The unionist atheist who has a conservative approach to life at Queen’s University

Chair of the Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen's University Rowan Wise
Chair of the Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen's University Rowan Wise

GRAEME COUSINS talks politics with the chair of the recently established Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen’s

Rowan Wise is the first to admit that he is not a typical Queen’s student.

Rowan with Home Secretary Sajid Javid

Rowan with Home Secretary Sajid Javid

The 20-year-old from Lambeg, who has almost completed his first year as a Single Honours Politics student, lives at home with his parents, adores classical music, and is a huge fan of Margaret Thatcher.

Recently installed as chair of the Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen’s University, Rowan believes that the future of unionism lies in “one nationism”.

Rowan, who has always had a passion for history, said he that when he first got into politics it inspired him and made him laugh in equal measure.

He said: “I was very interested in Margaret Thatcher when I got into politics seriously after primary school and her extraordinary ability and strong leadership was a motivation to me.

“I also used to watch (satirical impressionist) Rory Bremner in the programme Bremner, Bird and Fortune. A lot of his impressions were of politicians – I suppose they’re easy to mock.”

Of his family background he said: “My mum is a biomedical scientist and my dad is a cello teacher so I don’t come from a political family.

“We come from Lambeg so we were always unionist, though I had a problem that unionist parties had strong links to the church, particularly the Presbyterian church in the case of the DUP.

“I come from a family of atheists. It’s difficult because in Northern Ireland if you’re a strong unionist but not religious what do you do?

“The Conservative and Unionist Party was kind of the natural outlet for that. Something that wasn’t linked to the church.”

Asked how people react when he tells them he is the chair of the Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen’s University, Rowan said: “It depends who you’re talking to. Most people see it as a university society like any other.

“I think people sometimes are a bit confused as to what we are, what our brand is. It’s very interesting how people in Northern Ireland see us because of all the other unionist parties here.

“I don’t think our symbology was strong enough which is why we’ve rebranded.

“We started with the little green tree. We’ve got Britannia now. I like it because it’s a symbol of one nation, it’s a woman, it represents commerce.”

Rowan said the Conservative and Unionist Society at Queen’s are a small group with big ideas: “I have friends in both the DUA (Democratic Unionist Association) and UUP at Queen’s. We’re very small, they’re big fish, but our ideas are bigger. We’ve got really good committed members.

“We don’t feel the DUP and UUP are representing us as unionists at our university.

“We only just formed halfway through last year. We literally are just a few months old.

“We’d have maybe a dozen members, the DUA have 60 or 70, maybe more.

“There are a lot of people who go into Queen’s who are unionists but who are moderate unionists who don’t speak about their politics.

“They don’t want to get involved because they see on one hand they’ve got the DUA with their religious ties and opposition to abortion, and on the other hand there’s the Alliance mixed with liberal organisations so they’ve nowhere to go.”

Of his own society he said: “We’ve got Catholic and Protestant members. As a Conservative and Unionist party we are a party of law and order as well as being secular.

“There is no reference to Protestantism being synonymous with unionism in the Act of Union.”

He explained: “Union with Ireland Act 1801 was a secular legal document, which only mentions the Anglican church as an administrative detail.”

Of those who would favour a United Ireland, he said: “For me, as a secular atheist, I would not feel comfortable in Ireland, a country which has a long history of religion influencing the state.

“Here in the UK, our secular heritage should be valued more amongst unionists.”

Emphasising the UK’s secular credentials, Rowan said: “Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace are two of my heroes, representing my own keen interest in science and atheism.”

Commenting on the recent troubles for unionism and the decline in the Ulster Unionist Party, Rowan said: “My mum and granny would have been Official Unionists. For that reason I’d be sad if the Ulster Unionist Party folded but there’s no time for sentimentality in politics.

“To be honest if they’re not willing to differentiate themselves from the DUP then I can see why both parties can’t co-exist.

“What the DUP have done with their power at Westminster is just cynically exploited it to press the government into this nightmare scenario.

“I opposed our party’s confidence and supply agreement. A few of us did in Northern Ireland.”

On the future of unionism he commented: “If it’s going to go on it has to not be based on sectarian, religious lines. Many in our party want to bring national politics to the local stage.

“Last week I met with the Home Secretary Sajid Javid and we talked about this very point. The one nation idea which is so long gone should really be brought back. People in Northern Ireland are in a politically isolated position from the rest of the UK.

“The idea of the British identity should trump local identity. To me that’s unionism. You aren’t going to get anywhere by codifying sectarianism.”

Rowan said the Conservative and Unionist Society would try and change what he called Queen’s University’s reputation as a “cold house” for unionists.

“It’s the case that Queen’s has a higher uptake from the Roman Catholic community, there’s no issue with that, but it seems like in some ways there’s a double standard.

“It’s always been a cold house for unionism, that’s not news. I guess that’s why we’re here. To try and change that. But also to try to offer politics that aren’t attached to religion. We’re pro choice. We’re into women’s rights.

“One of the personal hang ups I have is that the DUP and the UUP and their young people cherry-pick the Union. You have to accept it all. It is awful that because of the DUP being as they are, they’ve allowed ardent nationalism to take over the women’s rights campaign.”

Away from politics, Rowan talked about his home life: “I live with my mum and dad. It’s just the three of us, it’s all hands on deck.

“I’m probably not representative of a Queen’s student. I’ve always been interested in classical music. I don’t know what I’d do if Mozart hadn’t been around in the music world.

“I love gardening. I don’t really like or understand the student lifestyle. I couldn’t be out gallivanting.”