Some Unionists have a blind spot over academics expressing political opinions

Posted By: November 06, 2019

Brian Feeney. Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, November 6, 2019 

In the context of Monday’s letter to An Taoiseach it’s worth noting that out of the roughly 1,100 signatories, 90 are academics from all over Ireland, plus some from England, Scotland, the USA and Canada.

A similar number from the world of education also signed. In itself that’s not remarkable. On the contrary, it’s to be expected that academics and educationalists should be interested in the effect of Brexit on politics, society and the economy here.

What is remarkable is that only five academics from Queen’s signed. That’s little wonder if you know what’s been going on. In the past year or so Professor of Human Rights Law Colin Harvey has been subjected to a growing campaign of vilification by the usual semi-literate loyalist knuckle-draggers on social media because he advocates fully implementing  the democratic provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, including a Border Poll to enable a return to the EU.

However, unacceptable that abuse is, you’d expect it from the usual suspects. What has been astonishing is that virtually every unionist political leader has also weighed in, either attacked Harvey on Twitter or Facebook, or has taken the trouble to write to Queen’s vice-chancellor and/or other university senior management to complain about Harvey’s views which they suggest are incompatible with his position in the university. The most vociferous has been the new Ulster U-turn Party, self-destructing leader designate, Steve Aiken, but others have not been far behind.

What’s most astonishing is the blind spot Unionists have about expressing political opinions. It could be called many things but most likely it’s plain ignorance of the academic world. It seems some Unionists know so little about ‘academic freedom’ that if someone mentioned it, they would try to put a fiver each way on it at Doncaster on Saturday.

Do they not know Fair Employment legislation prevents discrimination on the grounds of political views? Do they not know that academics are supposed to conduct research and that the recent academic and legal report on Irish Unity – Planning and Preparing for Constitutional Change – that Professor Harvey produced with barrister Mark Basset was commissioned by the European Left/Nordic Green Left group of the EU parliament?

All that seems irrelevant to cheer-leading Unionist politicians and their odious fellow travelers among bloggers and trolls.

Their objection is that Harvey is talking about Irish unity. Although the 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the GFA guarantee the right to the peaceful and democratic pursuit of the goal of Irish unity, Unionist politicians vehemently object to any promotion of anything but maintaining the present failed arrangement.

Where were Unionist objections when David Trimble, a QUB law lecturer, was prominent in the extreme right-wing Vanguard movement in the seventies? Professor Paul Bew was an adviser to Trimble and the UUP during the GFA talks and later. Dermot Nesbitt, director of the School of Management at QUB, later UUP MLA and minister. Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist in UU. There are others, but you get the picture. Not a word about any of them. Nor should there be. They’re perfectly entitled to hold their views no matter how wonky or misguided. So it’s clear Unionists have no objection in principle to university staff holding strong political positions and expressing political views with one important caveat – they must be Unionist positions.

It’s extraordinary that Unionist leaders don’t realize the absurdity of their demand that Queen’s take action against Professor Harvey. What would they have recommended about the famous Marxist historians Christopher Hill, Master of Balliol from 1965-78, or E. H. Carr, or the most well-known Marxist and long time member of the Communist Party, Eric Hobsbawm? Tell them they must join the Conservative party to get a job?

Sadly, a robust statement from Queen’s in defense of Harvey’s right to pursue his work on Brexit and its damage to human rights in Ireland is long overdue, but don’t hold your breath.