Deputy News Editor
– Contentious dispute reignites after Phil debates re-inviting BNP leader to Trinity
– SWSS meeting criticises “white upper/middle class” and “radical right-wing” Phil members; society responds
Trinity Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) is planning to discourage students from joining the University Philosophical Society (Phil) during Freshers’ Week. At a meeting last Wednesday entitled “No Platform for Nazi Nick Griffin”, it was suggested that the SWSS “bad-mouth” the Phil to new students due to its refusal to rule out re-inviting the far-right BNP leader to speak in a debate on campus. In a statement to Trinity News, Owen McCormack of Trinity SWSS said the group want to highlight “the Phil’s irresponsible actions to next year’s freshers who may be unaware that the Phil thinks giving a platform to a Nazi is a good idea.” SWSS also intend to petition for a Students’ Union referendum to oppose invitations to Holocaust deniers.
The move comes after a debate on the motion “This House Would Re-Invite Nick Griffin” was held by the Phil on 20th March. Speaking before the debate, Rosalind Ní Shúilleabháin, Phil President, said that the invitation that had been extended to Griffin in 2011 was withdrawn after College “pulled support” from the proposed debate following “personal threats” made to Phil members by “far-left” groups. The BNP leader has been scheduled to debate the motion “This House Believes Immigration Has Gone Too Far”.
At Wednesday’s SWSS meeting, Paul Shields of the trade union SIPTU denounced the “free speech agenda” being used to justify the possible re-invitation. He said “radical right-wing” members of the Phil were trying to “kick-start their careers” in the Students’ Union. “People are being beaten up on the streets of Dublin and Europe” and far-right groups are saying “this is what young white people should be doing,” he said.
Speaking at the event, John Molyneux from the Irish Socialist Workers’ Party cautioned that an invitation would treat the “lives of immigrants as pawns in a student career game”. He said that a visit by Griffin would drag the “name of the university into the gutter”. Nick Griffin is a Nazi, “one of the hard-core followers of Adolf Hitler”, he emphasised. He outlined the history of fascism in Britain and Nick Griffin’s links with it, including with John Tyndall’s National Front, and quoted evidence of Griffin’s racism and Holocaust denial. He claimed that the recent Phil debate was “unfair” because the guest speakers, both of whom were for the proposition were given extra time.
In a statement to Trinity News, Ní Shúilleabháin said that “there were four speakers on either side of the debate; everyone had an equal airing”. “We widely publicise our debate sign ups and would have welcomed any SWSS members who wished to participate,” she said, adding that Ronan Burtenshaw, who led the “Trinity Against Fascism” group opposing Griffin’s visit in 2011, declined an invitation to speak at the debate. While the motion was passed by the audience, she said this does not “reflect any opinion or policy of the Phil”, which as a student society is “unable to hold a corporate opinion” under CSC regulations. The “debate was simply a segue for a discussion on free speech,” she said.
Speaking at the same debate, Dr Eoin O’Dell, a Trinity fellow and law lecturer, supported the society’s right to re-invite Griffin. “Hecklers should never have veto,” he said. Having invited him, the Phil had the responsibility, O’Dell said, to ensure he did speak. He called the failure of the Provost to support the Phil “shameful” and said he should “redeem that shame”. In response to questions from Trinity News, O’Dell said “it is particularly disappointing when any university fails to protect freedom of expression” and “uncommonly wretched when that university is mine”. He said he would be “very disappointed” should a referendum against Holocaust deniers succeed. Particularly in a university, he said, the best response to such a “hateful” view as Griffin’s “is to expose it through reasoned debate.” He said “we must not compel any opinion to silence, because we cannot infallibly know it to be false.” “Better to debate it, and demonstrate that it is false, or discover that there is some truth in it,” he insisted.
O’Dell was joined at the Phil debate by Vincent Lavery, a former Democratic activist, who also proposed the motion. Lavery called the withdrawal of the invitation a “shame on the Phil, the university and Irish society”. The groups opposing the invitation were engaging in “mental masturbation,” he claimed. “Not one political official or academic said ‘stop this madness’,” he complained. He declared “we do not have free speech in this country,” and said students are “scared of challenging their professors”.
However, in the view of SWSS, the 2011 invite was “part of a quite sickening media stunt to court controversy regardless of the real effects of legitimising the discourse of this Nazi.” According to Owen McCormack, the “average Phil officer” being generally “white upper/middle class individuals” would be “blissfully unaffected” should a visit by Griffin inspire “Irish racists to get organised”. “If they were black, Muslim, gay or an immigrant they might more plausibly argue they felt personally threatened by a course of action that would see a Nazi given a platform in Trinity,” he argued. SWSS would seek to “approach other societies and try to form a wider committee outside of SWSS to campaign against a visit by this Nazi if it should happen,” he said.
In her statement to Trinity News, Ní Shúilleabháin said that SWSS should be free to exercise their right to freedom of speech. However, she said that “their comments have been quite nasty and not within the spirit of the student society community in Trinity.” She said she felt “quite hurt by their comments about my social background and that of other Phil Council members.” She pointed out that both her parents are public servants from “working-class backgrounds” and that she has “held down a part time job my entire way through college.” She said that neither of the two current Phil officers who spoke for the opposition and proposition would “describe themselves as upper- or middle-class”, while Paul Behan who spoke for the proposition “is LGBT and specifically spoke about reconciling his sexuality with his views on Nick Griffin’s right to speak.”
Ní Shúilleabháin also dismissed the possibility of the SU being mandated to campaign against Griffin being re-invited to speak in Trinity. She told Trinity News that the “SU have no jurisdiction over the operation of student societies” and that the Phil is “only answerable to the CSC”. She said that “the CSC Constitution clearly outlines the right of societies to free, unrestricted promotion of their activities to any potential members.” Should Trinity SWSS “follow through with their planned tactics”, she said the Phil “will be contacting the CSC for advice and, if necessary, intervention, to prevent harm from coming to ourselves and so we are not impeded in promoting our society”.
Speaking to Trinity News, SU President, Tom Lenihan, said he is personally opposed to giving a “platform to fascists” but said sabbatical officers should refrain from telling students what constitutes free speech. However, he said a visit by Nick Griffin would “incite controversy” and create “bad will” in college. Opponents of a visit by Nick Griffin are welcome to put forward a motion on the issue at SU Council to “encourage a healthy debate” but he said the situation is “a bit up in the air” since an invite has not been issued.
Image: The Phil