A Referendum to Remember
For the last 5 weeks UCD SU has been engulfed in controversy surrounding the ‘Wingin’ In’ handbook and the decision by SU President Katie Ascough to remove information from the handbook pertaining to access to abortions. This decision was first reported by the University Observer during Freshers Week, led to a petition calling for the impeachment of President Ascough. The events of this campaign to impeach her have been nothing but an embarrassment to the student body. The fact that it has taken 5 weeks for this matter to be brought to a vote because of a failure to comply with the rules of petitioning, and the blatant lies coming from the Fight4Katie campaign shows how little those leading these campaigns seem to know about actually running a campaign befitting of this student body, let alone the UCD Students Union.
Disorganisation in the start.
When this process started, many were excited about the possibility of significant student engagement with a topical event. The support the Vote to Impeach campaign amassed was remarkable, receiving the required number of signatures to trigger an impeachment referendum in only one day. Only problem was that they didn’t actually get the signatures, just the names and student numbers. Constitutionally this was not enough to trigger the referendum and represented the first of a series of organisational errors made on the part of the Vote to Impeach campaign.
It took over a week for the second version of the petition to make it to the returning officer and be approved. This was nearly 2 weeks after news first broke about the removal of the information. In a normal course of events it would be fair to say that many students would’ve lost interest and this delay could’ve prove to be a major issue for the campaign.
More interestingly is that in this time President Ascough failed to speak to the students to address their concerns about the re-print. At this point all the discussion about the issue had been had in the media. This represented a breakdown in communication between an SU President and her student body whom she was meant to represent.
Accusations start flying.
When the petition was accepted and the formal campaign was started, Ms Ascough released an open letter to the student body explaining her position and included with this the legal advice she received. In this letter she stated that she was alarmed by “the bullying tactics of a group of students to try and discard a democratically elected SU President.” This attempt to discredit the Impeachment campaign group as a small group of bullies would be a common talking point of Ms Ascough’s campaign, and would later extend to accusing her fellow sabbatical officers; Barry Murphy, Robert Sweeny, Niall Torris and most recently Eoghan MacDomhaill of bullying her while she as President and of sexism.
While Ms Ascough is perfectly entitled to state whatever she may wish in the course of a campaign, it beyond insulting to belittle her co-workers in this manner, especially given that she did not actually give examples of this conduct at any point, nor had she raised these accusations with the relevant authorities while she was in office. Accusations of sexism and bullying must always be taken seriously, but they also require evidence and should in so far as possible not devolve into a ‘he said, she said’ argument. The fact that our SU has devolved into petty arguments like this because of Ms Ascough’s campaign does all UCD students a great disservice.
Additionally to say that the 1200 students who signed the petition were a small group attempting to unseat a democratically elected individual is absurd to the extreme. The reason this is so absurd is that Ms Ascough only received 1431 votes in the final count when she was elected President, only 200 more than the number of students that have signed the petition calling for her impeachment. It also represents a failure on Ms Ascough’s part to understand that this petition and vote are within the democratic rules laid down in the UCD SU constitution. This vote is inherently democratic, and perhaps there should be some debate after this referendums about changing the voting thresholds or how our Union functions, but it is a desperate tactic to say that the system is broken because you happen to be at its mercy.
Loss of the initiative
The Vote to Impeach campaign were the ones to trigger this referendum. They had the initiative and they controlled the narrative. Unfortunately for them they through inaction ceded this position to Ms Ascough’s ‘Fight4Katie’ campaign who seized it wholeheartedly. The Fight4Katie campaign stuck to a clear narrative throughout the campaign, that she followed legal advice, that the was bullied and that she was being targeted for her personal pro-life beliefs. This narrative was coupled with a consisted effort by the campaign to refute any information published by the College Tribune or the University Observer and represented a clear message, something that was lacking from the vote to impeach side for much of the campaign.
The Vote for Impeachment campaign did however begin a concentrated effort to cavass and spread their message in the final week of campaigning, releasing videos and placing posters around campus. This effort was supported by the 3 of the 4 sabbatical officers (Murphy, Torris and Sweeney) all coming out in support of the effort to impeach. In open letters to the student body to said that they could no long stand by and take the accusation of sexism and bullying by Ms Ascough. As sabbatical officers they were limited in how they could respond to these claims as the campaign was conducted
The three officers proceeded to campaign for the impeachment making lecture addresses and talking to students. However, it emerged that they were not in fact permitted to do with while on annual leave. Per the SU constitution Sabbatical officers were required to remain neutral during the impeachment proceedings and the only way they would be allowed is outside office hours, or if they were unpaid leave (which needed to be applied for weeks in advance). The fact that it took the involvement of SU officers taking time out to fight for the removal of a fellow officer illustrates how little the Impeachment campaign had done up until then, and showed the general poor quality of discourse on both sides.
The SU Hustings were held on the final Tuesday the 23rd, the last day before voting. Massive crowds filled out the old student centre as Amy Crean the representative of the Vote to Impeach campaign went head to head with Ms Ascough. By this point most students had seen the open letters from the other sabbatical officers and seen the posts put out by the Fight4Katie campaign on social media
The majority of the questions from the crowd were directed as Ms Ascough on issues ranging from clarifications on her previous statements, how would she operate with her fellow officers after attacking them consistently throughout the campaign and how could she be trusted to not let her personal views impact her professional work in the SU should she be retained. Ms Ascough’s responses often avoided the questions entirely and by the end of the night she claimed that “if she was a pro-choice president then this wouldn’t be happening”.
Ms Ascough also accused the campus media of bias against her campaign, claiming the University Observer was publishing articles “in a ratio of 10-1 against her campaign”, and that if students wanted the facts then “they should go to my campaign’s Facebook page”. That campaigns had now resorted to Trumpian tactics of attempting to discredit the media demonstrates a desperation and should be considered embarrassing for the Student Body that their President when facing impeachment is at such a loss to defend herself that she chooses to attack the media instead.
An online campaign.
The most interesting facet of this campaign has to be the fact that so much of it has taken place on Facebook pages, particularly the Fight4Katie campaign page. Here each post would attract dozens of comments from both sides and hundreds of likes. More interestingly was the blatant intervention of non-UCD students into the campaign in support of both sides. This when coupled with national and international media coverage (some of it woefully inaccurate) placed the UCD SU firmly in the centre of a debate that had morphed from whether or not it was right to remove abortion information from the SU handbook into a debate about abortion itself.
In the later days of the campaign the Fight4Katie page began to delete or hide comments on their page from various sources, They repeatedly failed to respond to student queries on the page, while thanking non-students and international groups for their supports. It is ironic that a social media platform designed to improve the flow of information and improve communication between people ended up instead as a focus point for criticism of Ms Ascough.
More concerningly the tone and language used by people on both sides on the page was at times very personal or quote hurtful. No matter what someone’s views, you should never attack the person, just their argument. Online spaces have consistently shown they are incapable of facilitating this form of discourse, and proved it again in this campaign.
The Final leg.
Ms Ascough’s accusations of bias in the media did not sit well with many students or the sabbatical officers, some of whom came to the defence of the campus media. During the hustings her comment that “you deserve better” in regards to the campus media elicited boos from the crowd. The hurdle for Ms Ascough however would’ve been the final sabbatical officer Eoghan MacDomhaill coming out and stating he would be voting for impeachment.
MacDomhaill’s statement made on Facebook, the night before the final day of voting was significant because he had previously defended her actions prior to the referendums beginning. He had backed her and the legal advice she was given and called on students to back her. Since those statements he had remained silent on the issue until then. The change of heart from Ms Ascough’s only defender in the Students Union no doubt swayed some votes.
This referendum has been an embarrassment to this SU. It has been ugly and it has undermined much of the hard work that the officers have done in the past few months. Because of this referendum less students from UCD attended the March for Education, Mental Health week was cancel and the campus has been divided.
Irrespective of the outcome of this referendum questions need to be asked about how our Union is run. We’ve seen in the course of the last few weeks that not all officers have access to legal advice from the Union lawyer. We’ve seen that not all meetings are minute and that these minutes can be withheld for much longer than they should be.
We’ve seen our democratically elected SU officers attack and undermine each other and lie to the students they claim to represent. We’ve had our democratically elected SU President attack the campus media for coverage that was not favourable to her. There needs to be a change. Ms Ascough campaigned on a promise to “unlock the SU”. It’s about time that actually happens.
Aaron Bowman – Politics Editor