Twelve students from Queen’s University Belfast’s (QUB) Fossil Free campaign group are three days into their occupation of the college’s administration building. The sit-in, led by QUB’s Students’ Union (QUBSU) Campaigns and Communications Officer, Sean Fearon, is to continue indefinitely until the campaign group receives a pledge to divest from fossil fuels from university authorities.
Access to supplies had been denied to the group, however, they are now allowed one box of supplies per day via QUBSU. According to the Twitter account of one of the protesters, Aidan Jones, the head of security attempted to liaise with university management on Saturday morning regarding the group’s request for supplies and access. Security later blocked attempts by QUBSU officers to deliver supplies to the group. Further attempts by Claire Bailey, Deputy Leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, to deliver supplies through a window via rope were successful, but similar actions were later blocked by security on the grounds that it violated health and safety.
QUB’s Amnesty International group issued a statement expressing concern over the initial obstruction of supplies to the students: “Removing access to food is a clear attempt to force students out of the building. Given that the university has made no contact with the students, it is apparent that removing their legal right to protest is a higher priority than engaging with the protestors’ concerns and reaching a reasonable conclusion.”
Speaking to Trinity News, Ben Christman, one of the occupiers, stated: “We’ll be here until Queen’s agrees to freeze new investments, publicly pledges to divest from fossil fuels and agrees a schedule to withdraw all fossil fuel investments by 2020.”
The occupation comes following the recent release of a full breakdown of the university’s investments, ordered by the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which found that they currently invest £5.5m in fossil fuel extraction and production. The investments relate to companies such as Shell, BP and ExxonMobil, among others.
Christman made a freedom of information request seeking this information in December 2014, which was refused on the grounds that the investment details were exempt information under section 43(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which states: “Information is exempt information if its disclosure under this Act would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the public authority holding it).” Christman appealed this judgement, claiming the refusal was a “misinterpretation” of the article, however, his appeal was refused on similar grounds. It was only when the appeal was brought to the ICO, which ruled in Christman’s favour, that QUB were forced to disclose the information. According to Christman: “The ICO essentially ruled that Queen’s had acted unlawfully by refusing to release what should be publically accessible information.”
The Fossil Free QUB group was inspired to take action following the lack of movement from the university on the issue and the global mobilisation across campuses to take action against university investment policies.
According to the BBC, QUB’s investment committee has agreed to review its investment policy, and has invited the Fossil Free campaign group to take part in a workshop in January 2016 “to help inform the investment policy review.” While Christman felt the workshop could be productive, the group is concerned that the length of the review process is “an attempt to kick our campaign in the long grass.” The final decision on investments will not come until June 2016, when the majority of the current students will have left the campus, lessening the likelihood of protests should the university decide against divestment.
Solidarity with the group’s campaign has been shown by alumni, other divestment campaign groups, USI, and attendees at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, among many others.
QUBSU officer, Sean Fearon, made a trip to Dublin recently to commence talks with Trinity College Dublin’s divestment campaign group, Fossil Free TCD. According to the University Times, Trinity currently has €6.1 million indirectly invested in oil-related companies.