The blockade last week of Minister Martin Cullen’s visit to the University of Limerick has been undermined by accusations that his eventual entry onto campus had been pre-planned by the UL Students’ Union without the knowledge of the student body.
The minister was due to attend the opening of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s (ICO) new building on the UL campus on Monday 17th last. The UL students’ union planned to hold a protest whereby they would block the minister’s access to the building hence preventing him from attending. As the site of the new building is accessed by crossing the river Shannon, the blockade was set up on Thomond Bridge, the only other access being the “Living Way” pedestrian bridge. This action follows a number of recent protests and blockades, and was aimed at expressing objection to plans by Minister for Education Batt O’Keefe to reintroduce third level fees or to raise registration charges for students by 67%.
National and local newspapers have reported that up to four hundred students turned out in the poor weather at Thomond Bridge. Traffic was allowed to pass until the Minister’s car came within sight at which point the students blocked the bridge, forcing the car to slow down and eventually make a U-turn and leave. The Minister then proceeded to the three hundred and fifty metre-long pedestrian bridge by which he gained access to the concert hall.
The UL Students’ Union has declared the protest a success. ULSU president Pa O’Brien is quoted as saying “What we set out to achieve here today was to erect a barrier to the Minister just as his government has erected a barrier to our education”
Despite this reaction, the organisation Free Education for Everyone (FEE) posted an article on their website the following Wednesday with a different account of the events. The article in question claimed that the Students’ Union had in fact made an agreement between themselves and the Gardai stipulating that the Minister would drive up to the students, then seemingly abandon his attempt to access the site. The Minister would however be allowed uncontested entry by the Living Way pedestrian bridge. As a result Mr Cullen would have acknowledged the protest, but would be able to proceed to the opening ceremony.
In the Limerick Leader newspaper of Tuesday 18th November, the Minister is quoted as saying “There was an agreement that we would go up, recognise them, which is fine, I have no issue with that, and then I would walk across the bridge and I enjoyed the walk”
Eugene O’Callaghan, a third year UL architecture student confirmed that in the email sent to students by the ULSU, the union seemed adamant about the fact that they were going to block the Minister’s access to the new ICO building.
The claims made in the article, which was also posted on the website
indymedia.com by Emma Beckett, a member of FEE, have been strongly denied by O’Brien. In an interview with Trinity News on Thursday last, Mr
O’Brien stated that no agreement had been made with the Gardai or with the minister. O’Brien went on to state that the original blockade on Thomond Bridge went ahead despite a threat by the Gardai that an attempt to block vehicles would result in arrests. The members of the Students’ Union also declined a private meeting to negotiate their dispersal after they had been on the bridge for an hour.
Beckett’s article describes how upon realising that the students’ union had negotiated with the minister to facilitate his entry via the footbridge, a group of students continued to the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s new building in order to block Mr Cullen’s access. They were too late however and according to the Irish Examiner some students were forcefully restrained by armed members of the Gardai.
When asked about the events in Limerick, Gary Barrett of FEE stated “In our opinion, the protest was unsuccessful. In the press release issued on the morning of the protest, ULSU stated that their aim was to “block access to the opening” of the Irish Chamber Orchestra building. The Union negotiated with the Gardai, on Martin Cullen’s behalf, a scenario were the minister would be allowed unhindered access to the building in return for driving up to the protest and being seen to do a U-turn. The U-turn was subsequently presented to protesters on the bridge as a victory, despite the fact that the Union, contrary to its stated objective, had allowed Cullen access to the building. None of this was communicated by the SU to its membership. We find this unacceptable.”
O’Brien stated that members of the SU were indeed on the footbridge during the blockade, but it was only after the Minister’s car made its U-turn that the decision was made not to stop him passing by the “Living Way” as there were further threats of possible arrests if they were to do so. It was also felt that the students had made their point and it would be unnecessary to ruin the ICO’s event.
The group that proceeded to the ICO were a breakaway group and were informed of this fact by the SU, at which point most of those who had proceeded there, according to O’Brien stuck around simply to see what was happening. He also explains that the Union organised food for the protesters and not alcohol as has been suggested.
The Students’ Union president has claimed that the Minister’s comment to the Limerick Leader was false and that it may have been the source of the accusations in the article published on the FEE website the next day. He also strongly criticised the FEE over this, suggesting some of their members seem to be trying to split the campaign and that some people present on Monday were simply looking to be arrested. O’Brien states “The FEE is saying that the Minister is the trustworthy party, not the Students’ Union.” He also drew attention to the headline in Tuesday’s Irish Examiner: “Armed detectives disperse student protest against university fees hike”. O’Brien claims this was the only negative press received in the national or regional newspapers and he presses the point that “this [negative press] is not what we need”
FEE, the organisation behind this criticism, is originally made up of students and staff from University College Dublin. They claim to have a good working relationship with the students’ union there. The group has only recently set up in Limerick and although it helped with the promotion of Monday’s protest, it had no involvement with its organisation. The group states that its aims are “the building of a mass activist grassroots student campaign to fight the attempt to bring in fees and fight for genuinely free education.”
The FEE campaign has also spread to Trinity College Dublin, NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, and University College Cork. The events in Limerick follow recent successful attempts by the group to stop members of the government entering the UCD campus. This includes forcing Minister of State Conor Lenihan to withdraw from attending a debate hosted by the university’s Literary and Historical Society on 12th November last. Mary Hanafin, Minister for Social and Family Affairs also recently pulled out of an Ógra Fianna Fáil meeting in UCD having cited security costs as the reason.
The website of ULSU posted a report on the day’s events. It quotes ULSU President Pa O’Brien as claiming after the protest that, “from today no government Minister will come on campus unimpeded.”