Risk Assessments

Glenn Patterson

I woke yesterday morning to the news that the vice chancellor’s office at Queen’s University in Belfast had cancelled a symposium, due to take place in June at the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities, on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. ‘Incomplete risk assessment’ was the reason given. All day yesterday I kept schtum. Too busy working. At least I convinced myself that was the reason. When I woke in the early hours of this morning I wondered if I hadn’t actually been carrying out a bit of risk assessment of my own.

Part of what enables me to write novels and screenplays is a part-time lectureship in Creative Writing at Queen’s, with an office in the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, attached to the School of English. Nearly 90 per cent of professional authors, according to a survey released yesterday by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, ‘need to earn money from sources other than writing’.

One of the things that kept me thinking I was keeping busy yesterday was replying to an invitation to speak at the Irish Theatre Forum Conference, on censorship, funding and creative freedom (I’m involved with the Libel Reform Northern Ireland Campaign). I mentioned in my reply that I have always thought, as a writer working in Ireland, that we wrote against a culture of censorship, whether explicit (the old broadcasting bans) or implicit: watch what you say, you never know who is listening – a ham-fisted paraphrase of Heaney’s ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’

Which brings me back to Queen’s and contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo. I am not sure which is more depressing, that the symposium was cancelled or that most of the voices raised against the cancellation have come from outside the university, or even that a part of me understands why the dissent from within has been so muted. Contemporary citizens’ fears over security take many forms. All the same, though it’s little and it’s late, I wanted to say something.


  • 23 April 2015 at 4:13pm
    Glen Newey says:
    In fact QUB's cancellation of the conference is based on grounds even more abject than those you mention, namely (according to the statement issued by the VC's office) worries 'about the reputation of the university'.

    This is stupefying. It says in effect that the protection of the university's reputation (presumably in deference to the needs of the 'brand') is best served by quashing free inquiry, including in this case discussion of the very principle of free inquiry.

  • 23 April 2015 at 8:06pm
    Joe says:
    "... or even that a part of me understands why the dissent from within has been so muted."

    Indeed. As Marina Warner has explained previously in the LRB, academics are increasingly reluctant to speak publicly in support of their universities. But 'muted' could be the wrong word. I imagine many angry QUB academics, mistrustful of their VC's judiciousness, will have taken to whistleblowing to the press precisely to raise wider awareness of the issue and rouse those louder voices outside. The completed risk assessment (for it was submitted, university administration always requires a paper trail; how else are VCs to personally scrutinise every document for every event to make their important decisions?) will no doubt surface publicly by similar means.

  • 24 April 2015 at 8:53am
    Higgs Boatswain says:
    I'm a bit baffled that many of the criticisms of the University have come from individuals - including some writer called Robert McLiam Wilson - who appear to assume that the planned symposium would have entailed an uncritical endorsement of 'free speech' and an expression of naive defiance against anyone who suggests that free expression ought to be limited in any way. In fact I suspect that an academic symposium on citizenship and Charlie Hebdo would hopefully be a bit more sophisticated than this, and might actually raise some some of the bigger problems surrounding liberalism, secularism, and freedom of expression (some of which are explored by Glen Newey in his review of Jeremy Waldon's The Harm in Hate Speech in the December 2013 edition of the LRB). The polarised rhetoric and rather unreflective sloganising that followed the Charlie Hebdo massacre suggests to me that this is very much the sort of issue that universities should be eager to engage with, as our press and politicians seem unable to do so in a thoughtful way. It is particularly unfortunate, then, that QUB's shamefully inept handling of this affair only gives further credence to those who proclaim loudly that freedom of expression is under threat in Europe from an unholy alliance of radical Muslims and cowering politically-correct liberals.

  • 24 April 2015 at 6:48pm
    Glen Newey says:
    Extraordinarily, the QUB management now suggests in a message sent to staff that the conference had not been cancelled after all. An email sent to QUB staff today by Paddy Johnston, the Vice Chancellor, claims rather that a funding application for it had merely been refused on the basis of an incomplete risk assessment; the full assessment is promised for next Friday.

    By contrast, an email sent out on Monday to conference participants said that 'The vice chancellor at Queen's University Belfast has made the decision just this morning that he does not wish our symposium to go ahead'. See e.g. The Belfast Telegraph report from Wednesday:

  • 28 April 2015 at 11:14am
    Vingtras says:
    Anyone familiar with Belfast would know that Robert McLiam Wilson is not "some writer" but the author of Eureka Street -- one of the best novels about the Troubles (and surely the funniest). Given that Wilson satirized Provos, Sticks, and Loyalists -- not to mention Seamus Heaney (the holiest cow in Ireland) -- with gleeful abandon at a time when these fellas didn't take kindly to mockery, I dare say he knows something about the importance of defending freedom of expression in the face of political extremism.