Former student activists look back on Garda brutality and USI neglect in wake of 2010 march

Stacey Wrenn interviews two students about the student march in November 2010 in Dublin against the proposed increase in fees and cuts in state expenditure on third level education

FEATURESOn the 3rd November 2010, up to 40,000 students marched in Dublin against the proposed increase in fees and cuts in state expenditure on third level education. By the 9th November, the Garda Síochána Ombudsman had received 28 complaints of police brutality. Media reports of the protest varied in detailing the event, with some accounts contradicting others — particularly those of the occupation of the Department of Finance which was carried out by a breakaway group from the original passive protest. Then President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Gary Redmond, a known member of Ógra Fianna Fáil, publically condemned the actions of the protestors and claimed that they were not representative of the USI. During a time where Trinity College Student’s Union are attempting to be more involved in students grassroots movements, with an official mandate to oppose student loans and an increase in fees, it is important to question their role in the past and how students feel about the parent-union USI and their respective student unions.

Trinity News spoke to two students involved in the protest, now student teachers, to give their accounts of the occupation and the resulting violence suffered by both them and those who remained on the march.

ANONYMOUS, FORMER UCD (University College Dublin) 

Anonymous was a part of the group who broke away and occupied the Department of Finance. In this interview they describe what happened that day from their perspective.

You were one of the students involved in the occupation. Can you describe what happened?

The occupation was a relatively spontaneous one. There was some talk prior to the march among FEE (Free Education for Everyone) as to what action could be taken on the day, but several ideas were floated and nothing was particularly decided upon. The FEE Block was made up of maybe 100 students on a march of 40,000, and some were skeptical of the impact it could have. Despite this, a plan was formed en route to break away from the main march on Nassau Street and congregate outside the Dáil (which the official march had intentionally avoided). Several hundred students followed suit and a militant atmosphere spread among the crowd. A few people had scouted ahead and noticed the Department of Finance was open, so it was decided to enter peacefully and begin a sit down protest.

A few dozen managed to make their way in, while the hundreds outside were soon joined by hundreds more who became alerted to the news and broke away from the official march. The mood was positive and a general plan was drawn up on the spot. We were, as a group, going to draft demands and decide a time that afternoon to end the occupation. The mood and plan changed when after a half hour or so we saw Garda horses and the Public Order Unit dispersing much of the crowd outside by force. They then began extracting people forcefully, one by one, from the lobby of the department. I was at the back and saw many people handled with excessive force, with one woman being knocked unconscious. When it came to me, I was grabbed the neck and thrown on the ground. A Garda knelt on my chest and hit me across the side of the head, saying that he had wanted to do that since seeing us outside the Dáil previously.

Once the occupation had cleared after a flurry of panic and confusion, students peacefully lined up in front of the Garda line. A cheerful atmosphere developed with chanting and drumming, this was soon replaced however by a Garda charge which saw people chased down the length of Stephen’s Green, many tripping or being assaulted by the Gardaí. A few dozen of us also lodged complaints with the Garda Ombudsman but, unsurprisingly, the complaints went nowhere.

The USI condemned the actions of the students who clashed with the police at the protest. How did hearing your union say that make you feel?

The USI’s condemnation was not unsurprising. At the time it was very much a breeding ground for Fianna Fáil. Gary Redmond, its president at the time, was a well know Fianna Fáil man along with many of its executive. There was longstanding resentment between FEE and USI. Many of those involved with USI were the same who were involved when the UCDSU advised students to pass the picket placed on the University by lecturers in 2009.

Do you think that student activism has changed since 2010? If so, how, and do you see that as a positive or a negative?

Student as a whole have tended to become more politicised since 2010. Many of those in third level in 2010 have grown up with the Celtic Tiger and did not altogether appreciate the destructiveness of austerity. Students now have lived their teenage years in crisis and, as such, are forced to be more aware of their position in society. This manifests itself too in issues such as marriage equality and Repeal the Eighth Amendment.

In terms of organised student activity, the USI has taken a shift away from Fianna Fáil, which is demonstrated in its retraction of condemnation of the 2010 action. Student activism generally has a short lifespan. The vast majority of those involved in 2010 are no longer students and the movements go up and down in sharp spikes. Fundamentally however, it has not changed significantly in terms of tactics or orientation by students on the radical left.

Students Against Fees (SAF) supported the TUI (Teachers’ Union of Ireland) strike in DIT (Dublin Institute of Technology) earlier this year. With the ASTI’s (Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland) strike action still in people’s memories, do you think that a united front between students and teachers is the best way to save education in this country?

There is often a disconnect between educators and students on matters arising like this. I think it’s vital that both stand in solidarity with each other against any form of attack. I’m a member of the ASTI and have made sure to explain to my secondary school students the reasons why the strikes were taking place. It seems simple but the vast majority had no idea of the details. In involving them in a discussion about it, it made them think and link their priorities with those of their teachers.

MEGAN CONLON O’REILLY, FORMER NCAD (National College of Art and Design)

Megan had a somewhat different experience to Anonymous in that she was not part of the occupation, but she still faced the violent backlash from the riot Gardaí for being in the vicinity.

Can you describe what your experience of the protest was that day?

I marched with my college, NCAD. We spent some time preparing ourselves at college beforehand: we painted placards, drummers rehearsed and we ran through a few chants before setting off to join the other students on the march. The march concluded with a demonstration led by Gary Redmond, USI President. It felt hollow in comparison to the passion and energy we had felt on the streets. Towards the final moments of the demo, Redmond led the crowd with a message to the Irish government, an air-punching chant that left a sour taste in our mouths: “I AM A VOTE! I AM A VOTE! I AM A VOTE!”

We looked skeptically at each other, in partial laughter, but a genuine discomfort struck me over being represented by someone who seemed to have such a careerist attitude. I was furious to be referred to as a “vote” and this fight for free education was NOT motivated by furthering any political career. We certainly did not feel represented by the USI in their placid approach to such an enormous issue, but this distrust deepened when they publicly abandoned us following situation which arose moments later.

The demo dispersed and we (myself and four or so friends) found ourselves around the side of the Department of Finance. We moved through the crowd, and I saw a girl being dragged by two Gardaí, one holding her arms, the other her legs, and she was dropped hard the street. They left her with no supervision or aid, although she was clearly unresponsive. We witnessed students being hit with batons, completely unprovoked. A friend of mine rushed to [the girl’s] assistance and then disappeared as riot Gardaí suddenly formed a line in front of us. Mounted Gardaí came at a canter at us from the right. The horses tightened us in threateningly, and a sudden hoof came down painfully on my boot. I looked up seeing a 16hh white horse chomping at the bit above my head, seeming frightened by the chaos. I kept my hands up to try protect my head from the hooves and enormous body of the horse. We were slowly being trampled and getting pushed back, although there was nowhere we could go.

From the front, the riot Gardaí began another sudden hard push on us, forcing their shields up, compressing quickly into the crowds. I noticed students being whipped out by Gardaí from the space between the tarmac road and the shields. The students attempted to hold on to their friends for safety, but one by one they were aggressively torn from the crowd. When it came to me there was little to no space to move but I balled up my body as tight as I could, thinking it was less likely I’d get injured that way. Hands grabbed and pulled at my ankles, trying to take my legs from under me. Then, feeling what felt like a fist hitting hard to the side of my left knee, my legs gave way and my ankles were pulled sharply. I was dragged from underneath the shields, my head whacking the tough plastic on the way out. I was dragged out by the Gardaí, by my ankles and arms, and was dropped onto my knees and left on the side of the road. I was stunned but was told by a Garda to “move off.” He then ignored me and turned back to the crowd. Dizzy, it took me time to get my bearings. I had to find my friends. I had to move.

The USI condemned the actions of the students who clashed with the police at the protest. How did hearing your union say that make you feel?

We were furious. They should have supported us in what happened, but by washing their hands clean of us, we knew more than ever that they were not acting in our interests, or offering any kind of support. They did not represent us, but themselves as individuals. [Afterwards], we at NCAD took on new strategies, hosting later protests.

Do you think that student activism has changed since 2010. If so, how, and do you see that as a positive or a negative?

Since 2010, I have both observed and have been a part of a number of activist events/protests/educational strikes and I definitely think student activism is improving on a broad scale. That said, on a more local scale I hugely commend NCAD Student Action for their powerful activism against the corruption that went on in NCAD. Their creative protests truly brought in change to their college, as they could not be ignored.

Maintaining momentum is crucial to activism; to ensure that an issue is not kept to a single annual day of mass protest, but to keep the pressure consistent until changes are made. Ireland is in a position of great social change at the moment, where transport workers, teachers, nurses, gardaí and students are refusing to be trampled. No issue stands alone. Supporting each other is crucial to the instigation of lasting change.

Stacy Wrenn

Stacy Wrenn is a staff writer and a Senior Sophister Jewish and Islamic Civilisations student.