Faith, hope and parity

March 29, 1996

Simon Lee tells Simon Targett why he gave up a law chair to run a higher education institute. It was like old times. As soon as the IRA returned to London, Simon Lee was back on the radio. After South Quays, he appeared on Radio 4's Call Nick Ross. After Aldwych, he delivered the Today programme's Thought For The Day. But this burst of media attention is likely to be all too brief. That is because Lee has swapped jobs.

Until last September, he was professor of law at Queen's University in Belfast. He seemed to be on the high road to a glittering career. After a Brackenbury scholarship at Balliol, a Harkness Fellowship at Yale, and a lecturing stint at London, he became the youngest law professor in the United Kingdom. Just 31, he pipped Ulster Unionist David Trimble to the Queen's post, succeeding Colin Campbell, who left to become Nottingham's vice chancellor.

Now 38, he has crossed the Irish Sea to become rector of the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education. This he has grandly retitled Liverpool Hope University College - but it remains an intellectual backwater for all that. More than this, it rids him of a reason for talking about Northern Ireland. As he says: "You rapidly lose touch and lose what credibility you had by virtue of just being there."

Lee, an English Roman Catholic, was prominent in promoting peace, and was a prime mover behind the Opsahl Commission which encouraged links between Sinn Fein and the government before it was fashionable. Now that is all behind him. "Since I have to spend my days sorting out car parking spaces and the other trivia of college life, I can't be expected to be up to speed on the complexities of Northern Ireland," he says. But the leap across the water is not quite the change of direction it seems.

Underpinning Lee's effort to bring Catholics and Protestants together in Northern Ireland was a resolute ecumenism. Liverpool Hope, one of the largest church colleges and a microcosm of Catholic-Protestant division, is set to become his latest experiment in ecumenism. That is really what prompted him to accept the late Archbishop Derek Worlock's invitation to become the rector. As he explains: "I wouldn't have come if it were the mythical new university of Grimsby, which is pretty much like Humberside, Hull, Sunderland or somewhere. There wouldn't seem to be much attraction in moving a place from 95th to 94th in The Times league table. But if in, say ten years time, it is widely appreciated that church foundations in higher education are seen to have a role to play in a multi-faith society - then that is very exciting."

By renaming the old institute Liverpool Hope, Lee has already begun his ecumenical mission. "Hope" is taken from the street which links Liverpool's awesome Protestant cathedral and space-capsule Catholic cathedral. But there is a long way to go. "When I arrived, I was surprised to see how physically separate the Protestant and Catholic parts were," he remembers. Alternative chapels are located on either side of Taggart Avenue - a hangover from the days when the university college was separated into its constituent colleges: the Anglican St Katharine's, and the Catholic Christ's and Notre Dame. Even the cleaners wore different uniforms; a discrepancy which has now been corrected. "In a foot note to its report, the funding council said 'Taggart Avenue presents an insuperable problem'," says Lee. "But I say South Africa, Middle East, Northern Ireland - these might be insuperable problems, not Taggart Avenue." The idea, already given council approval, is to close off part of the avenue, and redesignate it as "Hope Park".

But the insuperable problems facing his old sparring partner are still of interest. "I think David Trimble has been good for the Ulster Unionists," he says. But if his profession was once the same as Trim-ble's, his philosophy of bringing people together rather than keeping them apart meant that their chats in the Queen's law faculty common room were never a meeting of minds. As he says, with judicial understatement: "I don't think we saw eye to eye."

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