What do the UCDSU Sabbats officers think about politics? An interview with Martha Ní Riada

Law and Politics Editor Michael Keating Dake sat down with the President of UCD Students’ Union, Martha Ní Riada, for a discussion on politics, the work of the Students’ Union, the SU’s relationship with the broader student movement, and what Budget 2024 means for students.

On Monday 2nd October I sat down with UCDSU President, Martha Ní Riada, to talk politics, budgets, gaffs, and protests. The conversation was broad in its scope, and Ní Riada opened up about the SU’s relationship with the new administration in Belfield. To view the full-version, log onto our website. Ní Riada is a Law and Social Justice graduate, and previously served as the SU Education Officer for the 2022/23 academic year. She has a lot of interesting ideas about how best to campaign on behalf of students. Having heard Ní Riada speak at various campaign events and protests, I was curious to hear her perspective on the role of students and young people in social and political activism. 

We dive straight into politics. I ask Ní Riada to confirm if she’s a member of a political party. “I’m a member of the Social Democrats.” Ní Riada has publicly addressed her political affiliation before, but I’m interested to learn more about how she balances her political responsibilities with her duties as SU President. I ask if there’s any overlap between the two roles: “Well, I think with politics, it’s inherently personal. Your political views, in any workplace, are going to come into it.”

“(...) But I think what’s important is that, if you’re leading the students’ union, that you recognise those views, but that doesn’t close you off from listening to other views. (...) In our executive, we discuss things and come to a decision, but also we have to think about what our members want. (...) Obviously, I have my own opinion on things, but I don’t always act on what I personally think. (...).” Ní Riada argues that it’s important for the SU to consider a diverse range of views and to consult with council in a democratic fashion, and states although she has her own views, she is willing to listen to others.

She elaborates further on this: “On a lot of political issues, most people within the student population would have similar views. Say, the cost of living, most of us would agree that it’s a crisis, but how we’d solve it might be different. And that’s why council is so important, because that’s where we can debate those things. (...) Some people would support more direct action, whereas some people would think we shouldn’t be protesting, we should just be talking with the Government or with University management.” Ní Riada elbaorates, explaining the variety of forms of protest and lobbying that the SU uses to highlight student issues.

On the topic of direct action, we discuss the recent disruptive on-campus protest organised by TCDSU, obstructing access to the Book of Kells exhibit. The Book of Kells is a popular tourist attraction, and serves as a highly lucrative stream of revenue for TCD. I ask Ní Riada if she considers such radical forms of protest and disruption to be relevant in the context of UCD: “I think the Book of Kells is a great spot [for TCDSU] to do it. There’s not many places in UCD that would have the same sort of effect. We also want to do something that won’t disrupt students, as well. Unless the students are willing to be disruptive, then it’s fine! (...) Those forms of direct action are definitely not something the Union would ever rule out.”

“But I think the main thing is that you need to have buy-in from the students for those actions to be effective: you need students to be on-side. You need people to show up and get involved in those sort of direct actions. Because direct action (could) have quite a large consequence to it, (...) whatever it is that you’re fighting for, it has to be really really important and really set-in-stone, and everyone knows exactly why we’re going out there and what you’re trying to achieve.”

“The main thing is that you need buy-in from students in order for that action to be effective.” - UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada on recent direct action protests staged by student leaders. 

Ní Riada argues that the action in Trinity has ignited a conversation within the student movement, and that the disruptive action is not something UCDSU would rule out if it proved effective at drawing attention to student issues. She qualifies this further: “With those forms of direct action, you need to make sure that you’ve exhausted all other forms, and that this form of action burns bridges with, we’ll say, with management, or with other people around the University who might be affected, and with the wider community. (...) I’m not saying it’s bad to burn those. Sometimes, if you’re not getting anything constructive (....) that’s what László [Molnárfi, TCDSU President] was saying; they had tried, they attended all the meetings, they tried everything they could (...) that’s where direct action is definitely the most appropriate.” 

After a discussion of the forms of peaceful protest used by the SU to raise awareness of student issues, the conversation turns to the working relationship between the SU and Professor Orla Feely, the new President of UCD. Ní Riada  provides some context on the oftentimes tense relationship between the SU and former President Deeks: “(President Deeks) didn’t really see what life was like for students and he didn’t really prioritise students at all. But I think the relationship and the discussions we’ve had with Professor Feely (...) have been a lot more conducive.”

“Obviously, we don’t agree on everything, and I don’t think we ever will. (...) But the discussions we’ve had are a lot better and she seems to understand our position a lot more. (...) (Since Professor Deeks left) there has been a change of atmosphere in the University, and there have been efforts made to alleviate the cost of living crisis for students.” She provides examples of these positive developments, including the establishment of a group to discuss responses to the crisis by the Bursar and Registrar.

It appears as though the SU has a more positive and constructive relationship with University management under Professor Feely’s leadership. She informs us that there have been accommodation workshops, and more forums providing the SU with the opportunity to engage with management on addressing these issues: “There definitely is much more willingness from management to work with us, and to try and alleviate some of the pressure on students.”

“There definitely is much more willingness from management to work with us, and to try and alleviate some of the pressure on students.” - Ní Riada on the largely positive working relationship between the SU and the University Management Team, led by Professor Orla Feely. 

On the subject of the students’ movement, the conversation turned to the USI (Union of Students in Ireland). A referendum held last year sought to reintegrate UCDSU into the all-island USI organisation. However, the referendum failed due to low voter turnout, as the vote count failed to reach the required threshold. I ask Ní Riada what measures the SU might implement in order to boost voter turnout and student engagement in the future. She explained: “I think there’s a few factors to it. I think one of them is how the elections are done. We had three different referendums happening at the executive elections last time, along with sabbatical roles and college officer roles. There was just a lot on the ballot. And then also, last year we used an online voting system. You had to click in and out, and not everyone clicked through it. If someone’s told you to vote you’re just going to vote for them. If you don’t have enough interest in the other things then (...) people just didn’t bother casting a ballot. If everyone that voted voted in at least one of the races (had voted) in all of them then it would have passed quorum. I think that system had an issue. The actual mechanics of it, we’re going to try and make that better and maybe go back to paper ballots, because you can’t skip a paper ballot.”

“There’s lots of pros and cons to both sides. The other thing is, if we were to run another USI referendum we’d need more engagement from USI. There wasn’t a massive amount of engagement last year for the referendum. And, we need them to kind of push it as well; if they really do want UCD to join we really need them to push on it.” She also notes that USI was busy with its Congress meeting at the same time as the referendum, and that there weren’t enough personnel at the time to promote the referendum. Ní Riada argues that a future referendum campaign should have stronger engagement, with vibrant “yes” and “no” sides participating.

“If there isn’t a strong yes and no side, it’s hard for it to get traction. And I think this year, if we were to run it again, we need to make sure that there’s enough people that are willing to canvass and campaign who feel strongly on it on either side (...) if it’s fully considered and we’ve strong campaigners on both sides, that’s when election turnout is higher.”

I was interested to hear more of Ní Riada’ perspectives on policy, so I moved on to a hypothetical question. I asked her if (hypothetically) she had the opportunity to sit down with Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar to give her opinion on Budget 2024, what 3 policy areas would she like to see prioritised in the budget. “I want them to commit to building purpose-built student accommodation, fully-funded by the Government (...) a lot proportion (...) in each University, funded-fully by the state, because at the moment it’s funded fully by Universities, which means it’s funded fully by students, which it shouldn’t be. I think purpose-built student accommodation is the way to go because it’s too difficult for students to compete in the private rental sector. Students have different needs to others and I think they’re best placed in purpose-built student accommodation. On-campus preferably, but I know not all Universities have space on their campus like we do.”

“Then, I think, for the second one, it would be in relation to PhDs [research and teaching workers], to ensure that all stipends will go up to €29,000.” She acknowledges that it’s likely to only be increased to €25,000. She argues that any increase in funding for PhD researchers should be implemented in an equitable manner: “But also in line with the (increase) (...) for funding to Universities to be increased so that funding for so they can increase the funding for those PhDs, so there’s equity across all PhD researchers. (...) What we’re expecting to come out of the budget is that it’s going to be an increase to €25,000 but that’s only to FFI and IRSC funded PhDs. But there’s a big proportion that won;t get an increase.”

She moves onto her third idea for what she would say if she were able to contribute to the Budget debate: “I think my final one is to increase the Minimum Wage to the Living Wage. I feel that’s something that could impact on a lot of people.”

We conclude the interview. Martha has shared a lot of interesting points of view on the situation 

facing students this year, and on the work of the SU. I ask her what her outlook for the year is: “I think we just have to do as much as we can! (...) We’re trying to focus this year on a lot of the basics as well. We put a big push on the class rep nominations and elections this year, because that’s so important: that we have a strong council, and that we think on these basic things. But it does take work to make sure that they run well.” She discusses the events and campaigns organised by the SU, including the largely successful Freshers’ Ball (“it went well, we sold a lot of tickets for that, and it’s just nice to have those on-campus events for students to create community-building.”).

She also discusses the work of the SU on the digs campaigns, housing policy, and various other protests and events. “Something else I’d like to work on is Transport (...).” She tells me she met with Professor Feeley earlier to discuss the issue of transport: “I think this is something that the University and the student population need to work on together. The NTA isn’t controlled by UCD, but it affects everyone here, if you’re staff or a student. Everyone is affected by the quality of public transport. On so many grounds: the cost of living, sustainability, student experience. (...) But yeah, I’m hoping to get another workshop together, similar to the housing one, on public transport, but also parking.” She discusses the lacking availability of parking options for student commuters, and acknowledges that some students may need to drive due to the housing crisis, but also recognises the need for better public transport options in the interests of environmental sustainability.

She discusses various options through which members of the UCD community could work together to promote better and more sustainable transport solutions, such as commuter hubs and consultations: “This is where I see good staff-student collaboration. I feel like we actually could work together well. (...) Before we’ve had town halls, but it’s mostly been on the student side, whereas we need to get staff (involved).” She argues that engineers, city planners, and people involved in the transport sector could also play a collaborative role in promoting greater transport solutions. 

After our chat on Monday, I’m interested to see how things develop for the sabbatical team, and how the SU will respond to the Government’s budgetary decisions. It’s still early days for the new team, and indeed, for the new University President. But with an exciting year ahead, we will be following the work of both the SU and UCD management with great interest.

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