At first the debate over unification may seem too abstract to be of any real concern to students. This is far from the case. Irish unification relates to a number of student issues including fees, student debt and Erasmus. As a student from Northern Ireland I am only too aware of my stake in Trinity’s unification “preferendum” and its implications. Unification would massively benefit students from Northern Ireland by removing many of the barriers we face but it would also benefit students from the south seeking to study in Northern Ireland as well.
The biggest challenge facing students from Northern Ireland right now is Brexit. The UK-wide vote to leave the European Union was unexpected and presents problems for students. This is perhaps why 85% of students who voted in the Brexit referendum last year voted to remain in the EU.
The effects of Brexit are already being felt before the Article 50 process for exit has been triggered by the British government. The value of the pound plummeted after the Brexit referendum and has yet to reach its pre-referendum strength. The weaker pound is already hitting students from Northern Ireland as we see our ability to pay for rent, food and next year’s student contribution fees diminish. Unification would integrate Northern Ireland into the euro and bring peace of mind to students across the country.
“I currently pay €3,000 a year in student contribution fees; however this could rise to €17,960 or more when the UK leaves the EU.”
But the Brexit jack-in-the-box carries yet more surprises. Not only has the value of the pound decreased, students from Northern Ireland could see their student contribution fees soar as we lose our EU citizenship. On par with students from the Republic of Ireland, I currently pay €3,000 a year in student contribution fees, however this could rise to €17,960 or more as the UK leaves the EU. It is not clear whether students from Northern Ireland could qualify as Irish for the purposes of EU fees when Brexit occurs, however, the non-EU fees are a very real possibility. This would also place a burden on students from the Republic that could see their contribution fees increase in order to subsidise non-EU fees for students from Northern Ireland.
In addition, students from Northern Ireland could lose their right to participate in the very successful Erasmus programme without paying crippling fees for the same reason (a right I currently enjoy as I write from my desk in Leuven, Belgium). Until the negotiations have been made and the UK leaves the EU in two year’s time, we can’t know for certain the extent of the costs that Brexit will impose.. What we do know is that Brexit will be costly for students in particular.
Although Brexit is reason enough to give unification some serious consideration, the case for Irish unity extends beyond this. Student loans are another issue that relate to unification. Students from Northern Ireland are eligible for student finance. When I started studying in Trinity, this meant that I received a loan to cover my student contribution fee and a modest maintenance grant to assist with the cost of living in Dublin, though the the cost of living in Dublin is anything but modest.
Last September, the Conservative government in the UK scrapped maintenance grants and replaced them with even more loans. While these loans are necessary to assist less well-off students in going to university, they leave students thousands of pounds in debt, even more so now that maintenance grants have been replaced with loans. As of January this year, TCDSU officially opposes income-contingent loan schemes. A supportive stance on unification would be consistent with this position and demonstrate the SU’s commitment to an exchequer-funded higher education system.
“Unification would extend same-sex marriage across the entire island of Ireland.”
The case for Irish unity also involves a number of progressive issues that concern students, namely same-sex marriage and abortion reform. I’m proud to be one of those that voted in favour of same-sex marriage in 2015. Conversely I’m ashamed that Northern Ireland, my home, remains stuck in the past. On the 5th November 2015, only a couple of weeks before same-sex marriage was enacted in the south, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) used the controversial petition of concern to veto same-sex marriage despite a majority of MLAs voting in favour of the motion. Although the DUP lost their 30 seat majority in last week’s Assembly election – a sure sign that the people of Northern Ireland want change – they could still form a pact with the conservative Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party and independent unionists to block a motion on marriage.
Unification would extend same-sex marriage across the entire island of Ireland and bring Northern Ireland into the 21st Century. Furthermore, even if the 8th Amendment were repealed tomorrow, women in Northern Ireland would still be forced to travel in order to access basic healthcare. The goal of unification isn’t just the end of partition; it is the end of barriers that have blocked progress across our island for decades, north and south.
It is clear that the debate over Irish unity should be of considerable concern to students. A vote against unity is a vote against progress. A neutral vote is a misnomer. Neutrality means implicit support for the status quo, division. Only a vote for unity promises progress and reconciliation, two things that Ireland needs the most. A vote for unity means that we will not rest on our laurels while our fellow students face an uncertain future. The question is, will you stand and have your voice heard?