Once bitten, twice shy

 
 

As Conor Lenihan rejects an invitation to debate with students, Danielle Moran looks at how recent history has repeated itself.

Eamon Ryan’s confirmation to this newspaper that UCD students welcomed him with a “threatening” atmosphere when he came to speak at a society debate a little over a year ago does little to quash assumptions that history repeats itself. Last week, the university felt it necessary to warn Minister of State, Conor Lenihan against coming to speak to students in the Newman Building.

The university, and Donnybrook Garda station cited concerns over the safety of not only the Minsiter, but also that of debate speakers and students who chose to attend the event as a result of a blocade organised by a student group, Free Education for Everyone (FEE). With plans that echoed of the incident involving Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan and UCD Shell to Sea, FEE had hoped to erect a blockade and prevent Mr Lenihan from entering the Newman Building.

Mr Lenihan, it seems, took the advice from UCD and cancelled his visit to the Literary and Historical Society’s (L&H) debate on religious symbols. The decision was “taken quite regretfully”, according to a spokesperson for Mr Lenihan, but it is unlikely that the Minister was the only person who missed out on a relatively rare opportunity.

Yes, Mr Lenihan gave up a chance to speak in person to potential voters in an atmosphere far more welcoming than their doorsteps, but the students who had organised and attended the debate are the ones who lost out on listening to someone who holds a considerable influence in how this country is run. Those who are interested in the unique interaction that religion has, and will have, with Irish politics are the ones who have missed out, and again, this is not down to their own doing.

FEE spokesperson, Lorcan Brophy argued that “students shouldn’t sit down in a theatre and listen to Mr Lenihan after he is actively making their lives in university difficult”. Perhaps a number of students will agree with Mr Brophy, but surely in a university, an environment of education, all members of this UCD community can agree that that is simply their choice. Students who don’t wish to attend lectures are not forced, those who don’t want to go to the bar are not forced, and likewise, no one was forcing the student body to sit down and listen to Mr Lenihan.

The society offered the chance to sit down and engage with a government speaker to students and anyone who didn’t want to attend was under no obligation to do so. Those students who organised the event went one step further than FEE and at least, presented an opportunity for a discussion with the Minister. If the case is, as Mr Brophy claims, and the Government have refused to recognise the “activist group”, that “no government minister will have anything to do with [the group]”, then perhaps FEE should take these debates as a platform on which they can air their disagreements and receive an answer.

Peaceful protest is the right of any person living in a democracy, and there is not justification for the suppression of the right to free speech. If students want to protest for any reason, then they are entitled to do so. However, a line must be drawn when safety is questioned or disregarded.

Last year’s UCD Shell to Sea protest illustrated that government speakers are not afraid of protestors, as Mr Lenihan has confirmed. Rather, both Mr Lenihan and Mr Ryan described themselves as simply “disappointed” that they could not engage in debate with UCD students. Their decisions not to attend cannot be seen as a victory for a group of students who are calling out for government recognition.

Former Law Society (LawSoc) Auditor, Ciarán Ahern described the protestors at the time as “shouting ‘block the doors, don’t let them in.’ At this point they almost started trying to encircle us”. A scene, which is “unruly; it was threatening, it was intimidating”, is not one expected in a university which prizes free speech, the right to debate and to protest.

No one in the university has disagreed with the students who feel let down by government decisions to raise the registration fee, or by discussions to re-introduce third-level fees. And there has been no condemation of the students who marched into Kildare St last month to vocalise their opposition to university fees.

The fact that students feel passionate enough about both their own futures and that of the government is nothing but positive. However, when that emotion takes shape and begins to threaten the safety of their fellow students, it is imperative that something is reined in. Unfortunately, in both of these cases, it was the student’s right to listen to a person in a position of power that was taken away. This was unfair to those students who genuinely wanted to hear what Mr Lenihan had to say but it was also necessary to prevent history repeating.

That UCD students created an atmosphere so intimidating as that which greeted Mr Ryan reflects badly on those students. Yet, that vision is then applied to the majority of students by citizens who are not present on our campus. Protestors have a right to air their opinions, but not when these are shouted in anyone’s face, be it a politician, student or university staff member.

There is no reason to believe that the FEE protest would have turned as violent as last year’s UCD Shell to Sea’s blockade did. However, both groups managed to silence a person in power, one of the elected officials that we demand answers from, when they approached our campus offering, not only answers but discussion to us.

Students will always have a right to free speech, and to peaceful protest. However, questions should have been asked last year when the safety of students and a government minister was called into question by a small minority of protestors. The fact that history has been allowed to repeat itself so quickly appears to say something about the importance of learning from mistakes.

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