As Students’ Union activists occupy the offices of Wicklow County Council, Gavan Reilly ponders the merits of public demonstrations
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’; it’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls, for the times, they are a-changin’. – Bob Dylan
When Bob Dylan wrote this timeless masterpiece of discontent in the autumn of 1963, the world was presumably a much different place to the technocratic Babylon it is in the modern age. The sixties, as much as an era of flower power and societal liberation, was a decade of conflict, most notably in 1968 when the generation of Baby Boomer offspring led a series of international student demonstrations in protest at – among other things – the Vietnam war, political upheaval in western Europe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Cuban missile crisis and the slow progress of the African independence movement. No matter where one looked, people were angry, and taking to the streets to vent it.
The undefeatable, sturdy spirit of rebellion embodied in Dylan’s work has largely disappeared from society, and from the student political scene, in the forty years since. While student groups and youth political parties still hold demonstrations to display public protest, the extent to which they permeate the national consciousness – and indeed, the level of passion and support they enjoy – has been on the continual wane for decades now.
UCD Students’ Union’s occupation of the Wicklow County Council offices last Friday, in protest at the delay in processing and issuing the payment of maintenance grants, is an opportune example of why the politics of demonstration enjoy limited appeal – and, more importantly, limited effect – in the modern world. The SU’s desire to apply the momentum gained by the defeat (for now) of third level tuition fees was totally sound, as was the motivation behind the stunt: maintenance grants are, and for years have been, painstakingly slow in being issued. Students cannot afford to live on borrowed time – and borrowed money – while their native county council shuffles through the growing pile of grant applications as slovenly as can be gotten away with.
There is no small irony, though, that the protest reached its zenith as the protestors moved to occupy the council chambers, where the elected representatives of the people of Wicklow meet to argue and agree upon how to best serve their peoples’ needs. It is in the council chambers and boardrooms that decisions are now made, and though the pace at which they operate may frustrate students and their leaders, patience is needed. Direct demos are not without their merits, but the student movement would likely be better served by a small degree of restraint in the aftermath of such a major victory, rather than immediately returning to the offensive.
It would be blasé and easy to take issue with the poor attendance at the protest; the fact that when the SU Council has more reps than ever before that only fifty students – many of them, it must be conceded, being Union officers rather than Wicklow constituents – felt sufficiently motivated to attend the occupation is not one that deserves criticism. But the lesson to be borne in mind is that the purpose of the mass protests of yore was simply to earn a seat at the boardroom table. When those seats have been won, the responsibility of the student movement is to exert its boardroom influence as best it can. What’s seldom is wonderful; the reason the demonstrations against pensioners being denied medical cards were so effective is because to see older people on the streets is rare. Students would do well to show similar moderation.
The world of 2009 is a far different one to the world of 1968. When once, in less bureaucratic times, decisions could be made by hurling bricks, chanting ideologies or flinging petrol bombs, the mob justice of old has been quietly shelved and superseded by the politics of the boardroom. Society now is a far more bureaucratic entity than forty years ago; and while this of course has its negative connotations, it has offered society’s many subgroups – students crucially included amongst them – the chance to sit at the table where the decisions are made, and to have their say at every step of the process.
Third level fees were not beaten on the streets, but in the boardroom where the Programme for Government was agreed. The big decisions of the future will be made in similar places, and the student movement ought to remember just what their predecessors of Bob Dylan’s era were fighting for.