Originally published in Volume III, Issue 4 on 21st November 1996 by Margaret Walsh.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) was founded in 1959. It claims an approximate membership of 150,000 students throughout the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
On 10th October this year, USI launched a demands document. They are seeking widespread change in issues which they feel need immediate addressal by the government. They are specifically: Accommodation; Financial Support; Representation and Student Union Funding. According to Noeleen Hartigan, USI Deputy President “the only way to generate change in an election year is to make education a political priority.”
The government have failed to respond to the document by the November 8th deadline set by USI and so the organisation proceeded with a ballot in many of its affiliated colleges. Students were balloted on the government response to the demands documented and whether to take strike action. Colman Byrne, USI President said “our membership deserve to know exactly what their representatives are and are not willing to do for them.”
The ballot result was overwhelmingly anti-government with commitment to action in the form of strikes, pickets, sit-ins, demonstrations and walk-outs. The action took place in Athlone RTC, Letterkenny RTC, St.Pat’s Drumcondra, Sligo RTC, Tallaght RTC, Dundalk RTC, Waterford RTC, UCG and DCU as well as four colleges in Northern Ireland.
UCD were not involved in the action. When the Students Union was contacted by USI, regarding the ballot and any subsequent action, the Executive made the decision to abstain from the activities. It was felt that there was not enough time in which to organise the ballot and any subsequent action arising from its result.
In reality, it seems the average UCD student is confused or simply not aware of the current activities of USI. When questioned all but one of twenty students, could not name a single USI officer. The one officer named was Malcolm Byrne, USI Education Officer and former student of UCD.
In general, USI was seen as largely irrelevant. One first year had never heard of it and many others were only aware of with regard to the National Student Centre and the student discount available with the International Student Identity Card (ISIC). None of the students showed an awareness of the current campaigns. Responses ranged from “what’s USI?” through “I like the Furnace” to “they’re full of shit.”
USI are reluctant to come to colleges except at the invitation of the Students Union. They were last seen in UCD a few weeks ago as part of their Voter Registration Campaign. This campaign to register as many students as possible to vote seeks to convince the government of the importance of courting the student vote.
The actions taken by the different colleges around the country have received widespread coverage in the national media. This campaign represents a more localised approach to previous action organised by USI. From holding one national march to last year’s four regional marches and now this year’s local concentration with different Students Unions pushing for change relevant to their own college as well as the broader issues.
Opinion of previous USI actions differ. Cormac Moore, Education Officer dismisses last year’s marches as “a complete waste of time” and nothing more than “a day out for students”. He does however believe in USI. According to Cormac, USI provides an invaluable information network, relevant training events and most importantly a system whereby more established Students Unions can assist smaller colleges in the setting-up and day-to-day working of their Students Union.
With relation to current activities Cormac is more sceptical. In general USI issues are he feels, secondary to UCD issues. His priorities lie with tackling the apathy in UCD and then possibly conducting efficient student action on a national scale. He believes the current action would not have succeeded in UCD as there is a “minimum amount of respect for the Students Union.”
USI whatever its external appearance, has several problems of its own. It is continuing to fundraise to pay the money that was awarded to Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) as a result of a court case last year. It also lacks the affiliation of some of the largest colleges in the country although there appears to be good communication between USI and some of the non-affiliated institutions in the country, Trinity for example.
Current protests have been likened to the student protest of 1983/84 and similar USI protests in the 1970s. It is seen by many as a reawakening of students as an active social force for change. The less militant more media orientated approach seems to have succeeded in raising the profile of USI nationally though not necessarily among Students.
UCD has no plan to discontinue its affiliation with USI, to whom it pays an annual affiliation fee of £40,000. However it seems unlikely that UCD is to play a major part in USI’s National Campaign this years.