Originally published in Volume III, Issue 10 on 9th April 1997 by Cliodhna O’Neill.
USI is the national Union of students, and its annual congress is where the input of members decides on policy and priorities for the coming year.
This year’s congress was held in Westport, and 27 UCD Delegates attended. The delegation consisted of our incoming and outgoing Sabbatical Officers, a mix of long-time union activists, first years, USI junkies and USI sceptics all elected by Union Council last month, to spend a week finding out what USI is all about, and to make sure that next year USI’s work benefits UCD.
This year’s congress marked a subtle change to the old style: no International Affairs motions on promoting world peace or saving endangered species were submitted. The focus has become more student-based, more relevant to the membership. Motions, almost without exception, dealt with giving an officer or officers a specific task which were listened to with an unprecedented tolerance. Opinions expressed which were very much against the dominant trend were listened to an evaluated instead of being shut down.
A UCD motion on the £150 student charge provoked some discussion. At present the fee is fixed at £150 but that limit is due to be lifted this year. Many have expressed concerns that despite “free fees” colleges could view this charge as an easy way to make a fast buck and would continue to fudge the question of how exactly they spend this money. In some Colleges the Students’ Union gets up to £65 out of £150 in capitation- in UCD the figure is a slightly less generous £7. UCD’s motion was that USI should work to ensure that the cap of £150 remains, unless raised by students for a specific reason (As the Student Centre levy in UCD).
Another UCD motion on the license to reside and student housing, provoked horror stories of rented accommodation throughout the country. USI’s Welfare Officer, Helen Ryan, stated that improvements in the private rented housing legislation are very necessary for all sectors of the community. Unless the current ‘Licence to reside’ scheme was outlawed, private landlords may start taking advantage of the system, effectively abolishing tenant’s rights. The difficulties faced by students with children and students with disabilities when seeking accommodation was also discussed. UCD Students’ Union called for a review of the system and for USI to investigate the idea of a student housing co-operative.
In one of the most political discussions of the whole weekend, the USI President and Women’s’ Rights Officer have been mandated to protest against the British Government’s treatment of Roisin McAlliskey. Those speaking in favour, called for the consideration of the motion as a human rights issue, said that the issue was not one of creed or political belief, and that any woman being held under similar circumstances without charge would be entitled to student support. Those speaking in opposition to the motion indicated the threat of disaffiliation by some northern colleges if the motion, described as deliberately nationalist, was passed. The proposition in summation reminded Congress that Roisin McAlliskey was a former USI activist, and that she was being held without charge, despite sureties of bail offered.
The motion was passed, to the dismay of some of the northern delegates, both unionist and nationalist, who feared that some colleges perceptions of USI would be permanently damaged. Political correctness didn’t know where it stood it seemed. One motion creating the position of a full time Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Rights Officer was passed after a hard fought battle. This officer will be elected autonomously at the annual LGB training and conference, pink training. Yet the idea of the autonomous campaigns was questioned after a motion pledging continued support to the idea of Women’s autonomy was defeated.
A focus for USI over the next few months was discussed at length. The National Campaign, leading up to a general election in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, is a priority. USI’s strategy for the elections is to take advantage of the 250,000 potential first time voters by getting as many students registered and voting as possible. “Making Education a political priority” is to include canvassing interest groups to vote on educational issues, and to make all politicians give commitment to the development of the Education system.
All of the motions submitted by UCD Council were passed and will contribute to the programme of work for the new USI Officers for ‘97-98.
The Officers elected at Congress were President: Colman Byrne (re-elected), Deputy President: Helen Ryan (USI Welfare Officer 96-97), Union Development Officer: Dermot Quain (re-elected), Welfare Officer: Noel Clarke (President, St. Pats. Drumcondra SU, 96-97) and Education Officer: Malcolm Byrne (re-elected). The Women’s Rights Officer, Nuala Toman (Queens SU) was elected at Women’s Congress last month.