LONDON — QUEEN'S University of Belfast has made a decision, however modest, that perhaps says more about the yearning for peace and healing in Northern Ireland than any politician's speech.
At future graduation ceremonies, the province's prestigious academy will not play ``God Save the Queen,'' the British national anthem. Instead, academic staff and the 10,000 full-time students on campus in the southern section of Northern Ireland's capital will sing Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy.''
The administration's decision to drop ``God Save the Queen'' has provoked angry political backlash from unionists determined that the province should remain part of the United Kingdom and insistent that its Britishness, as expressed in flags, anthems, and other icons of identity, must be preserved at all costs.
The Rev. Ian Paisley, leader of the hard-line Democratic Unionist Party, is threatening to ask the courts to revoke the decision.
``This is outrageous and an insult,'' he declared, forecasting that very soon flying the Union Jack, Britain's national flag consisting of the three superimposed crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. David, would be banned.
But a senior academic at Queen's pointed to the university's ``resolutely nonsectarian tradition,'' and moderate Northern Ireland politicians have welcomed what they see as a measure reflecting the need in Northern Ireland for a healing process to take place in the province after a quarter century of guerrilla warfare.
Dr. Joe Hendron, a leading figure in the mainly Catholic Social and Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) welcomed the move.
``We live in a divided society, and any move to dilute that has to be welcomed,'' he said.
It seems fitting that Beethoven's ``Ode to Joy, ``from the final movement of the composer's Ninth Symphony, should be chosen to replace ``God Save the Queen.'' It is the unofficial anthem of the European Union.
Kevin Boyle and Tom Hadden, co-authors of ``Northern Ireland - the Choice,'' published this year argue that the province may seem ``a place apart,'' but it is ``not isolated from the wider world. As a region within the EU, many of its economic and social policies are determined in Brussels rather than in Belfast, Dublin, or London,'' they write.
The book notes that the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration, which set the stage for Northern Ireland's current cease-fire, provides for viewing the province's needs in a European context. ``No realistic proposals for a settlement can ignore this wider international economic and political framework,'' the authors conclude.
SDLP leader John Hume - who made the peace process possible when he held secret talks in 1993 with Gerry Adams, president of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army - takes much the same view.
A member of the European Parliament, Mr. Hume has long argued that the affairs of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic should be considered in a European context.
``The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland are both parts of the island of Ireland, and it makes sense to take account of the fact that both traditions in this province exist not only within the United Kingdom but within the EU,'' he says.
Queen's University says it is not banning ``God Save the Queen'' entirely and dismisses the idea of getting rid of the Union Jack as ridiculous.
``There may be occasions when it is appropriate to play the national anthem at functions and events within the university,'' a spokesman says. ``But graduation ceremonies and related events do not fall into this category.''