet. With the exception of one South Belfast MLA condemning this vandalism, where was the rest of those politicians who are meant to represent local issues in their area? No one seemed to speak up. I do recognise that when this event happened, there was many other more important issues and events that needed more attention, but that shouldn’t just be the reason for another provocative act to creep into a place of higher education without something being said.
It’s as if it is a deliberate wind up, trying to provoke a reaction out of those with a Unionist background. An attempt to stir up hate, to create divisions. Quite frankly, when I have been in class with many different students over the past three years at QUB talking about our politics, I have never once felt belittled for my views or felt my opinion dismissed when we talk about these issues. So why then are there a few that feel the need to create this contempt and push back against the progress that I believe we have made. Education is about learning, about making people critically think and creating future leaders regardless of where they have came from. Why have our student union representatives been elected when they have supported paramilitary views or liked and retweeted the renaming of the University without being pulled up on this issue? From my point of view, it is intimidating and really is not necessary to do those things, even if it's in the spur of the moment. Whilst political debates are welcomed in our university and Student’s Union, as it should be in a democracy, why does the debates have to be about green and orange? Why can’t they be about climate issues, or more importantly, the recent debate about Racism in our world which I believe is far more important than the sectarian issues we have presently? Of course, these real-world issues are debated and policies are implemented regarding them, but this year there has been more of a focus on those green and orange issues that we thought we had moved on from as students. Why then do our student representatives have to act like the politicians we see at Stormont?
The recent image provoked a lot of questions for me and really made me think, is Queen’s University Belfast a ‘cold house’ for Unionism? In all honesty, I do believe when I attended the University, I never thought it really was and only considered it as an exaggeration used by Unionist politicians to gain media attention. That was until the recent events of this year. Has this prevented me from receiving a great education? No. Has this prevented me from making friendships with people from all backgrounds? No. But have the images and the stories of dismissing Unionist concerns in the Student’s Union and the recent renaming of the University made me feel uncomfortable or filled me with doubt? I would be lying if I said it didn’t. I don’t often agree with DUP politicians, but when South Belfast MLA Christopher Stalford said earlier this year, that there was an “issue of perception” and that “Queens needs to be seen as a University of Northern Ireland, for Northern Ireland”, I have to admit, I do agree with this part of his statement. It should be a university for all backgrounds regardless of where in the world you come from. If you choose to study at QUB, you should feel welcomed. The green and orange issues shouldn’t come into the realm.
By no means am I involved with the societies that represent Unionists at QUB or believe the stories that I hear or see on Twitter discussions without trying to understand the facts. But what I do believe in is fairness and equality. Fair and equal treatment of everyone at a higher education institution should not only be written in the rulebook that you read when you first enter into the university, but should actually be practiced by everyone involved, no matter if you just attend class or get heavily involved in the student body. Party political agendas should not be driven by any side when we are attending the university to work hard for a degree. By all means celebrate your background and cultural heritage but either side doesn’t want to see that brought onto the university grounds if it is in any way offensive to any group belonging to the university. Only issues that matter to everyone should be debated and debates are necessary when we want to inform and change people’s opinions for the greater good. We don’t have to be like our politicians or those who seek to sow hate and division. That doesn’t mean we have to be nice to each other all the time when it comes to those green and orange issues that do appear, but respect for one another’s beliefs and backgrounds goes a long way. That respect is something I believe has been diminishing particularly in the past year or so.
In sum, I do recognise that many students feel uncomfortable going to a university that has some of its buildings named after British politicians (even the name of the university is offensive to some) or has a war memorial in its grounds. Yes, this can be seen as provocative and therefore, seen as a ‘cold house’ in this respect on the flip side of the coin, but I truly believe that the zero-sum game needs to end. We attend this university for a good education, we can voice our concerns and our opinions but we need to do it in a manner that is not offensive and is based on facts that doesn’t resort to seeking media attention for the sake of a banner. We shouldn’t attempt to continue the divides that we have seen so many times before.
Again, this article is only my opinion and therefore it will not influence any decision that may change the mantra of a ‘cold house’. But if I feel uncomfortable or feel this issue has been dismissed by many at the university or by politicians, rest assured many others will feel the same way.
Jessica Johnston is a 21 year-old final year graduate from Queens University Belfast in International Studies and Politics. Her political interests include local politics, American politics and international relations.