This editorial was written before Duges met with the CSC on Monday for a discussion about restrictions placed upon their political activities. Those ultimately led to Duges shelving plans to attend a remembrance march for Savita Halappanavar, a woman who died unnecessarily because of a the state’s position on abortion. It was a march which, for this reason, was the biggest pro-choice rally in Ireland since the early 1990s but which had no official presence from this university. Below, we seek to outline the concerns and questions from students arising from our lead story.
In this paper’s view, the CSC’s problems with Duges campaigning on a pro-choice platform exist for one of two reasons: either they are derived from an understanding of the place of student politics within Trinity in general, or an aversion to student societies dealing with the politics of abortion.
Consider the former possibility; the CSC told Trinity News that “all societies have their remits examined and clarified in a meeting with the CSC executive prior to their establishment”. They continued that “this is a necessary part of the establishment of all new societies”.
This suggests that scope of activity for societies is dictated by the CSC on a case-by-case basis, and not in a standardised way. If that is the case, it affords the organisation a lot of power over student activity in College, which it is free to exercise subjectively. The result of this is that at the executive meeting at which Duges was founded in 2006, a gender-equality society was given a remit that reduced it to a discussion forum.
Why was this done? It could be that this was an attempt to assert an opinion on the place for student politics within Trinity. A CSC statement on the Duges issue said: “TCDSU is the only representative body for all students in Trinity College, Dublin and as such political advocacy on behalf of students of Trinity College, Dublin necessarily falls under their remit.”
“If the scope of activity for societies is dictated by the CSC on a case-by-case basis it affords the organisation a lot of power over student activity in College, which it is free to exercise subjectively.”
It continued by emphasising that societies were not “representative bodies”, and that this was the reason why they could not “espouse corporate opinions”. This means that they cannot advocate in an organised fashion on issues. The effect of this policy – if this is what the CSC intend, and if it were to be enforced – would be the restriction of organised political activities in Trinity College to the Students’ Union.
There are several concerns with this. First of all, it leaves student politics in Trinity highly mediated by authority. The Students’ Union is integrated into College’s hierarchy. College authorities facilitate membership to it, and its funding. But there is a quid pro quo: they get significant influence on the boundaries of student politics within the college.
Secondly, it channels student politics through a very narrow corridor. The Students’ Union has been depoliticised over recent years in Trinity, with a pervasive (though not universal) myopia about what are and are not “student issues”. It will take time to change direction on this front, particularly because one contributory factor is student disengagement and apathy.
The Students’ Union is also a bureaucratic organisation, and necessarily so. In order to act on an issue at all, it has to pass a carefully-worded mandate at a council meeting which happens at a given time and must fulfil certain criteria. To institute long-term policy, it has to have a referendum. Because it is a representative body of all students in College, it has to err on the side of communitarianism and eschew emphatic statements where possible. While these qualities may reinforce its democratic mandate and help it maintain legitimacy as a service-providing body, they also limit its scope for political activity. It should not be the sole arena of student politics. If it is, then the political culture will be turgid and much activity will be stifled.
“The Students’ Union should not be the sole arena for student politics.”
A third problem with this policy is its imposition of homogeneity onto student politics. Where does this leave minority political opinion? If politics were restricted to the SU, it would condemn minority opinion to continued defeat and irrelevance. This would be corrosive to student politics, and potentially exclusionary too.
But questions must also be asked about definitions. What constitutes political activity? Why is the fact that the Students’ Union is “the only representative body for all students” relevant? Many – particularly in societies like Q-Soc or the Muslim Student Association, which deal with aspects of people’s identities that are tightly-held but not widely-shared – may feel more accurately represented by those groups. Why should they not be able to engage in activity with them on important social issues?
But these questions engage the CSC’s policy as if it is consistent, when it is not. Q-Soc is an equality-oriented society based on sexual orientation, just as Duges is one based on gender. Q-Soc engages in “LGBTQ equality campaigns” and has a specific campaigns co-ordinator who is in charge of organising “awareness and protest campaigns”, including last year one for civil marriage. The group has also attended Dublin’s Pride parade march under a Trinity Q-Soc banner.
It is clear that the CSC is not limiting the organised political activity of all societies, even on the issue of reproductive rights. Trinity Labour introduced its party’s national motion on the X-case at the Labour party conference earlier this year. By the time we go to print, Trinity Young Fine Gael may have endorsed X-case legislation at its meeting on Monday. But if organised student political activity in societies is restricted to parties, what about the vast majority of Irish people who are not members of any?
“The debate over reproductive rights has not existed for a limited period of time. Pope Sixtus V developed the Catholic church’s position on the subject in the 16th century.”
But, again, even this is not the full story. Societies like Flac and Amnesty International, who have external parent organisations, are permitted to engage in political activity. None of these CSC positions offer a consistent or satisfactory reason for preventing Duges from espousing a pro-choice position and attending a march on that mandate.
Either the CSC policy is scatter-gun inconsistent, or there is something else going on. TN’s discussions with senior society members this week have emphasised uneasiness with controversy in the CSC. If politics are OK as long as they are not controversial, then the CSC is trivialising student politics. Certainly there is anecdotal evidence that issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict have been difficult to organise on, and the college attempted to stop republican student organisations forming during the Troubles.
But there is another possibility, the only one which would seem to be make the pieces of this puzzle fit. The CSC is making a specific exception for abortion.
One indication of the possible centrality of abortion is the flimsy reasoning for opposing the establishment of explicitly pro- or anti-abortion societies in Trinity. In its response to Trinity News, the CSC argued that societies taking a stance on abortion would not “provide a long-term contribution to College life”. This, their statement said, was because “there is an inability for such societies to exist beyond a limited period of time surrounding national debates on the issue”.
The debate over reproductive rights has not existed for a limited period of time; it has existed for hundreds of years. Pope Sixtus V developed the Catholic church’s position on the subject in the 16th century. The first state to institute liberal abortion laws was the Soviet Union in 1919, over 90 years before Saturday’s march over Savita Halappanavar’s death and three years before the foundation of the Irish Free State.
“Restricting political activity on abortion to parties is, as is evidenced by the 20-year refusal of politicians in the Dáil to legislate for the X case, inefficient.”
Even if the issue’s lack of longevity cannot be the reason why the CSC steers clear of it, there are strong indications that it does. In 2008, after the CSC rejected a petition by pro-life students to found an anti-abortion society, the CSC’s then-treasurer, Edward Gaffney, commented that such a society “would never happen”. Trinity News records show that there have been a number of applications over decades, all rejected. All those associated with Duges with whom we spoke, including a former chairperson, said that it was their opinion that the CSC was particularly sensitive over the issue of abortion.
And the CSC’s current position amounts to a serious restriction on the capacity of student societies to campaign on abortion. Student societies cannot be established to campaign on it. The only existing student society whose remit could extend to campaigning on it is not permitted to do so. The remaining option is to engage with party political societies, which, to varying but significant degrees, will be restricted in their activities by parent parties. It is also unclear, given the apparently arbitrary nature of the CSC’s policies in this arena, to what extent these are allowed to campaign on abortion.
If it is the case that CSC has a specific aversion to societies dealing with abortion, pursuing its current course would seem sensible. Forcing students to join youth wings of political parties to campaign on the issue of reproductive rights obstructs effective organisation by placing it within the processes of larger, multi-faceted organisations. The same applies to channelling this activity into the Students’ Union. Restricting political activity on abortion to parties is, as is evidenced by the 20-year refusal of politicians in the Dáil to legislate for the X case, inefficient.
“The CSC’s actions, if they are designed to target abortion specifically, are consistent with a history of keeping abortion out of sight in Ireland.”
Some might say that the CSC is right to have concerns over abortion politics playing out in Trinity. After all, who would want to face the grotesque imagery that can accompany them as they walk through College? But there is no need for this to happen; preventive measures already exist. Section III 9B of the College’s general regulations state that poster images have “to comply with the College dignity and respect policy” and “not create an offensive or hostile environment for an individual or group in College, particularly in relation to any of the nine protected equality grounds”. This is similarly covered by the CSC’s own officer handbook.
But these concerns are exactly what those in the debate who use those images are looking to elicit. They want to create a climate of fear. One where TDs kick the can down the road, rather than doing their jobs as legislators; one where counsellors speak to young women in riddles for fear that, if they explicitly advocate abortion, they are one cynical fraudster with a tape recorder away from a court case; one where doctors do not feel certain that they can give women the treatment they need to save their lives.
The CSC’s actions, if they are designed to target abortion specifically, are consistent with a history of keeping abortion out of sight in Ireland; of packing women off to Britain on boats and planes, and restricting discussions to hushed tones. It creates a stigma around abortion, one that makes it harder for women facing crisis pregnancies. About one in 10 women in this country has had an abortion. Given that they are disproportionately under 30, it’s likely that a higher percentage of the female students you know in this College have had them.
It is important that students follow the developments between the CSC and Duges closely.
If the restriction has been put in place for general political reasons, it has serious consequences for student politics in Trinity. Students should reject it as unnecessary and paternalistic.
If it turns out that the CSC is maintaining an exception for societies who want to deal with the politics of abortion, they are part of the problem Ireland faces in dealing with this issue. They are restricting students’ capacity to engage in organised political action on an important issue while maintaining that more trivial activities are permissible. Students should ensure that this is an unsustainable position.
In either case, it comes back to this: tomorrow there will be another vigil outside the Dáil for Savita Halappanavar, the woman whose preventable and political death Duges was prevented from marking by the CSC on Saturday. We should reflect on all of the small steps that could have been taken, over decades, to prevent what happened in Galway; on all of the times people who should have organised and agitated on this issue were met with restrictions and backed down. It is the aggregate of all of those small steps that makes the difference. And, as Duges went into its meeting with the CSC yesterday evening, it is clear that there are steps that are yet to be taken in this college.