Direct action, as displayed with the recent occupation of the Department of the Environment, illustrates the regeneration of the student movement, writes Zelda Cunningham.
On Monday, 16th February, a number of students representing the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) entered the Custom House with the intent of occupying the Department of the Environment. Around 40 students took their place in the lobby of the building from eleven in the morning until 5.30 in the evening to protest against the Minister of the Environment, John Gormley’s part in the proposed introduction of third-level education fees.
USI President, Shane Kelly told The University Observer that the students were attempting to hold the Minister to account for his support of third-level fees, explaining that if Mr Gormley had backed this proposal around election time, he may not have gained a seat in the Dáil.
Mr Kelly commented that Mr Gormley “made it very clear that the Green Party would support some form of income contingent loan,” said Mr Kelly. “Which was not what was agreed in their party’s manifesto, not what was agreed in their programme for government and not the platform which they ran for election on.”
The sit-in protest did more than reaffirm the student discontent with the ‘fees’ proposal. USI demonstrated that students are willing to unite and form a movement that could potentially be a vehicle of change in the entire country.
During the fruitful years of the Celtic Tiger, the student movement appeared to be a lacklustre, spent force. The placards and loudspeakers of our parents’ generation were replaced with iPhones and Facebook obsessions.
However, at the beginning of this academic year, the seeds of change were planted in Belfield. The looming spectre of the recession touched ground and many students are faced with the reality that not only may they not have a job when they finish university, but they may not have enough financial backing to even complete their degree. If third-level fees were to return, many students feel that they simply could not even consider partaking in higher education.
From the enormous turnouts at previous anti-fees protests, it can be seen that the might of the student movement may return to its former glory. The direct action of the sit-in protest conveyed the immediacy of student protest to the Government. It remains to be seen whether these protests are futile in the wake of nationwide cutbacks, but if the enthusiasm for direct action transfers to the ballot box, the next General Election will be less than triumphant for Fianna Fáil.
The idealism of direct action seems to be contagious amongst students. When interviewed about the potential introduction of third-level fees, every candidate in UCD Students’ Union (SU) Sabbatical Officer Elections affirmed their willingness to take to the streets to demonstrate their distaste for what is seen as an education levy.
Some of the candidates had connections with Fianna Fáíl but vehemently condemned the party’s pro-fee line. Several candidates went so far as to say that if the SU Council mandated them to desist their protest against fees, they would step down from the position they were elected to, and the majority of the other candidates stated that they would debate strongly against any such motion.
Undoubtedly, fees will overshadow any brief given to a sabbatical officer in the coming year. Students will not only expect, but demand that their representatives are visible in their protest against fees, but the question that still needs to be answered is how far the SU representatives should go with direct action.
The UCDSU Sabbatical Elections will act as a litmus test for the political climate amongst students. With three members of the FEE (Free Education for Everyone) in the electoral race, students’ selection for the positions of SU President, Education Officer and Campaigns and Communication Officer will be intrinsically linked to their prioritisation of direct action.
As much as this may hamper the traditional roles of these positions, it may prove that students will vote on a single issue – who will fight fees hardest?
The protests, the sit-ins and the effective barring of government figures from campus look set to be a feature of next semester as well as during the remainder of of this one. The candidates selected to represent UCD students next year will also set the tone for the entire university and Government perceptions of students as a whole.
As the credit crunch tightens its grip on a country already ailing with job losses and pay cuts, third-level fees will be a contentious issue for all those embarking on a university education. However, in the midst of all the other disjointed factions in our troubled society, direct action could be what stops the shouts from the student movement being drowned out.