Union, we have a problem

Originally published in Volume III, Issue 8 on 20th February 1997 by Shane Hegarty.

 

The Students’ Union has seen better times. A President under fire, a referendum that failed to reach a quorum, the apparent ‘loss’ of any hope of a government bail out in the SPUC case and a palpable sense of tension building within its corridors as the elections.

It may yet get worse. SU President, Shane Fitzgerald, is likely to find himself under increased criticism over the coming weeks and the upcoming SU elections are bound to see the normal level of Union bashing which traditionally accompanies them. The Union will have been looking towards Tuesday’s ‘Day of Action’ to provide a success in order to avoid humiliation for the Union in general, Education Officer Cormac Moore in particular. There is a cloud of depression hanging over the SU  offices at present, and any victory, no matter how small, will come as a welcome relief.

For the man at the centre of the crisis, Shane Fitzgerald, it will be a period in his life that he will want to forget as soon as possible. Recent events have left him in a deep depression, although resignation does not seem to be on the cards. With the end of his term in sight, important decisions yet to be made over the proposed Students’ Centre, and a refusal to let his critics have their pound of flesh, Fitzgerald is determined to stick out the year and to rescue his damaged reputation.

Criticism had been mounting in the past few weeks over what was seen as Fitzgerald’s lack of leadership, as well as over what where being seen as unsatisfactory working hours. The referendum on the option to re-open nominations (RON) at SU elections was always going to fail to make the required 20% quorum, and although it was a ballot brought by private individuals, the Union received a lot of stick for not generating enough interest among its members in the vote.

The nadir of a deep trough, however, came two weeks ago, when the College Tribune ran an editorial slating Fitzgerald. The piece also pointed out that the SU President had let slip at a Union Council meeting the possibility of the Government paying the paying the costs incurred in the SPUC case. College Tribune editor, Gary O’Shea, then contacted the journalist Sam Smyth, who also happens to be his uncle, with the information as regards this possible development. Smyth wrote a piece in the Irish Independent on the Thursday of the disastrous RON referendum outlining the details. In the Dail that afternoon, TD Michael McDowell asked John Bruton if it was true, and the Taoiseach replied that it wasn’t. The pack moved in to tear Fitzgerald apart, accusing him of essentially losing £400,000 due to incompetence.

Last week, O’Shea, whose co-editor recently resigned due to a breakdown in their working relationship, ran several pages on the story, including a photograph of an unhealthy looking Fitzgerald taken after a bout of illness before Christmas.

What actually happened over the SPUC money is a little less explosive than has since been made out. SU solicitor, Leo Mangan, received assurances from a leading Labour TD that the Attorney General would be contacted in regards to the possibility of the government helping out the students. It was an oasis of hope in what looks like an otherwise bleak situation for the unions involved, those being UCD, Trinity and USI. While UCDSU has the finances to pay the costs over a period of time, the other two unions have barely enough money to pay for the bus fare to the courtroom. If the money has to be paid, it could ruin these organisations, and they have long claimed that the government should aid in the payment of the cash, considering recent changes in the constitution regarding abortion which have legalised what the unions are still prohibited from doing. We may never know, however, as to just how realistic a government bail-out was.

It may have been a promise made by Labour in the hope of holding on to a few election votes in an election year, or it could have been a real possibility if Labour were to return to power after the ballot. Opinion differs on the seriousness of the Labour TD’s promise, some within the Union dismissing the possibility of a payout, and others acting as if it was a real possibility.

But the battering of Fitzgerald, who many see as solely responsible for the loss of the money, has continued. He received a heavy grilling at the SU Council last week, read embarrassing pieces about the whole affair in the Phoenix and the Sunday Times and at least one of the election candidates is basing his campaign largely on the failings of the past year. It has not been a time which Shane Fitzgerald, nor any of the other SU officers will look back upon with pleasure.

But it has not been all doom and gloom within the Union corridor. The decision by Ents Officer, Darragh Purcell, to go for another term has been viewed as a welcome development by most. He has gained a lot of respect among both the hacks and the student body in general, and with the continued professionalisation of Ents, he is seen as the best man for the job, despite worries over losses made up to this point. The proposed ‘End of Term Ball’, which could be the Unions most ambitious social event yet, is already the source of many rumours and will be monitored carefully by those opposed to Ents being as financially profligate as it has traditionally been.

For Education Officer Cormac Moore the coming days will be of vital importance. His year has been dominated by the campaign against deferral fees, and after initial scepticism he has won over a lot of people with his determination to see it through. The ‘Day of Action’, due to have taken place by the time you read this, will have either made his year or broken it. However, despite receiving enthusiastic receptions from the lectures he has been addressing, he has had to face up to criticism from within the Union executive who are apparently apparently worried at the possibility of the ‘Day of Action’ becoming anything but.

The recent mass meetings of disgruntled campus residents have also been a timely boost for the Union with a lot of effort going into sorting out problems over large bills posted by the college this term. It is also hoped that the current Union Awareness Campaign will lead to a better understanding of the SU within the mass of students.

Surprisingly, given what seems on the surface as damaging figures,the results of the survey will also hearten Fitzgerald a little. 45% of students knowing his name may not look impressive, but with the measly XX% of those who could recognise his opposite number in Trinity, it will be a relief for him that he has avoided the ignominy of such figures. Ans a decent proportion of students believe the SU to be doing an ‘adequate’ job or better. There have been times in the not to distant past when such a percentage would only have been dreamt of.