Connor Daly, VP Campaigns & Communications 2012-2014 offers his opinion on referenda at QUBSU.
Throughout my years as a student at Queen’s University and as a Vice President of the Students’ Union, I would boast to friends and alumni that things weren’t the way they used to be when they themselves studied at Queen’s; student politics had moved on from the tribalism of green and orange, miles ahead of the ‘folks on the hill’. The students’ union was a shared space. With recent moves by Queen’s Sinn Féin society to ban the sale of the poppy at QUBSU and to hold a referendum on the Union’s stance on Irish unity, sadly, pride in some of my peers has quietly subsided. Whether it is a calculated attempt to raise individual profiles or a naïvely perceived blow for Irish freedom, Queen’s Students’ Union and its members have thrived for years without debate over the national question. Considering recent NI Executive cuts to student financial support, and the niggling potential for further disaster down the line with the failure to implement welfare reform, it seems outrageous that students would prioritise such a vote over everyday student issues.
Universities and students’ unions have long played a crucial role in providing a platform for debate and personal development amongst students. Regrettably, in Northern Ireland, due to our generation’s failings to deal with past conflict, there exists little room for manoeuvre when discussing the national question without the potential of one offending another. There is no escaping this fact. One only has to pick up past editions of the university’s Gown newspaper to understand how life at Queen’s and those of staff and students were impacted upon throughout The Troubles and by other events. Sinn Féin’s own cumann at Queen’s is named in honour of Sheena Campbell, a QUB Law student murdered in 1992. Rather than proposing a referendum on the Irish border or focusing upon similar divisive issues that might alienate fellow students, surely an agreed understanding of our own institution’s history and a willingness to retain its place as a safe haven is paramount to facilitating a true union for students. Within the microcosm of the Queen’s community there exists many lessons for wider Northern Irish politics and society.
The essence of any union is that it acts as an umbrella or association of interests, organising people of differing backgrounds and opinions under one shared banner. A political party may hold certain unshakable principles or values; certainly in Northern Ireland these often include a commitment to retaining or breaking Northern Ireland’s link to the United Kingdom. Many of our civic associations, like the GAA or Orange Order, have their own national visions which have existed since their foundation, with support showing no sign of waning. For a union, however, whether it be formed by workers for workers or by students for students, to hold a vote on something so divisive or – dare I write it – as irrelevant to the immediate interests of their members as Irish unity is difficult to believe. At the heart of any union’s constitution is the aim of maintaining the unity of its members. Whatever the result of next week’s referendum, its only potential success could be smashing the cross-party, cross-community cohesion at Queen’s that has taken so long to forge.