Tribune editor Jack Power sits down with Anti-Austerity TD Paul Murphy, to talk about student politics and activism during his time in UCD, the state of the left nationally, and why he feels the right to protest in Ireland is under threat.
‘I went into university in 2001, and it was the beginning in terms of an upsurge in activism in society generally, and that was reflected in university. You had the anti-globalisation movement, the anti-war movement in 2003, we sent up the Socialist Party society. In 2002 and 2003 you had the threat of the re-introduction of fees, and that lead to a relative explosion of student activism’. Murphy recalls how senior minister like Fianna Fáil’s Noel Dempsey and Progressive Democrat Michael McDowell faced serious protests when they visited UCD back then.
UCD Student Union Days
The campaign to fight government plans to raise fees was the CFE (Campaign for Free Education). ‘The government were met by a strong student movement that knocked back plans to re-introduce full fees for higher education’ Murphy says.
‘On the back of that movement the Students’ Union shifted to the left’ Murphy explained. In 2003 Paul Murphy ran for SU President, but lost to Labour candidate Paul Dillion. UCD’s Aidan Regan ran uncontested for deputy President on a left wing platform the same year. ‘When there’s not much happening and people aren’t involved then the right wing generally have control of the Union, it becomes very clique-ish, and very service provision based as opposed to campaigns-based’. But that cosy or apathetic SU inertia can quickly change when students are faced with real threats from politicians on a national stage Murphy said.
When you get more ideologically right wing candidates in the SU you also tend to get more anti-USI sentiment Murphy said. He recalls that back in his day Aonghas Hourihan, the Fianna Fáil SU President in 2002 tried to run a campaign to disaffiliate UCD from the national Union of Students in Ireland, but was unsuccessful. ‘Students across the country have absolutely common interests, it’s important to be in a national union. The argument to re-affiliate is strong, but it’s obviously up to the students of UCD to decide. It weakens that national approach to be fragmented’.
A strong collective student body is going to be needed to put up a fight against any attempted introduction of a student loan scheme Murphy felt. ‘An issue for the student movement and mobilising people is the immediacy of the attack’. So it’s going to come into focus again very clearly if this current government attempts to bring in a loan scheme to pay for higher education Murphy claimed.
‘They can continue to underinvest in our education system’. The government’s strategy Murphy thinks, is to ignore the funding crisis in higher education until breaking point and then use that crisis as an excuse to rush in a loan scheme. ‘Education from primary, to post-primary, to third-level has to be properly funded, and it’s currently underfunded’ the TD stated.
Speaking on traditional fragmentation of the left wing polity in Ireland Murphy said that Irish politics is in a transformative period. ‘The centre is collapsing. In Ireland you have a longer term secular decline of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael that goes back decades, and is speeded up dramatically by the crisis. We’re part way through a process of the re-shaping of the political landscape. There isn’t going to be some massive recovery by the establishment parties. I think either way that points towards more and more space existing on the left’.
‘There is a consentient poll trend of the AAA-PBP overtaking the Labour Party, I think that’s something that’s happening. I think the question is whether we can take further initiatives to build that broader left. The question is can a relatively cohesive, coherent left come together in the form of a new movement or a party, which will have different people, different parties’.
I pushed Murphy on the failure of the radical left to be able to compromise effectively even within itself. The merger of convenience between the Anti-Austerity Alliance and People Before Profit hasn’t been within ideological frictions. ‘The fortunes of the left to come together is often quite tied to the state of movements outside the Dáil’ he responded. ‘You could say look at the Greens, or look at the Labour Party and say look how great they are at compromise. But fundamentally that’s because they’re parties without any principles whatsoever’. The principles of a new left Murphy stated should at the bare minimum be based on an opposition to entering coalition with the right, and an opposition to austerity.
Jobstown and the Right to Protest
Paul Murphy is set to stand trial for charges of false imprisonment over a protest that held up then Minister Joan Bruton’s car in Jobstown for over two hours. The trial, which will be in the Circuit Court is set for April 24th, seventeen others are facing false imprisonment charges over the demonstration.
‘I think it was totally justified, it was an angry working class community who had been devastated by the Labour Party, and betrayed by the Labour Party, it was an area that had historically voted for the Labour Party. Was it a perfect protest? – No. It was spontaneous, it wasn’t an organised protest’.
‘A lot of people don’t understand the significance of what is posed. If people don’t feel fully comfortable with what happened, that’s fine. But they need to consider what we’re charged with, we’re not charged with public order offences. No one has ever been charged with false imprisonment before in the history of this state for participation in a protest. If we are found guilty of false imprisonment, people go to jail for a long time. So the scale of this, is a very very severe attempt to criminalise protest. It would represent a massive miscarriage of justice, and it would make Ireland one of the most restrictive countries in Western Europe in terms of protest’.
‘In my opinion it is such a severe attack on civil liberties, that anyone that wants to protest or may want to protest in the future needs to get behind the Jobstown Not Guilty campaign. Because it’s not hyperbole to say that what is under threat is the right to protest. You have a weak government, their traditional political certainties are falling down around them, and a message has gone out that protest can work, that massive civil disobedience can work. And I think they see this as a way to send a message to people’.
UCD Students’ Union has been in a cycle of marked de-politicisation, highlighted by the lack of any actual position on student fees in over a year. But Murphy and many other’s experience of student politics back in the early 2000s shows that if a student loan scheme is proposed student activism could very much make a comeback to UCD.
Jack Power | Editor