MINISTER of State, Conor Lenihan, has expressed his disappointment at not being able to attend a debate held in UCD last Wednesday due to safety concerns arising from a planned protest. Mr Lenihan was due to speak at a Literary and Historical Society (L&H) debate on the role of religious symbols in society.
A spokesperson for Mr Lenihan stated that he “seriously regretted not being able to come out and talk about what he considers an extremely important topic.” The decision not to attend the debate “was taken quite regretfully,” explained the spokesperson.
Security concerns, such as the safety of students, debate participants and the Minister, raised by plans by the protestors to errect a blockade, spurred UCD authorities and Donnybrook Garda Station to advise Mr Lenihan to refrain from attending the debate.
The protest and blockade were organised by Free Education for Everyone (FEE). Members of FEE planned to block Minister Lenihan’s access into the Newman Building during a protest against the re-introduction of third-level fees. Spokesperson for FEE, Julian Brophy, regarded the protest as a success despite comments by Mr Lenihan’s spokesperson who assured that he was not threatened by the protestors.
Rejecting claims that the protest deprived students of hearing Minister Lenihan speak, Mr Brophy argued that “we were blocking Mr Lenihan because he is blocking potential students coming into the education system.” Mr Brophy insisted that “students shouldn’t sit down in a theatre and listen to Mr Lenihan after he is actively making their lives in university difficult”.
L&H Auditor, Ian Hastings regarded Mr Lenihan’s decision as “a most logical step.” He expressed disappointment at the nature of the protest organised, considering it “counterproductive.” Mr Hastings acknowledged the objectives of FEE and asserted his respect for what they are trying to achieve but expressed regret “that we had to deal with it as a problem,” which he felt was “a little short-sighted.”
Mr Brophy maintained that FEE is an “activist group, fighting for a cause” and is confident that they will make their point to any government minister who comes to UCD. However, he expressed disappointment over the lack of government’s interaction with their group stating that “no government minister will have anything to do with us” and admitted that “if a government minister wanted to come out to us and actively talk about how we can ameliorate the education system, then we would love it”.
When questioned about the nature of the FEE campaign he contested that, “it is not a violent campaign and there is really no violence involved in what we are doing… we are not hooligans.”
Members of FEE failed to target government ministers at the annual Foundation Day dinner, held by UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady, on 7th November. Mr Brophy acknowledged the presence of the government ministers at the event but admitted that “we weren’t planning for it.”
Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan was prevented from speaking at a Law Society debate on 30th October last year, due to a protest held by UCD Shell to Sea which blocked the Minister’s path into the lecture theatre in the Newman Building where he was due to address students.
Protesters shut the doors to the theatre, while others behaved in a manner, which “some people would describe as threatening”, Mr Ryan told The University Observer.
In News Analysis, Danielle Moran investigates the effects of student protest.