By Aidan Lomas – Editor-in-Chief
Last week, I had the privilege of attending the installation of Hillary Clinton as Queen’s University’s 11th Chancellor: the University’s first lady to take up the role. It was an eventful afternoon, featuring many of the usual “Hillary Clinton is in town” events. Be it the anti-war protesters, the intense armed security, or the almost entire event being focused on the immense successes women have made in the past few decades, it’s certain to say that when Hillary Clinton comes to Belfast, the usual suspects line up.
The event started quite modestly. However, once I’d taken my seat, and took notice of my surroundings the grandeur of the event was made magnificently clear. I’m not sure whether it was the flowing Queen’s University Belfast inscribed banners dangling triumphantly, or the glorious organ chimes bellowing through the Whitla Hall, but I discovered myself wondering how an Englishman of modest background had found himself a front row seat at such pomp and circumstance; I will, to the day I die, brag about the twelve times I made disconcerted eye-contact with Hillary Clinton. This magnificence was off-set somewhat by the Anti-American/Anti-War/Anti-Imperialism protesters outside the University. I’m not one to fear a crowd, but the clear disillusionment with the University’s decision to make such a controversial figure its new Chancellor certainly made me check over my shoulder a couple times as I made myself across the front of the Lanyon building.
11:28 marked the exact moment the procession entered Whitla Hall. A long chain of esteemed guests, including the Lord Mayor of Belfast, honorary degree recipients, and a small child paraded their way to the main stage; I won’t pretend this latter member didn’t confuse me to a degree, but in my efforts to at least pretend I’m a professional, I recalibrated and waited keenly for the keynote speaker to address her audience. The speech itself can be found in full online, but the there’s two themes I want to focus on from Chancellor Clinton’s speech: Community and History.
Chancellor Clinton made great efforts to remind the audience, both present in the hall and watching from home, that she had been to Belfast many times before. She remarked about her first visit in 1995 to switch on the Belfast Christmas lights alongside her husband, then-President Bill Clinton. Here, Chancellor Clinton remarked how, during an ceasefire event, which led to the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (1998), Mrs Clinton observed a humorous site; talking of the locations of the political leadership at this time, Mrs Clinton remarked how “Catholics stood by the band, and Protests stood by the food”. The speech then made a turn towards community. It’s this theme which interested me the most about Chancellor Clinton’s appointment to her new found office. For all her controversies – not least to mention how she referred to the United Kingdom as “England” –, Chancellor Clinton has closely observed Northern Ireland’s transition from civil war state, to peaceful and progressive society. It must truly be incredible to have witnessed such an immense change over such a comparably short period of time. She discussed further how the campus of the University was something she found comfort in. According to our new Chancellor, the community on QUB campus is the community which moves to the future together, and this future is a “future you will create together”. Truly touching words which, I must confess, made me drop the mantle of critical student journalist, and inspire a sense of pride in Belfast; a place I’ve lived in for a mere two years, but feel an eternal belonging to.
Next is history. There’s no doubt in my mind that if you want to study a rich history, you study the history of this island. This, unsurprisingly, was one of the key features of Friday’s events. On stage with Chancellor Clinton were the two founders of the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, Bronagh Hinds and Professor Monica McWilliams. Their services to Northern Ireland’s peace were rightly celebrated during Friday’s event; a celebration well worthy of their efforts and effect on Northern Ireland’s stability. In addition to these women, another from a more recent place in time was also celebrate. The Derry Girls creator, Lisa McGee also received an honorary degree. I found this symmetry incredibly satisfying; there on stage, sat two women who’s efforts to bring an equal peace to this place were unmistakably central to the formation of post-Troubles Northern Ireland. Next to them, sat a fantastically creative woman who managed to bring the Peace’s importance to the forefront of peoples’ minds in a humorous yet humble way. It really was a celebration of Northern Ireland’s history; something so rare these days. This rarity was echoed by the Chancellor’s own remarks on history; “the difficulties of the past continue to threaten the present”…but “trusted relationships are what makes things happen”. Wise words indeed.
Overall, the ceremony itself was not the focal point of that day. The focal point wasn’t even the Chancellor herself – believe it or not. The focal point of Friday’s celebrations were Queen’s and Northern Ireland’s women. How appropriate then, that this years Student Union is the first all-female union of its kind. How appropriate too, that Pat Hume’s own contribution to the Northern Ireland Peace Process were also formally recognised by the Chancellor. I don’t think the choice to appoint Chancellor Clinton to the role will continue to be a popular one, but it certainly allowed this “wee country” and its past to finally be celebrated in a way that didn’t condone or condemn it either. We at the Gown look forward to Chancellor Clinton’s returns to campus in the future.