Is Queen’s University a cold house for unionism? This has been an ongoing debate on this platform for several months now and from reading the numerous articles denouncing the phenomenon, it is clear that the vast majority of Irish nationalist student writers do not understand unionist grievances. I, as a unionist, will not be lectured and told how I should feel on campus by a writer who studies in Dublin, nor by a former member of Ógra Sinn Féin. Elements of their articles were fair and spurred debate, but most of their writing aimed to derail the discussion into blatant sectarianism. Queen’s University, the institution of learning itself, is largely fine. It would be a stretch to say all of the administrative staff, all of the lecturers and all of the various other employees are actively fighting against unionism. However, when unionists state that Queen’s University is a cold house for unionism, we are trying to discuss the Students’ Union, its leadership and the general attitude towards unionism by certain students around campus. These issues notably haven’t been discussed or addressed by any of the nationalist student writers who have tried to denounce our genuine concerns on Challenges NI.
Queen’s Students’ Council and its executive are the body which lead Queen’s Students’ Union. A body which supposedly represents all students at the University. However, I have sat on the Students’ Council, I have debated in the council chamber and I am constantly left in a state of bemusement at the attitudes of some of the student councillors at the end of every meeting. Currently our student President, Grian Ní Dhaimhín, is on record refusing to condemn terrorism, whilst her social media has sympathetic posts towards the IRA and Sinn Féin. This alongside two other full-time officers of our Students’ Union executive regularly showing support for ‘Lasair Dhearg’ via social media. This demonstrates the Irish Republican bias in our student leadership, who regularly claim to represent all students. Furthermore, Irish nationalist student councillors consistently put forward motions which are nothing but an insult to the unionist community on campus. The latest example being a motion which attempts to ban the British Military and PSNI from appearing on campus, a blatant insult to any student (regardless of political views) who intends to join the armed services or police upon graduating. This motion is no exception either and at every student council meeting you will find a motion which is an insult to unionist students at the university. The few unionist and non-aligned student councillors do make efforts to fight these various motions. However, they are often ridiculed and their concerns belittled and always out voted. From the IRA sympathising President to the Irish nationalist majority and the consistent anti-unionist motions, it is no surprise that unionist leaning students often do not engage with student politics. This makes our Student Council a definite cold house for unionism and a republican echo-chamber.
Attempts on this platform have been made to belittle genuine unionist student concerns on Queen’s campus by attempting to reduce our grievances to simply a dislike for GAA jerseys. As one article on this platform stated, “So why is wearing GAA jerseys seen as sectarian?”. My answer to the writer is simple, it's not! I do not believe that a single unionist has ever taking offence to someone wearing a GAA jersey, in a lecture or around campus. If these supposed unionists existed, it would be impossible to go a day living in Northern Ireland without being offended. Yet, Irish nationalist student writers are using it as a strawman argument to distract and prevent the discussion of serious issues. There are ‘student bars’ where unionists and, in particular protestants, refuse to enter as they have a genuine and legitimate fear of being the victim of sectarian drunken abuse. I personally have had a close friend threatened in the street with live fireworks directed at his face, after attending a certain bar, because he was wearing a half zip with 3 lions embroidered which looked, as one of the attackers stated, “rather English”. When we state that Queen’s campus is a cold house for unionism we are talking about this sort of attitude held by certain students at the university. Attitudes that when combined with alcohol or bravado may lead to violent situations. I challenge any of the Irish nationalist student writers who deny this phenomenon exists to name a ‘student bar’ or ‘student housing area’ they would feel uncomfortable visiting or living in. There are, however, several bars and streets generally associated with students that members of the unionist community would feel unsafe visiting or walking through. University is in theory a place where all political beliefs should be free to express themselves, yet more often than not, Queen’s student culture appears to be attacking unionism.
Lastly, I want to discuss two incidents that Queen’s Ógra Sinn Féin were engaged in yet have gone unpunished by the Students’ Union. Firstly, during Freshers Fair 2019, the Ógra Sinn Féin stand displayed a ‘Brits Out’ sign. This blatant piece of sectarianism is perhaps the most definite evidence of Sinn Féin supporting students attempting to make Queen’s a ‘cold house, not only for Northern Irish unionists but also for any student attending our university from England, Scotland or Wales. The society was never punished for this disgusting piece of sectarianism, which at the time attracted the attention of Northern Irish newspapers. Queen’s Students’ Union has a clear set of standards that all societies must adhere to. Yet, the student union has not even acknowledged the offence of this incident one year on. Secondly, if you were to take a walk around the Queen’s campus over this academic year, there have consistently been Sinn Féin posters displayed on various lamp posts around our campus. Strictly speaking, these posters shouldn’t be erected outside election time and constitute littering because they do not have planning permission. However, when it relates to the cold house question, these posters represent an attempt to mark territory. As anyone who has taken a walk around their town during election periods will agree, posters are often used by various political parties to mark ‘their areas’. The posters serve as a consistent reminder of republican influence in the university’s Student Union. Simply put, there are fewer ways to create a more unwelcoming atmosphere for unionists, than Sinn Féin posters outside the main gate of Queen’s year-round.
When discussing the accusation that Queen’s University is a cold house for unionism, it is important to do so earnestly. To disregard or reduce the argument to a simple dislike of each other's clothing choices or unionists feeling that their cultural identity is being challenged only serves to distract from the serious issues’ large sections of the student body have with campus life at their university. Unionists students are essentially disenfranchised from the student council, unionist students feel unsafe in areas considered traditionally as ‘student areas’ and the students in Ógra Sinn Féin can seemingly act however they wish without seeing any negative consequences. Queen’s University might not be a cold house for unionism now but the Student Union and attitudes on campus are certainly sending us head-on into an ice age.
Matthew Bell is 21 and from West Tyrone. He is studying History and Politics at QUB and is University officer in the Young Unionists. Matthew aims to promote unionism to the post-Good Friday Agreement generation.