Climate and Environment Update

Students’ Union President Interview on Climate Action, UCD Student Concludes Hunger Strike - Originally published 24/1/2023

In December last year, Ronan Browne, a postgraduate student of Design Thinking for Sustainability at UCD, concluded an eight-day hunger strike that was launched in response to government inaction on the climate crisis. Last month, the Irish Examiner reported that Mr Browne had ceased his hunger strike upon reaching an agreement to satisfy his demands. UCDSU will reportedly be hosting a town hall early this year, telling the University Observer that they hope to host the forum on 21st February. Speaking to the Irish Independent back in December, Mr Browne claimed he would go on strike again “if necessary.” UCDSU has previously stated that it was “extremely worried” for Mr Browne’s welfare.

When reached for comment on the nature of Browne’s relationship with UCDSU, SU President Molly Greenough stated that “due to the ongoing nature of the situation we can’t go into great detail. We have met with Ronan on a handful of occasions, and we are working towards having a climate action town hall, open-style public forum on the 21st February, to create a space for staff and students to talk about climate action, and what needs to change in UCD, at a government level, and a global level as well.”

When asked about the demands made by Browne throughout his strike, Greenough replied: “I suppose the demands were quite publicly available. He was demanding a [...] University-wide referendum, which we explained isn’t possible with our current structures. So we met with him, and our returning officer advised him of the processes that any student can use to put forward a referendum, and made it very clear that this forum is available to him with or without a hunger strike. Any student at UCD is welcome to navigate our democratic structures to bring about the change they wish to see. So, initially it was a University-wide referendum, we explained that we don’t have the power to have the staff vote in our referendums, and even if we did it’s not a binding thing.”

“We can mandate the Students’ Union to have a stance on something, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the change will happen overnight, if we put it into context of, I suppose, when the Union was mandated to be a pro-choice Union, we still had to campaign for a number of years to repeal the 8th [Amendment]. So, just because we have a stance on climate action or climate justice doesn’t necessarily mean that the change we need will happen overnight. And then, he was also looking for a Citizens' Assembly, which we explained as well that we don’t have the structures in place to do [...]. So that’s why we came to the idea of potentially doing a town hall independently as UCD Students’ Union. Ronan is more than welcome to come along and speak at it, as is any member of the Union.”

Greenough continued: “We’re also going to be advertising the town hall to staff members as well because it’s clear that the climate crisis and emergency isn’t just impacting students, so we want to bring in as many people as possible. It’s timely as well, because the University is introducing our first Vice President for Sustainability, so hopefully recommendations and conversations from our initial town hall will be fruitful, and we can meet with the VP for Sustainability.”

When asked, Greenough also stated that she was not aware if Browne was expected to stage any further actions of this nature at this period of time. We then asked Greenough what work the SU had done to address the issue of climate change, to which she replied: “Historically we’ve been involved with groups like Fridays for Future, and [...] last year as well we would have been quite active on the rival COP-27 protests, to try to hold global leaders to account [...] what they’re doing at the moment to address climate change isn’t enough. We believe that the climate crisis is in a state of emergency.” Greenough appears to be referring to UCDSU members’ participation in some of the Extinction Rebellion protests that were organised in response to perceived inaction by global leaders at the COP-27 Conference.

“And, I suppose, we’re hoping that we can work with UCD to try to start addressing what goes on specifically in UCD, because, [...] in our view we might be able to impact what goes on here locally, more so than what goes on at a national level. So we hope to continue looping in with national campaigns, but at UCD specifically we’re looking forward to working with the VP for sustainability. And, obviously, initiatives like the Great Donate might seem small when compared to the size of the emergency, but we think that’s our piece to help reduce the things that are left in landfill.”

Browne is a member of the Mobilise Peace campaign, which is understood to be affiliated with System Change International. This activist group has agitated for greater policy action in response to the crisis on various campuses throughout Ireland and the neighbouring jurisdiction. In a Zoom discussion with Extinction Rebellion UK back in 2020 (streamed on YouTube), Browne claimed that the campaign aims to “mobilise Universities here and around the world in peaceful civil disobedience [...] and to protect and regenerate life on Earth from the system that is destroying it.” 

Browne’s calls for climate justice have drawn responses from numerous political leaders, with People Before Profit-Solidarity TD Bríd Smith stating in the Dáil last year: “Today, a young man from UCD, Ronan Browne, is taking the drastic action of a hunger and thirst strike to force some action on climate change. I support that young man. The behaviour of the Irish State has not inspired the young generation who are extremely worried about the future.”

Deputy Smith made the above statement in the Dáil in the context of a question posed to then-Taoiseach Micheál Martin, in relation to his attendance at the COP-27 Conference. In a further statement made in the Dáil at a later date last year, Deputy Smith called on Environment Minister Eamon Ryan to meet with the UCD student, urging Browne to: “fight back against the system but not take any chances with his own health and his own life.” Deputy Smith raised her concerns with the Government, expressing solidarity with Browne’s protest but urging him to safeguard his health and wellbeing.

With Browne's hunger strike at an end, the activist group is expected to continue meeting with politicians and agitating for change, both on campus and across civil society, in the weeks and months to come. Students can check the SU website to keep up to date on the Union’s campaigns and events addressing the climate crisis. SU President Greenough has stated that the SU hopes to host a town hall on the subject in February.