In photo: UCD Students’ Union Returning Officer at the count centre after last week’s vote. Photo: Megan Fanning

Kevin Donoghue, the President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), has expressed concern over the ‘No to USI’ campaign in UCD, saying that some of their claims were “essentially made up”. His claims come after a referendum was put to students last week on whether or not UCD Students’ Union should reaffiliate with USI. The referendum saw a landslide no vote, with 74 per cent of students voting for UCDSU to remain independent of the national union – a higher percentage than the original 64.5 per cent who voted to disaffiliate from USI in 2013.

Speaking to the University Observer, Donoghue said: “I don’t think the vote is necessarily a reflection of a rejection of USI, because I think there was a particular organisation portrayed by the No side that essentially doesn’t exist. And I think that people were essentially concerned about that, and they rejected an organisation that the No side had essentially made up… There were, I think, in some instances, fairly significant inaccuracies in some of the campaign material, and when it was pointed out there was no real steps to address it. So I think when people rejected the organisation that was portrayed – not necessarily made up to be fair – but portrayed by the No side, as opposed to a rejection of USI itself.”

One of the major claims made by the No Campaign was that their statistics on USI’s voting drive ahead of last year’s marriage equality referendum were inaccurate. “As a specific example they suggested that we registered something like 5.3 per cent of the student population for the marriage equality referendum – that figure was actually 27 per cent.” He also pointed to their claims of that a number of reforms hadn’t been introduced, saying that most of those reforms had in fact been introduced.

Donoghue also expressed disappointment about the result of the referendum, which saw a 74 per cent rejection of the referendum to rejoin the national union. “Obviously you’d be disappointed with an outcome like that. I mean the last six or seven referendums we’ve held in colleges across the country have returned a result of in excess of 85 per cent in favour of remaining in USI.” He feels that exclusion from USI will have a negative impact on UCD students in national campaigns.

“You just can’t contribute to national campaigns, national conversations. It weakens the voice that they have and the issues. I think particularly you’ll find that the accommodation issue will be difficult to deal with, just in terms of the immediate term stuff. It weakens the voice of people and it means that the issues that UCD students would face that would need a national response, or need work on a national level, now won’t happen.”

The referendum result comes as a disappointment to the Yes to USI campaign, which brought a petition signed by roughly 1,000 students – or 3.5% of the student voting population of UCD – past the Students’ Union Council and directly to the Returning Officer, as per the process outlined in the Students’ Union constitution. The proposal would require the addition of €5 for full time students and €2.50 for part time students on their fees to pay for membership of USI. When UCDSU was previously a member, they paid for student membership, costing them over €100,000 each year. This was a major factor in the drive to leave USI in 2013, at a time when UCDSU was experiencing extreme financial difficulty.

Responding to Donoghue’s claims, Fionnán Long of the No to USI Campaign said that the No campaign reject Donoghue’s characterisation of their campaigning methods. “Kevin [Donoghue] seems to be trying to deflect focus from the enormous questions that this landslide result has raised about USI,” Long said. “If USI were as visible and prominent an organisation as the Yes side and USI tried to argue, it should be of grave concern to them that painting the alleged picture was possible. The reality is that most UCD students who voted ‘no’ did so because they wanted more from their student movement.”

Long also responded to Donoghue’s claims that the No campaign spread false information, saying they reject the idea that they portrayed an organisation that did not exist. “The nature of the rushed campaign resulted in some information not being 100 per cent accurate; whenever this was pointed out we clarified sources and when necessary posted corrections. The marriage equality statistic data was compared over the same period (as was made clear) and sources were given. That USI had at least two separate press releases about their registration drive caused this confusion.”

Elaborating on the criticisms, Long disagreed with Donoghue’s contention that the reforms that were demanded had been put in place. “Kevin claims that the reforms promised to UCD SU three years ago are in place. We don’t accept this.  In particular there is still no requirement of direct election of the USI President and there is still no requirement for delegates at congress to follow a mandate.  The Yes Campaign’s response to this was that there were no obstacles to member organisations imposing rules on themselves to give effect to the promised reforms and that therefore this amounted to a fulfilment of promised democratic reform… At any rate an organisation that claims to be students’ national voice while allowing constituent unions to ignore their students’ voices is unacceptable.”

UCD Students’ Union are compelled to hold a referendum on USI membership every fourth academic year. Last week’s no vote will likely mean that the next USI membership referendum won’t take place for another four years.