Against a background of renewed protests against the re-introduction of third-level fees, Peter Molloy wonders if student activism just isn’t what it used to be.
As a starter for 10; spot the difference. October 1970. In Student – a newspaper circulated in UCD in the early days of Belfield – a rather self-congratulatory summary of the then Student Representative Council’s (SRC) efforts to secure Dublin Bus service into the Belfield campus features a striking insight into period student politics.
The refusal of Dublin Corporation to carry out the road-works necessary to accommodate bus access, the piece crowingly observes, led to then SRC President, Kieran Walsh promising to organise students to carry out the work themselves.”
As the article relates, Walsh’s brinkmanship is accompanied by “lightly-veiled hints” that mobilised students would “do more than widen the road”. Student’s contributor goes on to note that the SRC “is prepared to go to any lengths to have buses enter the campus forthwith”, and concludes by warning that should the student organisation’s objectives fail to be met, “further action will be taken”.
January 2009. Dublin Bus service to the Belfield campus is once again the subject of dispute after services are curtailed as a result of anti-social behaviour by students. Speaking to The University Observer, current Students’ Union (SU) President Aodhan Ó Deá outlines his planned strategy for resolving the affair.
“The university have been in contact with them and they’re setting up meetings and basically we’re trying to meet halfway with them.”
Ó Deá continues by explaining that the situation is, “disappointing, hopefully we can encourage the students to realise that this is their campus and they have to take care of it as well.”
If the variances in these twin approaches aren’t immediately apparent, pause for a moment and imagine those quotes reversed. Ponder what would happen if, at the beginning of 2009, an elected student representative effectively – and publically – used the threat of criminal acts in order to pursue a campaign agenda.
Far from merely attracting front-page coverage in every national newspaper; such an occurrence would run every likelihood of earning significant national media attention – and most likely – rebuke. The chances of any current student sabbatical officer hanging on to their position for long after choosing the above approach, or indeed deigning to take the risk in the first place, are slim indeed.
So what’s changed? Have times simply moved on since the heady days of international student radicalism, or has something more fundamental resulted in a apathetic Irish student populace?
Today, Conall Ó Móráin is a broadcaster and entrepreneur who co-presents Today FM’s weekly Sunday Business Show. In 1977, however, a much younger Ó Móráin found himself at the helm of UCD’s recently constituted SU, as its president.
Appropriately enough for an interview that aims to elicit some first-hand experience of an arguably bygone era of student politics, Ó Móráin begins by pointing out that he actually began his tenure earlier than scheduled, after his predecessor as SU President was impeached for his role in breaking into the Tierney Building.
“It was a bit of a Watergate moment. There may have been a few drinks involved, but they wanted to find out what the Governing Body was up to.”
The 1960s and 70s were clearly an exceptional case in point as far as student activism is concerned. Movement of UCD’s faculties from Earlsfort Terrance to Belfield commenced in the mid-1960s, a decade steeped in radical ideology. Belfield slowly grew to concrete life against a backdrop of ostentatious protest and social expression like the May 1968 demonstrations in Paris.
Whether or not you believe the apocryphal story of the campus’ design owing to practical features intended to deter would-be rioters, it’s nonetheless inevitable that prevailing ideas of the period played an important role in shaping student attitudes.
Even allowing for this, it’s still abundantly clear that the form of direct action espoused by Ó Móráin and his peers in their heyday was a very different beast to the politics on show in Irish universities today.
The one-time SU President recounts a litany of protests and issues that dominated student discourse during his period in office. Almost casually, he mentions an extended occupation of Belfield’s James Joyce library spurred by an alleged lack of proper study facilities.
“You go to university, you pay your fees – we paid fees in those days, remember – and then you didn’t have a place to study, which kind of defeated the whole purpose of the place. We took it over for two or three days… sleeping on concrete floors didn’t really do it for me!”
Although portions of contemporary student concerns seem almost bizarrely quaint – Ó Móráin talks, for example, about a protracted battle to have condom vending machines installed in UCD’s bathrooms – the basic enthusiasm and vigour with which those struggles were apparently waged is still noteworthy. Almost inevitably, some of the issues that led to protest in 1977 have since come full circle. Among the factors of dissent which had UCD students hitting the streets that year were proposals to increase fees.
To his credit, Ó Móráin is surprisingly frank about some of the less stirring truisms of student politics; realties that the more cynical might observe are not utterly extinct. “The reality – and I’m sure it never stops – was that we spent more time bickering amongst ourselves”.
To establish some context to those recollections, The University Observer spoke to SU Campaigns and Communications Officer, Dan O’Neill. The Labour Youth member is vehement in denying that the student populace of 2009 lacked the radical bite of previous generations.
“I think the student movement as a whole has developed a lot. We do recognise the importance of protest. We might not use the same language, and we might not be as radical, but when we need to be radical, I think we can be.”
O’Neill is quick to point that out in the interim, student organisations like the SU has, ostensibly at least, obtained a much more involved role in the decision making process of university, a development that arguably negates much of the necessity for confrontational, angry protest.
“SU were on the peripheries of the college. Now we sit on a lot of the boards, and make decisions, we sit on a lot of those things, which is very important.”
As various campaigns against the re-introduction of third-level fees rumble on, it’s tempting to speculate as to whether or not changed social and economic circumstances could see a return to a more robust strand of student protest. Both Ó Móráin and O’Neill are both in agreement with speculation.
“I do think that when there is an economic downturn, people’s opinions do become polarised to a certain extent, so you might see a return to more radical language,” responds O’Neill.
“Everyone realises that the economy isn’t working at the moment, and I think that this is the time when people can put forward ideas as to how to create a better economy, a better society. Young people throughout history – and especially students – have always been the visionaries, and have always put forward the agenda. I think students will step up to the mark now.”
That projection for the future of student activism was cautiously echoed by Ó Móráin.
“It depends how long this recession lasts. If [future generations of students] come out [of university] after three or four years and there’s still nothing happening, then the real frustration will happen and the real hassle will start,” says Ó Móráin.
After their recent protest, it is easily seen that UCD’s SU is playing a more visible role than they have done in previous years. Student activism may not be utterly deceased yet, but it’s anyone’s bet as to whether or not it will succeed in obtaining a completely new lease of life.
Student activism in UCD boasts a lengthy historical precedent. Long before contemporary concerns such as the potential re-introduction of fees came to the fore, students of the university were involved in various campaigns and struggles, many of which have had implications far beyond the scope of mere university politics.
- In November 1920, at the height of the Anglo-Irish War, a young UCD Medicine student achieved a position of almost iconic status in Republican mythology when he was executed for participation in guerrilla activities against Crown forces. Kevin Barry was 18 and in second year when he went to the gallows in Mountjoy Prison for his role in an abortive IRA ambush.
- In 1945, future-Taoiseach and then 19-year-old Commerce undergraduate Charles Haughey was infamously reputed to have been amongst a group of UCD students who burnt a Union Jack flag outside Trinity College on VE Day in protest over an alleged disrespect shown in the positioning of the Irish tricolour on the university’s roof.
- In early February 1972, intense anger over the shooting dead of civilians in Derry on Bloody Sunday culminated in the burning of Britain’s Dublin Embassy on Merrion Square. A significant contingent of UCD students were numbered amongst the estimated 20,000 – 30,000 protestors who marched on the building.