Lately within Northern Ireland, there has been a swell of media coverage relating to our student union at Queen’s University Belfast. The issue? A motion was proposed by two students to ban the sale of poppies nearing the time of Remembrance Day (see motion 12.2). Why is this so controversial in Northern Ireland and less so in the rest of the UK? To try and put this in simple terms, there are two symbols which gain controversy in regards to remembrance of the dead, these include the Easter Lily and the Red Poppy. This issue boils down to the fact that people can interpret these symbols in many different ways, some may even find them offensive to their own particular culture.

In essence, the Easter Lily is a symbol worn by the Republican and Nationalist communities to remember those who died or were executed during and after the Easter Rising in 1916, when an insurrection was held to end British rule in Ireland and this would ultimately lead to the splitting of Ireland into what it is today, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.  The Red Poppy, on the other hand, is typically associated with the Unionist / Loyalist communities but acts as a universal symbol on Remembrance Day to remember those who died in WWI under Britain.

So what’s the issue here? The issue lies in the tensions between the two communities in that the Unionist / Loyalist communities see the Easter Lily as offensive because some see it as a symbol which commemorates fallen members of the provisional IRA during the ‘troubles’. Likewise, the Nationalist / Republican communities see the Red Poppy as being offensive because some see it as a symbol which commemorates all British soldiers, including those that committed crimes against their community during the troubles.

Symbols can easily become a topic of controversy, take the swastika for example, a symbol that was used in ancient times by Indian religions and incorporated in many other ways, which literally translates into ‘good well-being’ from its origin in Sanskrit. It is because this symbol has been tainted by the Nazi regime of Hitler that many people are afraid of using this symbol and why using the symbol can be an offence in some countries. It is a shame that symbols are at the mercy of being politicized in wrongful ways and that is exactly what has happened here.

Back to the matter at hand, the motion was defeated by 40 votes to 15 on the 7th of May and the amount of blackmailing, slandering and general abhorrent tactics used by the media and politicians against councillors has been somewhat appalling. This follows by gross misrepresentation within the Belfast Telegraph on the issue and many people, as a result, blamed the entire body of students at QUB for allowing this motion to be brought up.

There are two things I’d like to point out however, one is that as a representative body, the student’s union boasts a vast array of political opinions and obviously, not every person in the union is going to represent every student politically. The 15 students that voted for this motion do not represent the entire student body. Secondly, I believe that it is important to have concise discussions on issues which seem controversial to some, without those outside the union jumping down people’s throats.

At this point, I’d like to point out that there were some very important topics and motions discussed by our university in association with the aforementioned motion but did this get any media coverage? For example, a motion on this week’s agenda that was passed now gives pregnant students more information on options available and allows for the distribution of FPA (Family Planning Association) literature to be available on campus (See motion 12.1 in reference).  Another saw an extension of democracy within the union in electing sabbatical officers, motion 12.3 states: ‘Council notes although there are potentially many factors which could have affected the abysmal number of candidates in this year’s Sabbatical Officer Elections, one widely accepted factor is mistrust in our current democratic model. This mistrust not only manifested itself in the low candidate turnout, but also in the record high turnout for Re-Open Nominations (c. 930 in six out of seven elections)’.

This is where the silence proportion of this topic fits in, there are many people who want a pluralistic union as opposed to a neutral one. Surely it is better for us to become more understanding of each other’s culture and become more diverse and pluralistic than banning anything which rings the word ‘offence’ to its name? Where do we draw the line? Let’s be honest, the very concept of maintaining a neutral union is flawed because even students themselves have their own political view, that itself collides with the idea of neutrality.

The final part in association with silence  in this topic, is that I believe it’s important that the media and politicians recognize the hard work that students put into changing their union and university. For example, because of student pressure in Northern Ireland, our tuition fees have been capped at £3575 and those within the NUS-USI have worked against the cuts of lecturers within universities. These are issues which are of greater importance within Northern Ireland but it will take time to progress to that stage where we start dealing with matters which affect us all.


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