The passion and commitment of the student marches were enough to win over even the most hardened of cynics, writes Paul Fennessy
It was on the morning of November 3rd that, with some apprehension, I volunteered to report on the anti-fees student protest of that day. This was a decision that I regretted almost immediately. I was forced to queue for the bus for over an hour on the most miserable, rain-sodden day imaginable. Furthermore, my underlying fears concerning students’ thinly veiled apathy towards the concept of protesting initially appeared entirely justified.
My bus trip was dominated by students making jokey references to the government “like totally sucking,” while generally giving the impression that they really knew little about how politics actually work. In addition, my peace of mind was consistently disturbed by a cantankerous girl sitting in my vicinity. This girl insisted on continually making loud animal noises, while obnoxiously having her seat fully pushed back so that the poor sap unfortunate enough to be sitting behind her had next to no leg room.
My reservations in relation to people’s motives for marching were exacerbated further following an interview with a young girl involved. Although well meaning, her level of knowledge on the subject matter seemed questionable.
She outlined her stance on the issue: “Personally it’s not going to affect me next year, but there’s a lot of people in my class who deserve to get education and [possibly] won’t have one next year. Why should certain people not be able to do a career they don’t want to do just because they can’t afford the extra €1500?”
However, when I asked her what viable alternatives there are to reintroducing third-level fees, her response was telling: “Well, I don’t know, I’ve no interest in politics myself. But I don’t think students should have to suffer for it, especially since we caused absolutely none of it ourselves.”
Although students normally possess an abundance of passion when it comes to political issues and often offer some valid points, in my experience they sometimes give the impression that they lack the requisite depth of knowledge to justify their partisan approach.
Nonetheless, despite my well-established misgivings on the issue, once the march began, it was difficult not to feel somewhat enraptured by the sheer scale of the crowd. Furthermore, this march was characterised by the dazzling array of colours elicited by the plethora of flamboyantly attired students, by the intensive cacophony of catchy chants and by the melodic, pulsating drumbeat leading proceedings. This all amounted to a beautiful procession of carefully-constructed chaos.
Yet after the main event ended and the crowd dispersed, the general atmosphere started to turn noticeably sour. The controversy emanated from a group of individuals, many of whom were distinguished by the yellow clothing symbolising their opposition to fees, who began hurling eggs and plastic bottles (among other items) at the Department of Finance headquarters. Once the baton-wielding gardaí arrived on the scene, chaos of a less organised nature ensued.
Having been shoved violently out of the way by police on two separate occasions, this reporter had a somewhat distorted view of the unsavoury incidents that followed. But the stark provocation in which these protesters engaged, in addition to the severe brutality of the measures imposed by the gardaí, was impossible to miss.
Three girls at the centre of the violence, all of whom were shaking violently as they spoke, described the extent of this police brutality: “We personally got dragged by batons by the riot police,” said Éimnín Ní Aonnaith, a Journalism student from DCU.
“I got a punch full force to the back of the knee by a female guard,” added Avril Bateman, a third-year Sculpture student from NCAD. “When she was dragging my ankles, she used such force that I smashed my head off the tarmac and then I was shoved into a crowd of students. I fell down again [and] others fell. It was very difficult to get up,” she recalled.
“I think this whole protest has gone to absolute crap with the way it’s gone,” continued Ní Aonnaith. “The way today has been made a mockery of with this whole situation.”
Bateman added: “I think this is a positive thing though, because we’ve been seen as utterly placid and we’ve been targeted, because we haven’t been able to fight back against it and they’re frightened.
“That’s why such force was used, because they’re terrified of us, because suddenly we’re actually doing something about the injustices. Free fees, [it’s] absolute bullshit, because they just keep increasing it up and increasing it up. It’s just time we stood up.”
However, Ní Aonnaith believed the protesters were not entirely blameless in the matter either: “I’d have a certain amount of sympathy [for the guards]. There were people that went out of line,” she said.
“There were people who broke into the place. I saw someone throw a glass at a horse. There are lines that we shouldn’t cross and those people are making a mockery of what we’re trying to do, but they shouldn’t take it out on people by using such extreme force, when we were just trying to be peaceful.”
Meanwhile, Megan Conlon O’Reilly, a third-year Media student from NCAD, affirmed how it was “possibly the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. There was one police officer over there and he was in tears, he was so scared.”
In contrast with the views of O’Reilly and others, Leah Butler, a History and Folklore student in UCD, explained how she had little sympathy for the gardaí. Moreover, she supported the view that their conduct in dealing with the protests was unacceptable.
“I thought it was pretty ridiculous the way they were so heavy handed with people that were just doing a peaceful protest,” she recalled. “One girl was knocked unconscious and they continued to beat her because they thought she was resisting leaving, so she was brought to the ambulance. Because they were like: ‘Get her out, get her out.’ And they thought she was trying to not move when she was unconscious, and that was really upsetting.
“I thought they were just ridiculously heavy handed all over. People got beaten when they were sitting on the road. How [else] are we meant to voice our feelings?”
On the other hand, a student who preferred to remain anonymous strongly criticised the protesters, while also adding to the increasingly unanimous view that the gardaí reacted disreputably (the gardaí, meanwhile, declined to comment on the day’s events).
“I’d sympathise with the police in so far as they were attacked, but in the heavy handed way of some of the individuals, I wouldn’t sympathise in any way or form. They were far too heavy handed and I say that because I got hit [when] I was trying to break up the rally.”
Moreover, the student echoed the USI’s claims, which sought to distance the majority of those involved in the protest movement from these isolated incidents. “I feel the people with the red flags were out of order, [they were] of a political group that had nothing to do with Students’ Unions,” he claimed.
“These were a political group of people that went out to cause problems. They were not in any way associated with the students. They were following the students. Same way as there was young Fine Gael, young Fianna Fáil, and young Labour, there was this group behind the students and they did nothing but go out of their way to cause hassle.”
Meanwhile, Cian Cassidy, a second-year Engineering student from UCC, expressed his dismay at the distraction which such incidents would inevitably cause by shifting the focus from what was initially a highly successful protest.
“The fact is that tomorrow the story’s going to go one of two ways – either it’s police brutality, or it’s students causing a riot. Neither of those is true. What actually happened was there was a small group of people who basically ruined this day for everyone.”
He continued: “I came to Dublin with the express intention of doing one thing: taking part in a peaceful protest and making my voice heard. And that’s probably been lost. If there were indeed 30,000 people there, it’s going to be the biggest protest of the year and it’s going be remembered for something that it wasn’t even involved in.”
Furthermore, Cassidy offered a far more lucid response to the question of an alternative proposal to reintroducing third-level fee, compared with the aforementioned girl.
“I think there are other options. People are tossing around a graduate tax where you can support the loan. It’s slightly more complicated than that. I’ve got an idea worked out, but I wouldn’t say it’s perfect either.
“There was a thing in the Guardian recently where you could cut from the British government and be as good or bad as George Osborne,” he recalled. “It was possible to save the economy in his view without touching education, without touching health and with only marginal touches to welfare and that was basically how I approached it and I managed to save twice as much as he did. You could probably do something [like that] in the Irish situation. I’m not saying the Irish situation is identical, but it is similar.”
This is one of the few informed opinions I have heard, in contrast with the much-voiced vague platitudes that frequently derail the credibility of many students’ assertions. Perhaps, after all, some of the protesters are in it for reasons aside from the craic and have a balanced perspective to match their rabid fervour.