Why the Yes to USI campaign failed

Former auditor of the L&H Eoin MacLachlan outlines why UCD students chose to remain disaffiliated from the Union of Students in Ireland

COMMENTThe rejection of USI by UCD students was primarily due to a rushed and ineffective Yes to USI campaign, a product of hubris and ineptitude. Announced only two weeks prior to the UCDSU elections, they were arrogant in thinking that a fortnight was a sufficient period of time for them to convince thousands of students to part with their money, and they went about it in a disorganised manner. Almost three in four UCD voters (74%) decided to remain outside the national union.

The campaign to rejoin USI took place side by side with the lacklustre SU election season, where only one of the sabbatical positions, Campaigns & Communications, was contested. Poor communication of information, disorganisation and shortsightedness doomed the Yes side to an embarrassing result. The process to call a referendum in UCD requires some 900 signatures. The Yes side did not even manage to match their vote on the day with that initial signature requirement.

Despite the trouncing at the polls, the campaign to reaffiliate had an important strategic advantage in this contest. It was thought that the reaffiliation referendum wouldn’t take place until next year, as UCDSU are required to hold a referendum on the issue every four years. Instead, some students took it upon themselves to gather the necessary signatures to initiate the referendum process early.

At the time of announcement, there was no campaign apparatus to lobby students to remain outside USI. Given this, one would assume that No to USI would have been hampered by the need to play catch up with the efforts of the opposing side. This seemed to be no impediment to their work, with a group of students quickly coming together to deny Yes to USI the result they wanted. While no formal structure seems to have evolved in the No camp, a number of prominent students were involved, such as Megan Fanning (former UCDSU presidential candidate and founder of the UCD Economics Society) and Fionnán Long (former treasurer of UCD’s Law Society).

Rushed campaign

The primary mistake of Yes to USI was the rushed nature of the campaign. They were accused by the No camp of bypassing UCDSU and its elected representatives. The Yes side have argued that they were simply following the procedures required to initiate a referendum. Nonetheless, the sudden emergence of the campaign, with only two weeks to go, left them vulnerable to claims that the operation was a power grab, taking advantage of the unpreparedness of their opposition.

I believe this didn’t sit well with many students, who were unhappy at the prospect of having a referendum unfairly foisted upon them. Irrespective of the merits of joining, many students’ reaction was to automatically vote no in retaliation to what felt like manipulation.

The rushed nature of the campaign had further negative implications for Yes to USI. It made it much more difficult to communicate the advantages that they claimed USI offers. It was said that UCD is unable to contribute to national policy development, with bodies such as the HEA or SUSI. No to USI countered these claims with references to initiatives like the recent collaboration between the UCD, TCD and DIT student unions on the “What’s in the Pill?” campaign. This project saw the three unions and the Ana Liffey Drug Project work together on the issue of harm reduction from drugs.

No to USI also highlighted the successful voter registration drive by the UCDSU last year for the Same Sex Marriage Referendum, alleging that it registered a higher proportion of the students in UCD than USI managed across their constituent bodies. This proved to be untrue, sparking claims of misrepresentations and falsehoods from USI, which continue to this week, with USI President Kevin Donoghue stating that the No side “essentially made up” a number of figures. While No to USI rescinded this particular claim, the two sides bickered over a number of others, such as the progress made on USI reforms which were promised three years ago following UCD’s disaffiliation.

Descent into spats

I am uncertain which side was correct about each point. However, the No to USI Facebook page descended into spats between representatives from each side, including a number of elected USI officials. This spectacle confirmed to many students that they hadn’t the necessary information to make a decision. While both campaigns came across poorly from the exchanges, it fed into another No to USI claim that USI officials were illegitimately intervening in the process. The UCDSU’s rules prevent sitting UCD sabbatical officers and outside officials from taking part in the process.

Yes to USI impaired their own ability to explain the more subtle policy work they do on a national level with their unexpected campaign. A longer run-in period would have allowed them to articulate the work they do on a daily basis. This strategic blunder allowed them to be characterised as ineffective.

Without time to make students aware of the work they do, No to USI were able to point to USI’s lack of presence in the national debate in the lead up to the election to call for lower fees for students. The relentless rise of fees over the last number of years is no doubt a function of the economic decline in Ireland, but it was easily portrayed as being assisted by the ineptness of USI. It was Yes to USI who needed the time to communicate the benefits they bring, and they gave themselves the absolute minimum time possible to do that, only two weeks.

Yes to USI were thus doubly hurt on the issue of time. They were unable to have the more nuanced debate they needed and were cast as undemocratic and opportunistic. No to USI were able to point to a number of eye-catching issues, such as the financial contribution UCD students would have to make to the national union. As Ireland’s largest university, the financial contribution required for USI, between student fees and the cost of sending a delegation to USI Congress, is north of €100,000. This was an accessible argument, tangible in a manner in which the vague claims of Yes to USI simply weren’t.

In a rushed campaign with little time for detail, the ambiguous benefit of a seat at the table in national policy formation loses out to a striking financial cost. This was one of the primary considerations in the campaign to leave three years ago, when I was a first year student, and it remained so this time.

Student apathy

This year has not been a good one for UCDSU. It began with the controversial election of Marcus O’Halloran as SU President, following revelations concerning his Facebook activity. He had liked a page, the content of which would conservatively be called sexist.

The recent campaign season has been dull, with only one position contested, that of Campaigns & Communications. For this reason, the perennial problem of apathy in relation to student politics has been especially acute. Yes to USI needed to excite students and engage them with the benefits USI has to offer. Instead, they rushed through a referendum, bickered online and failed to provide reasons to vote Yes in a process which felt like an opportunistic power grab.

Additionally, while I say this anecdotally, their organisation felt light on the ground in comparison to the No to USI team, who had far less time to prepare. Unsurprisingly, the referendum was an embarrassing rout with USI and Yes to USI unable to do anything but claim that mistruths were told and that it was unfair. At best this failure may serve as a blueprint on how not to approach this process again in a number of years.