Northern Ireland

Unionists 'attacking Queen's University academics' free speech'

Queen's University, Belfast

The union that represents the majority of lecturers at Queen's University Belfast (QUB) has accused some unionist parties and politicians of attacks on academic freedom.

The University and College Union (UCU) said they were aimed at gagging academics, especially over Brexit.

The UCU condemned what it called "an outrageous attack on democracy and the values of free speech".

TUV leader Jim Allister has dismissed the criticism as "frankly laughable".

In a strongly worded statement, the UCU branch at QUB criticised "wholly unfair and worryingly authoritarian attacks on local academics' right to voice free opinions".

It called for the university to "robustly and unequivocally reject demands by politicians to censure or silence academic staff".

'Depressing and predictably familiar'

The academic union claimed that members of the DUP had complained, both publicly and privately, to the university about views expressed by lecturers.

The union also cited correspondence from the TUV leader Jim Allister to QUB over comments made on a radio programme by a former Queen's professor.

"It's becoming depressingly and predictably familiar," the UCU statement said.

"An academic has their say on local issues of public interest or political importance - as academics do worldwide - and a local politician petitions the university to have them disciplined or gagged."

In a statement, QUB said it had received two complaints from politicians regarding comments made by academics.

"Queen's supports freedom of thought and expression, within a framework of respect for the rights of other persons," the statement read.

"Academic freedom is enshrined as a guiding principle in the university's charter and statutes."

The UCU criticised the former DUP MLA Nelson McCausland, who is now a newspaper columnist and commentator.

'The same as all of us'

In a recent column for the Belfast Telegraph, Mr McCausland said that Queen's had to address the perception that it was a "cold house" for Protestants.

His column was sparked by an incident in which a Queen's professor had supported European Council President Donald Tusk's comment that there was a "special place in hell" for no-deal Brexiteers.

"Is Mr McCausland suggesting that this professor should be disciplined for offering an individual opinion?" the UCU said.

"Mr McCausland has repeatedly complained about what he characterises as the 'left-wing sympathies' of academics in Queen's and University of Ulster."

Image caption Nelson McCausland said academics should be held accountable

However, Mr McCausland told BBC News NI that he rejected the UCU's criticism.

"Academics are no different to anyone else - they are fallible the same as all of us," he said.

"They need to be held to account because they hold powerful positions.

"They shape and they influence opinion and educate the next generation of leaders in society.

"Just as politicians are held to account by the press and people, university academics should be held to account and I think that's what many people have been doing.

"They've simply been highlighting unfortunate, regrettable, dangerous - in some cases - opinions that have been expressed."

'Only criticise Unionists'

Meanwhile, the TUV leader Jim Allister said that the UCU's criticisms were "frankly laughable".

"Perhaps the University and College Union at Queen's should reflect on the fact that they have only come in for criticism from unionist politicians," he said.

"Certainly it is only unionists who are named in their statement.

"Where was their statement when I highlighted the imbalance in the number of Protestants and Roman Catholics attending our universities?

"Of course, academics have freedom of speech, but freedom of speech means that those who disagree with academics have the right to express their views as well."

In a statement, the DUP described the union's claims as "nonsense".

"If academics express their view about a political matter then they should be prepared to have their view challenged if people disagree with them," the statement read.

"That's not an attack on freedom, that's a healthy debate; something which should be at the centre of life in a university."