In the wake of the debate’s cancellation there has been an outpouring of student reaction and a renewed call for the DSU to disaffiliate from the NUS.
Patrick McConnell, a second year from Van Mildert College, set up the ‘Durham University Students for Freedom of Speech’ Facebook group alongside other outraged students. At the time of going to press, the group had amassed just over 2,500 members. McConnell explained his frustration in an interview with Palatinate: “Upon hearing news of NUS’s pressure through the letter that was sent we were outraged and we wanted to collect student opinion and give the DSU a mandate with which to work in order to demonstrate to the DUS and the university that students are behind the debate going ahead.”
In his capacity as Van Mildert’s Senior DSU Representative and Chair of DSU Joint-Committee, Mr McConnell has written to NUS President Wes Streeting to complain about NUS interference. McConnell criticises the email sent out by the organisation for “precipitating these events”.
Bearing reference to the email’s promise of a ‘colossal demonstration’ McConnell writes, “This shocking statement can only be read as a violently physical and verbal threat from the National Union of Students. The same officers then have the audacity to claim that the responsibility for this lies in our hands, if any students are hurt in and around this event responsibility will lie with you. We believe that the true responsibility for any crime lies with the individual(s) who commit it.”
The letter continues, “I wish to impress upon you the real shock, anger and disappointment that the aforementioned communiqué and its effect (limiting free academic debate, assembly and speech through bullying and threatening tactics, amongst others) have caused to the majority of Durham students.”
Finally McConnell concludes , “[If] the letter received from these individual NUS officers accurately reflected the state, tactics and policies of the NUS, including: bullying, opposition to freedom of speech, and violent threats that are both physical and verbal in nature; then the DSU will have to reconsider NUS affiliation in order to ensure that we maintain our historically liberal values.”
When news broke late Saturday evening that NUS President Wes Streeting would be in attendance at DUS on Tuesday evening to address students’ concerns, McConnell then organised a protest outside the chamber to coincide with Streeting’s visit.
“The group has changed its purpose since the debate has been cancelled to protest against NUS and to encourage free speech at Durham University,” he commented. At the time of going to print there were just under 800 confirmed attendees on the corresponding Facebook event.
Palatinate interviewed a relieved NUS President Wes Streeting shortly after the announcement of the debate’s cancellation on Friday afternoon, “NUS has a no platform policy for racism/fascism. When you look at what the BNP say and what they stand for, their background and track record, it really is quite appalling and I think in those circumstances it’s important that they are exposed for what they stand for and that we confront people with that record as it’s not reported well enough.”
When quizzed about the contentious email sent out by his organization to members of Durham University, Streeting responded fiercely, “I resent the implication that NUS has somehow threatened students in Durham. I think it’s preposterous to suggest that NUS would condone any sort of threatening behaviour or activity.”
When it was put to him that the tone had definitely been interpreted as threatening by Durham students, Streeting relented: “I don’t believe the intention was to threaten or cause distress amongst students. If that’s how it’s been interpreted then I can apologise.”
On the issue of the threatened sanctions Streeting clarified: ”It’s about sanctions for the society itself rather than the individuals.” When it was pointed out to him that the DSU and the DUS are not affiliated, Streeting was apologetic for the oversight: “That’s a misunderstanding on the part of the NUS officers. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that the leaders of the DUS have set about this debate with bad intentions, I don’t think that’s the case.
“I had a conversation with the president of the Union last week and I know that the DUS exec set out good intentions which were highlighting what the BNP stands for, providing a good debate and hopefully seeing the BNP’s argument picked apart.”
But he maintained: “There’s a direct threat to student safety; we know from crime statistics that where the BNP are active, racist attacks increase.”
Nevertheless, a Facebook group set up by three students calling for a new referendum on NUS affiliation has attracted over 1,000 members and they have submitted an official petition to the DSU for the referendum.