Eyre Square march a washout

Editor of NUIG student newspaper, SIN, Kevin O’Connor, describes the estimated 3,000-strong student protest against the re-introduction of fees on October 2nd.

Editor of NUIG student newspaper, SIN, Kevin O’Connor, describes the estimated 3,000-strong student protest against the re-introduction of fees on October 2nd.

Many students who gathered outside the College Bar on Thursday, October 2nd, were disappointed when one of the heaviest rainfalls Galway has seen since last January began to fall. The mood was not dampened by the weather however, with around a thousand students, veteran protestors and first years alike, looking forward to a demonstration the likes of which has not been seen since the 2003 Iraq war protest or the protest against the registration fee hike. It is estimated that between eight hundred and twelve hundred NUIG students massed in and around Aras na Mac Leinn in preparation for the march into Eyre Square where they were met by the same number again of GMIT students. The crowd was warmed up and organised by Students’ Union representatives by handing out free t-shirts saying ‘No to fees’ and placards promoting a variety of slogans such as ‘Batt O’Keeffe = Education thief’ and ‘Education is a right, not a privilege’. Many students also brought along their own home-made placards for the occasion, including the obligatory ‘Down with this sort of thing’ and ‘Careful now’ and more militant slogans like ‘Resign Minister O’Keeffe’ or ‘Fuck Fees’.

At 1:30pm, the crowd began their march from the College Bar, in a single column walking along the path, herded by Union representatives in high visibility vests and chanting slogans into megaphones. The March from G.M.I.T was as well timed and executed as the one from NUIG, ensuring that the two masses met at almost exactly the same moment in front of the fountain in Eyre Square where a radio microphone and a PA system were already set up in preparation for the speeches, which formed the main focus of the demonstration. The torrential rain only got heavier and heavier however, meaning that plastic bags had to be placed over the speakers. The rain did not affect the numbers among the crowd though, with some estimates from the Students’ Unions placing the numbers at up to three thousand protestors, the Irish Times placed a conservative estimate of two thousand, with the lowest estimate of “no more than three hundred” obtained by Sin from one of the Gardaí who watched the protest from inside the comfort of their paddy wagon which was among one of the three police vehicles which maintained a subtle presence throughout the protest in case of trouble. The protest passed without even a hint of riotous behaviour however, with a carnival type atmosphere brought about by bongo drums and whistles causing many students to dance and chant to keep themselves warm while waiting for the sound system to be turned on. The President of the Union of Students of Ireland, Shane Kelly, set the tone for the event, by joining in with the rhyming chants started by the GMIT students; “G.M.I.T, we won’t pay no fucking fees!” before pleading for calm and beginning his speech; “We have experienced the biggest period of money wasting in our education system ever, and Batt O’Keefe wants to tell you that you have to pay fees because he misspent all his money. He wants to make you and your brothers and sisters scapegoats for the way they have wasted money”, which resulted in bouts of spontaneous applause and cheering from the assembled crowd, now huddled together for warmth facing the fountain with their banners held high. Kelly continued; “Today we send a very strong message to the government, we tell them that they will not pickpocket us. Students of Galway will stand with students of Dublin, Cork, Athlone and everywhere….” With cheers going up for every location mentioned only being interrupted by chants of “N. U. I. G, we won’t pay no fucking fees” repeated again and again by the crowd until they were hushed by the speaker who was gradually overcoming the struggle against the rain which was now coming down heavier than ever. “We will, today, with one voice, send a message to the minister; he can find his money somewhere else because we don’t have any. He won’t find the money in your pocket or mine. The only question is this, are we going to stand together and fight on?” followed again by uproars of mixed chants and slogans from the crowd. “This is a proud day for students. We’re here to tell the minister that it’s not our fault that he misspent his money, that it’s not our fault that some presidents of Universities have butlers…they can pick up their own socks and save a few quid. Let the message go forth that we as students will not be scapegoats and will not be bullied.”

Senator Fidelma Healy-Eames was on hand to accept the microphone from Kelly to continue the momentum which was now built up among the crowd. “These are strange times,” began Healy-Eames, the Fianna Gael spokesperson for education. “We are here to stand in solidarity with you. As you know, we were part of the government that abolished fees in the mid nineties. Since then, thousands of low income families can afford to finally send their kids to college, around twenty five per cent more students were enabled to go to college because of the abolition of fees.

She continued, “I am very concerned about the waste of public money by this government; I hope your future isn’t at risk. We are calling the seven heads of the universities in Ireland before the education committee next Thursday (Oct 9th) to ask them to account for their spending. Minister Batt O‘Keefe has said that his plan will only target higher earners…” the mention of the Education Minister’s name brought forth a tirade of booing and scorn from the crowd which lasted for almost a solid minute before being calmed by the councillor. “Listen please, this is important, his claim is false, this plan is the thin edge of the wedge. We know from experience that if the floodgates of fees are opened, that this will only be the beginning. It will be middle income families that will be targeted if fees come in. We have to say no to fees because this country needs an educated workforce.” In a display of appreciation for the councillor on her ending note, there was an eruption of applause that she has surely seldom heard outside a Fianna Gael rally, with the whistles and drums starting up again, amplifying the cheers and applause.

Green party City Councillor Niall O’Brolcháin said on behalf of his party, “I just want to say one thing, the Greens are in the Government at the moment, and I can tell you for sure that we do not support the reintroduction of fees.” O’Brolcháin continued after the crowd died down, “[the Green party] supports, students, we need a vibrant economy and it’s an investment in education, not a taxing of it that is required.” He added, “The greens represent a very academic, intellectual constituency, so we would like to make it clear that we are doing everything possible to look after their (students’) needs. I was delighted to see so many students coming out today, especially considering the weather. We need to be investing further in education, not against it. I hope the students keep up the fight because it is an important issue.”

After the protest, Sin caught up with SU president Muireann O’Dwyer to ask how she thought the day went overall; “A very strong message was sent by the protest, to have so many students march through monsoon like rains and then to stand in the cold in Eyre Square to display their opposition to fees was a great sight to see. The whole crowd seemed to agree that it was just plain unreasonable to ask students to pay even more for third level. Hopefully the Minister will take heed of their worries, and we can soon see an end to this hair-brained notion.”