Children of the divide

February 16, 1996

It should have been a symbol of hope for Ulster's fragile future.

The daughter of a renowned republican facing the son of a prominent unionist in an election for president of Queen's University's student's union minus the usual rancour seemed a portent of changed times.

Then the IRA bombing at South Quay threatened to plunge the province's two universities and colleges back into the sectarian abyss.

Unionist and nationalist students had just finished the first session of a community relations workshop at Queen's when news of the blast came through. "There were tears. It was really very emotional. People just couldn't believe it", said Peter O'Neill of the National Union of Students/Union of Students in Ireland.

But among those who stayed on for a long debate on how student unions can help the floundering peace process were the two rival candidates Deirdre McAliskey and Jonathon Taylor.

She is the 20-year-old daughter of veteran republican Bernadette McAliskey, famous for throwing ink at the Home Secretary and leading civil rights marches at the start of the Troubles. He is the 22-year-old son of the deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist party, John Taylor, a hard line but pragmatic politician who has himself suffered at the hands of IRA terrorists.

Both of them, along with a third runner Michelle McAuley, 22, had managed until last Friday to limit their campaigns for the most part to student union affairs.

Ms McAuley, an independent, said: "I am more concerned about the issues facing students than external matters and I don't think it matters that I don't have famous parents."

Mr Taylor said: "We had just finished the workshop and the Nine O'Clock News came on. There were a few tears but really there was no anger. Everyone just stared at the screen in disbelief and condemned what had happened. Obviously it will mean questions will be asked but we are still focussing, or trying to, on student issues.

"But there has always been a certain amount of division among students at Queen's and the bomb has put the politics of the peace process on the agenda."

Ms McAliskey, a psychology undergraduate like her mother, said: "I respect my mother, as I do other political figures, but I'm not into hero worship. I have my own personal politics which I do not regard as relevant to the election."

Mr Taylor has, however, campaigned for the restoration of the National Anthem at Queen's graduation ceremonies after it was controversially dropped last year and Ms McAliskey has assisted the development of organisations at Queen's such as Saoirse which campaigns for prisoners' rights.

Academics and administrators at the University of Ulster and Queen's said it was too early to assess the possible impact of the London bombing on higher education in the province. But there were fears it could put off the increasing number of overseas students who have become vital to funding.

Queen's pro vice chancellor Bob Cormack said: "It has to be remembered that we have survived and developed during the Troubles and we will continue to serve the communities whatever happens."

The NUS/USI has already decided, however, to redouble its community relations strategy at Queen's, University of Ulster and the 22 colleges, and also to go ahead with a major conference in Northern Ireland on the issue in April.

On Wednesday night students held a vigil for peace outside Queen's University demanding a resumption of the IRA ceasefire and renewed political dialogue.

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