The Gentle Revolution: 50 years on from UCD’s radical protests

“I was very much a middle class boy from Stillorgan”, Basil Miller tells me, his voice crackling down the phone. “I went to UCD to study economics and politics, and that is what I was doing, in 1969, when all this stuff started to kick off."

27th February 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the student-led occupation of the administration offices at UCD Earlsfort Terrace. A plan which would see students relocated from the premises off of St Stephens Green to Belfield, sparked a movement of students who demanded control of the university by those actually participating in it, as opposed to a shadowy governing board. “[In] essence...people got elected to the governing body and that was kind of the last you'd hear of them."

“[In] effect the college was being run by a triumvirate of the President, the Secretary and the Registrar and...governing body meetings tended to be rubber stamped."

Protests, occupations and mass movements are not born overnight, and in addition to willpower and political leadership, they are inspired by public perceptions of inequality and mistreatment. In UCD, Miller described a campus full of political energy, but with limited outlets for those students who did not wish to label themselves as a member of a particular political party. “Apart from the established political parties,” Miller says, “there was very little at the time. The Fianna Fáil branch probably would have been the biggest, and then the Labour Party, and then at the bottom of the list Fine Gael - another sense, Fine Gael dominated the college in that quite a large number of the senior staff would have been from that tradition.”

The foundation of a Political Studies Society and a new campus newspaper (the only other publication, Miller states, was “in the grip of Fianna Fáil, was very one-sided and, dare I say it - dull”) accommodated more general, non-party political discussions. “...[Getting] into world issues,” he says, “as well as Irish issues, and really trying to get good speakers who had something original to say, something helped to open up a space for a wider political discussion.”

Inspired by the factory occupations, general strikes and student protests in France in May of that year, Miller sought to demonstrate against what he described as an “authoritarian and dictatorial administration." Even those who would have been viewed as moderates at the time, Miller says, “regarded the governing body as completely dysfunctional.”

Overcrowding at Earlsfort Terrace, which later became the National Concert Hall, inadequate standards on the university’s architecture course and the engrained conservatism of what Ruairi Quinn described as a “Catholic academy masquerading as a university” sat against a backdrop of international protest and turmoil. The civil rights movements in the North of Ireland and student-led occupations in the UK, Italy and fascist Spain were only a small number of protests and mass movements which marked that decade as a battle of rebellion and repression.

“What really set fire to everything was the move to Belfield”, Miller recounts. A newspaper report at the time stated that there would be no library on the Belfield campus until October 1970 caused uproar: “they were essentially proposing to move...six thousand students without library facilities where they were going. None. Temporary library facilities with space for a few hundred feet and a minimum number of books."

“Now that kind of thing really got up people's nose." After blockading a meeting of academic council (“they walked out without answering questions”), a simmering mass meeting of dissatisfied students voted to occupy the administration block.

An RTÉ Seven Days report at the time stated that many students wanted practical changes to the functioning of the university; one student interviewed on the Earlsfort campus lamented that “UCD has never been a community” and that students and lecturers showed up for classes and didn’t hang about. For him, the student occupations were the first time UCD students experienced a “spirit of learning together, investigating the functioning of our university, finding out what the whole thing is all about."

Other students wanted “to change the world overnight." Students for Democratic Action (SDA), as the group became known, were involved in ‘militant protests’ organised by the Dublin Homelessness Action Committee, and demonstrations against the Vietnam War, which, alongside the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Miller said “had a good deal to do with” why the protests and occupations broke out.

After two days of occupying the administration, a “skeleton crew” were left to occupy the block, as another mass meeting was held. Voting in favour of a general strike, students and junior university staff agreed to hold seminars on the future of UCD. “[That] went on for another week...overall, about ten days. Not exactly 10 days that shook the world - but certainly shook UCD.”

Although Miller describes the university as “confrontational”, to their credit, he says that management showed “some trace of wisdom” by not calling the police on the protesters. “I think in the atmosphere of the time that would have really got them the blaze burning.” A promise by Garrett FitzGerald, a lecturer in UCD at the time and then-senator, to bring forward a bill which would have, to some degree, addressed students’ concerns for a better-managed institution, came to nought. “We had rather more radical proposals about how the college should be run. But, as so often happens in this country, basically somebody dropped the ball and it all just disappeared once things had quietened down in the college again.” FitzGerald was elected to the Dáil later that year and the proposed bill was dropped.

While SDA may not have affected the grand changes that many had hoped for, students and junior university staff alike, Miller eyes a success of sorts in the legacy of their radical protest: “[We] confronted people with a different view of things in UCD, and I think we changed the way a lot of people thought about issues." According to Miller, former students have confided in him that SDA changed their life: “another is you know, a person saying ‘my experience of SDA informed and shaped all my life choices’, that kind of thing.”

“I mean I can say that about myself. When I arrived in UCD...I wasn't particularly political -  I took an interest, alright.” Ultimately, for Miller, it was politics and political philosophy that he enjoyed most and drew him into SDA. While he stayed actively involved in radical politics (he cites the H Block protests, the repeal campaign and water charge protests as examples), others, Miller says, “even if they didn't go on to be active in politics, their views and sympathies had definitely been altered by their experience of SDA."

While the “close relationships between the SDA leaderships and the editorial board of Campus [the student-led newspaper of the time]” lead to positive coverage of the protests, ‘good press’ wasn’t always forthcoming in relation to student affairs.

“In May 1968,” Miller recounts, “the King and Queen of Belgium visited Ireland and were invited to Trinity College for an honorary degree. There were Maoists in Trinity, which I don't think we even knew they existed there was so few of them, but they demonstrated outside a garden party at the Provost’s garden.” Gardaí responded to what the Irish Times reported as “a dozen jeering Maoist demonstrators” who were “encouraged by a raucous group of supporters of the college's unionist society, the 1964 Committee” by seizing the protesters’ banner.

“The police...waded into the group with serious force and that caused uproar but to add insult to injury, the Evening Herald had completely, pretty appalling treatment of it - they basically said 'more power to the police'.” In response to what the then-president of the Students Representative Council, Alan Matthews denounced as "the unprovoked attack on peaceful demonstrators", students marched in their hundreds to the offices of the Herald where they burned copies of the paper.

“I think overall we were happy with the media treatment, but in the case of a newspaper that hasn't really changed its spots very much over the year - yeah, we didn't like them”.

Peace, Love & Protest: UCD 1969 a stage and screen show featuring music, dramatic pieces, spoken word, and archive footage from the time will be held in the National Concert Hall tomorrow, 12th March. The net proceeds will go to support the Peter McVerry Trust, which is active in helping and advocating for homeless people.