Controversy at USI congress as delegate is removed for abortion vote

Catherine Healy
College Affairs Correspondent

A delegate from Queen’s University, Belfast, to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) National Congress has been barred from further participation in the Congress after voting against the union’s position on the issue of abortion. Aisling Gallagher, the NUS-USI Womens’ Officer, had her delegate status removed and was cautioned against re-entering the conference room yesterday as a result of her voting in favour of continuing USI’s work on combating rogue crisis pregnancy agencies.

The motion in question mandated the USI Welfare Officer to protest against agencies that misinform and intimidate pregnant women with the sole aim of preventing them from seeking abortions. It also mandated the Welfare Officer to lobby for the introduction of legislation in this area.

Ms. Gallagher had earlier voted in favour of another pro-choice motion and was cautioned that any further breach would result in the removal of her delegate card. Aside from her position as a delegate for Queen’s University, Ms. Gallagher is also the Women’s Officer for NUS-USI, an organisation formed by the National Union of Students UK (NUS-UK) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), to represent third-level students in Northern Ireland.

Queen’s University Students’ Union (QUBSU) adopted a neutral position on abortion in December of this academic year after passing a motion which noted that it is a ‘highly divisive issue and a matter for each individual’s conscience’. The motion was voted on by class representatives at a meeting of the SU Council without any referendum or preferendum having taken place.

Following the death of Savita Halappanavar, QUBSU also amended a motion of condolence to exclude any reference to the X-Case and abortion rights. Ciarán McKinley, the president of the college’s pro-life society, had argued at the debate on its amendment that the motion was potentially defamatory.

Though Queen’s SU Constitution does not explicitly prohibit student delegates ‘breaking mandate’ at conferences, a briefing meeting took place before USI Congress to advise delegates of the requirement to vote according to current QUBSU policy. It is understood that these arrangements were approved in late February to ensure delegate compliance at the Congress by the college’s executive management committee, consisting of the SU’s seven sabbatical officer as well its Director and Deputy Director.

Speaking to this reporter, QUBSU President, Jason O’Neill said, “Our policy at Queen’s University is to regard live policy as mandate. Delegates were pointed to the pro-choice motions before Congress and warned that they had to vote as democratic representatives of the student body.”

He added that, “There have been precedents in the past where students have had to vote according to mandate. Delegates were told that they could abstain on motions. We have nothing against someone speaking their mind.”

He said that Ms. Gallagher will remain in Ballinasloe, Co. Galway, where the USI Congress is taking place, until tomorrow and commented that it would be “improper to send a delegate home”.

At the time of writing, Ms. Gallagher was still seeking to put in an emergency motion of support that would grant her readmission to the conference. She was not available for comment today but has stated on her Twitter account that only two QUBSU delegates have supported her position. A statement issued by Jason O’Neill has stated that “the actions of the individual in question will be considered by the Students’ Union Council on 18 April 2013”.