Controversy continues to dog the embattled Oxford Union debating society after the refusal of its President Ben Sullivan to resign following his arrest in April by Thames Valley Police over allegations of rape and attempted rape.
A “Take Every Rape Allegation Seriously” vigil is due to take place tonight outside the Union’s society buildings in central Oxford. It has been organised by students in response to what they describe as the “deeply distressing” response of the Union to Sullivan’s arrest.
A motion of no confidence in Sullivan’s leadership of the Union was proposed and debated last week in a packed session attended by over 300 of the society’s members. Supporters of the President who spoke against the motion included Mayank Banerjee, the President-elect of the Union, who is due to take over from Sullivan next term. Banerjee described campaigns calls on speakers to boycott the society while Sullivan remains President as “completely unacceptable”.
Students voted by 254 votes to 101 to scrap the motion after concern was raised by a floor speaker that the result could affect Sullivan’s right to a fair trial by unduly influencing the views of jurors.
Organisers deride the “casual” manner in which the Union conducted the motion of no confidence debate and say that female audience members were ignored, that a speaker made a “joke” rape allegation to the distress of audience members who have been victims of sexual assault, and that Sullivan himself, despite promising not to attend the debate itself, appeared afterwards to hug supporters on their way out.
They also claim that the Union refused a request to hold consent workshops for its officials.
Supporters of the President have reacted angrily to some of the allegations raised on the Facebook event page for the vigil, claiming that its account of the debate contained inaccuracies and potentially libellous accusations.
Some allege that certain comments revealed “a dislike towards Sullivan, rather than any actual sincere concerns about sexism generally,” and accuse protesters of believing that “we should dispense with innocent before guilty and treat him as if he has done it, regardless of the fact we don’t know anything beyond that an allegation has been made.”
Sullivan was arrested last month after two female students reported him for rape and attempted rape. The two incidents are alleged to have taken place in January and April of last year.
Following his release on bail, amid heated calls for his resignation, Sullivan gave a defiant speech to Union members in which he insisted that he would not step down. “I have the utmost faith in the police and Crown Prosecution Service and the British legal system as a whole. I know that sooner or later the truth will prevail and justice will be served,” he said.
This follows revelations that Sullivan used £1,200 of Union money to take out an injunction against the Oxford Tab after he learnt it was about to print an article naming him as a member of a Oxford drinking club, The Banter Squadron. The Union’s Standing Committee voted by nine votes to two to authorise the use of the money.
The demonstration it set to begin tonight at 7.30pm outside the Union’s headquarters on St. Michael’s Street, Oxford.