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.