Talking peace where once there was silence

Accommodating Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland is a painful process. David McKittrick reports.
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The Independent Online
It seems axiomatic that if the peace in Northern Ireland is to lead to a lasting political settlement, the Unionist and nationalist communities will need to develop respect for each other's traditions and sensitivities. One key problem is the deep-rooted belief, held by many, that any move made in response to nationalist requests is a defeat for the Unionist cause.

A stark example of this has recently filled the letters pages of Belfast newspapers. It centres on attempts to provide a more neutral atmosphere at the Queen's University of Belfast, which is Northern Ireland's premier seat of learning.

The issue has provided an insight into the views of an almost politically silent section of society: the educated Protestant middle classes. It is illuminating in that it shows in microcosmic form what can happen when change is attempted.

The controversy surfaced in December when the university announced that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will no longer play the national anthem at its graduation ceremonies. The anthem would still be played on other occasions, it said.

The move was designed to promote a "neutral working and social environment so that students, staff and visitors could feel comfortable", and follows years of complaints about the anthem from nationalist students, who make up around half the student body.

A commentator in the moderate Unionist Belfast Telegraph confirmed the same point from a Protestant outlook: "The anthem has been regarded by the majority as a kind of musical totem, advising the other side in a suitably public and ceremonial manner that the land whereon they stand is British. It is part and parcel of the siege mentality. That mentality means that symbols of a disputed identity become inflated out of all proportion to their intrinsic significance."

Dropping the anthem did not come out of the blue, but followed several difficult years for Queen's. In 1989, a report revealed that, although the percentage of Catholic students was growing, Catholics remained seriously under-represented among its 3,000 staff.

Queen's faced a series of fair employment cases, in which staff alleged religious discrimination in appointments, costing it hundreds of thousands of pounds. The university traditionally projected itself as above the sectarian fray. But the evidence of imbalance was too great to be ignored and, together with the financial cost and bad publicity, forced a painful reassessment. Unenthusiastic reformers at first, Queen's has changed its mind. In 1989, Professor Leslie Clarkson wrote to the Independent complaining of its coverage of the issue.

Today, as chairman of the university's new equal opportunities group, he is widely recognised as a genuine advocate of change. Many former critics now acknowledge that real efforts are being made.

Professor Clarkson said: "Some people believe Queen's should remain a bastion of Unionism, but the university is now endeavouring to ensure aharmonious working and social environment."

Dropping the anthem is only part of a series of changes, but it has provoked a storm of protest, particularly from Unionist politicians, who havedescribed it variously as sectarian, disgraceful, insulting, appalling, foolish, naive, a concession to militant republicanism and cultural triumphalism. The fact that the students' union had a number of bilingual signs in both English and Irish was also attacked.

Such reactions, from political sources, were predictable. What was unusual was the tidal wave of letters from the normally silent middle classes to the Belfast Telegraph, which received more on this than on any other issue for a decade, expressing anger, resentment and, very often, rank incomprehension about the anthem decision. Former and present students have also been moved to express a political opinion.

"I graduated in 1955 and have been proud of my university until today," a doctor now living in Lincoln wrote. "Queen's is a British university. As British subjects, carrying out a duty authorised by our sovereign, we should acknowledge her position."

Another letter declared: "A surging tide of Irish republicanism is sweeping the university inexorably towards its final destination, a bastion of republicanism where students of the Unionist tradition will be unwelcome."

And elderly graduate announced he was sending back his degrees in protest. "I would rather die than lose my national anthem." Others denounced the move as appeasement of republicans; as part of a co-ordinated campaign to "strip away part of the British identity". The students' union's signs were designed to "culturally oppress and intimidate the Unionists".

A few opposing voices were also heard. One writer argued: "Those who fail to see that in neutral company the anthem is divisive are themselves part of the sectarian problem here, rather than part of the non-sectarian solution."

Another wrote with apparent passion: "Is there something that slams down the shutters in the majority of Unionist minds as soon as there is the slightest move towards compromise?"

In a few days, the Unionist community will be pondering the framework document negotiated by the British and Irish governments. Essentially, the deal on offer will be this: Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for as long as the majority wish, but the Unionist and nationalist traditions are both to be respected.

It will set out a mixed model where Unionists maintain their prized membership of the UK while nationalists have their Irishness expressed through continuing Dublin input andcross-border institutions.

The Queen's experience shows the difficulties involved in the metamorphosis of what was seen as a Protestant dominated institution into one in which all sections of the community can feel at home. The task in Northern Ireland is to establish a mixed culture in which concessions to one side are not necessarily seen as a defeat for the other. The long-term prospects for the province rest on the emergence of a philosophy of peaceful co-existence.