University fails to defend academic freedom for campaigner

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Queen’s University Belfast is once again being accused of discriminating against nationalists after a Law Professor at the university revealed he had come under pressure to end his involvement in a public debate on Brexit and Irish reunification.

Colin Harvey revealed during a public appearance at Derry’s Guildhall that he has felt “under siege” within the university after becoming the target of criticism from unionists and loyalists over the past year.

The incoming leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Steve Aiken and DUP assembly member Christopher Stalford, have both contacted university bosses at Queen’s, where Mr Harvey is a professor in its School of Law. They have demanded the institution challenge Mr Harvey’s involvement in making plans for constitutional change.

Although his position is protected by law, the university has declined to defend Mr Harvey on the principle of academic freedom, a university norm which protects the rights of academics to engage in political activity.

Speaking at a press conference to launch a report on the `The Role of the EU in Irish Unity’ earlier this month, Mr Harvey invited critics of his contribution to the Irish unity debate to “come and have a conversation with me”.

He was also involved in a `Beyond Brexit’ event in January, which examined what Ireland would look like after Britain exits the EU, taking the north of Ireland with it.

The academic said he feels it has been his “duty” to contribute to the current debate on Irish unity.

“I would ask unionists and loyalists in this society to come and talk to me. My door is open for a conversation about the content of my work,” he said.

“Really it is a plea to come and speak to me directly. I am willing to talk about the content of my work. This year a lot of work has been on the question of Irish reunification, which I realise there is debate about.

“I genuinely want there to be a dialogue and conversation. I don’t want to be a bystander in what is a historical moment for this island. I feel a responsibility and duty on me - we’re the responsible people in the room who want to talk.”

The failure to defend the right to free speech of their own Professor has yet again drawn attention to Queen’s long history of discrimination against Catholics and the Irish language.

Political commentator Brian Feeney suggested political debate at Queen’s was being suppressed. He said it was “remarkable” that only five out of 90 academics who signed a recent public letter expressing concern at the effects of Brexit on Ireland were based at the university.

He said Mr Harvey had been subject to a “growing campaign of vilification” because he advocates “fully implementing the democratic provisions of the Good Friday Agreement”, including a border poll to enable a return to the EU.

He pointed to the heavy involvement of past academics at Queens’ in extreme unionism without suffering any recrimination.

“A robust statement from Queen’s in defence of Harvey’s right to pursue his work on Brexit and its damage to human rights in Ireland is long overdue,” he wrote. “But don’t hold your breath”.

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