With three student protesters facing disciplinary proceedings, seek Jonny Baxter searches for the spine of the Students Union
This Wednesday, buy February 13th, three students will face a preliminary disciplinary hearing that begins a process that may ultimately result in their expulsion from the University. Their crime: throwing an egg at the head of a government which has been subtly striking at students with the axe of austerity since their election. By their side during this process will be the UCD Students’ Union who, wishing to ensure the fairest outcome for three of their compulsory members, will face-off against the University hierarchy as all unions would be expected to do.
Except, they won’t. Rather than putting up a heroic defense, or indeed any defines at all, the SU has instead opted to corral the students, tie them up and deliver them before the firing squad as quickly as possible. This is despite the UCDSU constitution containing the following objective: “to secure and develop the fundamental rights of its members set out in Article 4 of the Constitution”. Article 4.3 reads: “Every Union member shall have the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.
In an article in the University Observer, the current SU President acknowledged that they had an obligation to represent all students. Also cited was the Constitution’s expectation that the Union maintain a positive relationship with staff. So while the Union is funded by students and is expected to represent them, a single incident is apparently enough to warrant a condemnation of three students in order to protect a relationship with one member of staff – UCD VP for Students, Martin Butler. It would seem, in this instance at least, that the Students’ Union craves the approval of the University more than the idea of protecting its members.
There are many who will disagree with the students’ action, and may cite the section 2.1.8 objective of the SU Constitution: “To develop and maintain good relations with the University” to support their stance. However, this article is immediately followed by what must be deemed a more primary objective of the Union: “To secure and defend the fundamental rights of its members set out in Article 4” (2.1.9). In the face of the present case, emphasis must be placed on the word defend
Throwing an egg has long been known as an act of dissent, of civil disobedience, of protest. It’s purpose is to cause embarrassment and humble the opponent, to make the point that he or she can only flaunt themselves around for so long before someone calls them out on their destructive decisions. Laughably, the Students’ Union has sought to characterise the action as an ‘attack’, as if rocks were dispatched from the students’ hands. The catch-all issue of “health and safety” has taken priority over the welfare and future of the students the Union is supposed to represent. Such a characterisation could be expected from those whom the protest targeted but it should not be expected from one of the main bodies which claims to oppose the actions of the government he represents.
That the opposite is the case may be a symptom of a Union infested with vocal members from the youth wings of the exact parties which have both caused and continue to perpetuate the very problems the SU says it campaigns against.
It is true that the actions of the protesters may have been ill-advised but they were taken due to a feeling that their Union, in sharing a platform with Enda Kenny, was not representing them and this was their way of saying so.
Unfortunately for the three students involved, their tactic is one deeply at odds with the conservative nature of the Students’ Union. That theirs did not come from the Union’s own protest handbook was destined to place them in risky territory. The ‘polite’ protest strategy of the UCD SU proposes an annual march, which this year was to Eamon Gilmore’s office when he wasn’t there, and, a recent addition, the giving of filthies to politicians as they walk through a door – not exactly Paris, 1968.
The traditional strategy of the Students’ Union is one that has almost totally failed in its attempt to combat the ever-increasing sum of the registration fee and it will continue to fail until it takes a significant shift away from temporary and sporadic campaigns to ones that are more sustained. In saying that, it does make up for this somewhat in the services it provides through its welfare arm and credit must be given for that.
As campaigns begin both in favour and against continuing affiliation with the USI, perhaps it is time that UCD students consider whether their Union is doing enough for them. With Union membership being a mandatory condition of studying at UCD it is important for each student to ask themselves if they are being well-served.
Speaking as a member on SU Council, at times it seems it is a private members club first, a business second and Union somewhere after that. At the most recent Council, a motion was defeated to return the price of boiling water in the Students’ Union shops to 50c. This motion was driven by a belief that the original increase would be likely to have a detrimental impact on those students for whom single euros matter.
This motion was supported by none of the sabbatical officers yet the increase was later removed. In the same University Observer article mentioned earlier, the President of the Students’ Union cited the decision of Council to not revoke the condemnation as justification for not involving the SU in the disciplinary issue. In the case of the price increase, the vote of Council was not taken as definitive and was subsequently overruled by the SU Executive – in the current disciplinary case, the vote of Council is being held up by the Exec as final. There appears to be a glimmer of a double-standard in the two cases.
It is my belief that part of the reason for the Students’ Union lack of effective action is that it is guided by a faction who possess little incentive to produce significant change due to their apparent satisfaction with the status-quo. There is then the taboo subject of class. Unfortunately, the SU Council does not appear to possess as many students with direct experience of hardship as one would like to see and this is another reason for the disconnect between the student body and their representatives.
Class is a subject that is often ignored in wider discourse, be it political or otherwise, but it is impossible not to relate the decisions taken by the SU to the apparent background of the most vocal and ‘respected’ members. That the middle class tend toward the centre-right is far from an anomaly and it is behaviour repeated within the Union with numerous Fine Gael and Fine Fáil members being constituents of the Union Council while Labour is represented by one student and the Socialist Workers’ Party with two.
This is possibly a reason why there appears to be a fundamental ignorance within the SU as to its purpose. A fundamental element of a union’s essence is a duty to campaign for the weaker and disadvantaged in a given area of society in an attempt to close the gap and improve their situation. It is, in essence, a leftist idea, yet it seems in many cases that the Union wishes to occupy as little left-leaning territory as possible and instead prefers to sink into the existing structures of power without ever wishing to change them.
The idea of university as a testing ground for radical thought and action is one that does not apply to the active politik within UCD. Indeed, any radicalism tends to be oppressed or, as with the case of the 3 students who this week begin their disciplinary process, condemned and possibly removed. The status-quo merchants rampage on, changing little and advancing only their own cause.
The quest to combat the clique-mentality of the SU Council is one many candidates for officer positions claim they will undertake. As of yet, it is a quest that is yet to begin, let alone reach its destination.