A planned Union Society (DUS) debate on multicultural Britain, controversially involving two members of the BNP in opposition, has been cancelled after an unprecedented reaction to its announcement in the last edition of Palatinate.
On Friday afternoon the DUS e-mailed its members as the University simultaneously e-mailed the entire student and staff body to inform them of their decision. In a joint statement, the cancellation was attributed to the issue of public safety after an escalation in planned protests and violence by both anti-fascist and fascist groups.
The increased risk of public disorder and intimidation to students and staff has largely been accredited to NUS intervention. In an email sent by NUS Black Students’ Officer Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy and NUS LGBT Officer Daf Adley, the threat of “a colossal demonstration” was posed.
The officers were confused as to the relationship between their organisation, the DSU and the DUS, as they asserted that the DSU has the right to impose “sanctions” on students who “knowingly engage in infringing on the equal opportunities of others”. However, they seem unaware that the two organisations are not affiliated and that DSU President Natalie Crisp has no mandate to intervene.
Many Durham students have expressed their concern about the threatening tone of the letter which had NUS and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) promise that they were “mobilising nationally and organising coach loads of students to demonstrate at your university on Friday evening”.
Chillingly, it concluded with the foreboding warning, “if any students are hurt in and around this event, the responsibility will lie with you”.
Disappointed DUS President Anna Birley maintained that “the debate would have been intelligent and responsible, and an opportunity for our membership to expose and challenge any offensive views”.
President Birley also criticised the handling of the debate by the NUS, “I’m particularly concerned that the NUS, which the DUS has no affiliation with, had planned to go out of their way to bring coaches of students to Durham, putting both their students and our members between rival groups of impassioned demonstrators”.
Earlier in the week a group from UAF petitioned in front of Elvet Riverside to stop the debate from taking place. Speaking on Wednesday, spokesperson Michael Dixon “guaranteed the debate would not take place” as it would “damage the multiculturalism of a thousand students on campus”. The group then invaded the DSU to protest, confusing the building with that of the DUS which is on Palace Green.
DSU Equality Officer Laurie Drake, whose personal contact details were passed onto the organisation by the NUS, has also called UAF tactics into question after he received a “threatening phone call” from their regional organiser.
“I was lambasted for half an hour by the regional representative; it was not a nice phone call to receive. She was quite threatening and told me to do as she said, otherwise there would be trouble and violence next week,” Drake revealed.
Relating the encounter with UAF to Palatinate, Mr Drake stated: “I find the actions of NUS and Unite Against Fascism unbelievable; they are so totalising in their approach. If I didn’t agree with the UAF representative, I was just a racist. It was as simple as that”.
He continued: “I think the NUS officers who sent the letter to us on Tuesday were completely out of line. To send such a poorly written, poorly constructed letter with no real points which makes grandiose claims is shocking. It threatens our students and completely confuses the nature of Equal Opportunities Officer.”
In answer to the NUS’ accusation of failing to uphold its duties, the University maintained that the debate was in keeping with its code of practice and statutes which preserve freedom of expression. Carolyn Fowler, University Registrar, explained the only reason for the debate to not go ahead was safety. “The welfare of students has always been our first priority and any threat to public safety supersedes the importance of freedom of expression”.
The Registrar continued, “The University was not prepared to provide an occasion for external extremist groups to engage in provocative and intimidating demonstrations”. The University was at pains to point out that it is “diametrically opposed” to the views of the BNP, evidenced by having the highest percentage of international staff of any UK University.
In a statement on the UAF website, the two NUS officers have defended their handling of the situation. “It’s not ‘sensationalist’ to state the real threat that the BNP pose. Neither is it ‘threatening’ to say that wherever the BNP rear their fascist heads, we will be there protesting in our hundreds and thousands. Freedom of speech comes with a responsibility. If you preach hatred towards black, Jewish, Muslim and LGBT people you have no place on our campuses”.
Upon being contacted by Palatinate, debater Andrew Brons, MEP for the BNP, claimed, “It is obvious that the threats by the terror group UAF have caused the Debating Society or the University to cancel the debate”.
Mr Brons was, however, insistent that the debate should still go ahead. “I challenge the Durham University Debating Society and the persons who were to have proposed and seconded the motion to hold the debate by the use of electronic communication, with the debate being placed afterwards on the internet,” he commented. “We shall then be able to see whether or not the safety of students or the safety of the Political Class was really the deciding factor”.
At the time of going to print, a representative of the DUS stated that they were looking into the possibility of an online debate but that they would still have to confirm the format change with the proposition speakers Edward Leigh, MP, and Kulveer Ranger, advisor to the Mayor of London.