Panel Discussion on Political Activism

The Burke Sessions, in association with TCDSU Lobby Group, host a panel discussion on political activism in Ireland today

On Monday evening, the College Historical Society, in association with the newly founded TCDSU Lobby Group, hosted a panel discussion on Political activism. The event was a part  The Burke Sessions a series of panel discussions run by a subcommittee of the Hist.

Annabel O’Rourke gave an intro to the event and highlighted the recent success of the repeal movement in Trinity following last week’s strike, as an example of student activism.

Kieran McNulty, current President of TCDSU, explained his view that the SU is a ‘conduit’ to help people get more engaged in political activism. He bas been involved in student activism since coming to Trinity,  but in earlier years it mostly involved marching and social media campaigns. So he set up TCDSU activism group, to take a more hands on approach to enacting social change. Since then they have been invited to speak to the Oireachtas. The Input of the students has been taken on board, such as the March for Education where students challenged rising fees.

The first speakers were on Direct Provision. Memet Uludag, Member of People Before Profit and Prominent Activist in the “End Direct Provision” Campaign, opened the discussion with his own insights into activism.

He argued that political activism is about people power. It’s not a lifestyle – its “how much you believe in that project”. When it comes to direct provision, originally a temporary measure, the government is not listening. The lobbying against direct provision, he argues, is a “seriously important learning process” where we must inform ourselves and try to change.  During the process of this fight, people have gained more of a sense of what it is to suffer under direct provision.

The “streets are a great platform for raising our courage” as political activism can be like “swimming against the current”.

There are clear links between the various issues activists campaign for today, such as the fact  women in direct provision can’t access abortion even in secret

Uludag emphasises that the work of campaigning meant that they had to “politicise the issue, publicise the issue” to get people to start producing arguments for and against it. It was also important to bring this into his own party, PBP.

It is not up to the people in the direct provision centres, who are denied any kind of social existence in Ireland, to campaign against it, Uludag clarified. It is our responsibility.

The issue of Direct Provision Goes “right to the centre” of this society, and can be likened to the mother and baby homes. It’s an “inhumane system”.

Carolanna Foley,  Chair of the TCDSU Lobby Group Direct Provision Campaign, spoke of her experience campaigning on this issue.  

During the process, Foley met many individuals who had been through direct provision system. Foley didn’t want to speak “for” them, but speaking with them gave her and others real insight into their experiences.

She also decided to visit a direct provision centre, of which there 12 in Dublin. She argued this makes them the most hidden institutions in Ireland. She further emphasised that we have “seen the horrors” of institutions in Ireland and must be wary.

We are asking our senators and TDs to make a move towards a much better system; Education grants and education access are vital for the future of the system.

Foley left us with the question of whether we are we offering any better to asylum seekers than what they’ve been through in their traumatic journeys here when they are “left unseen and unheard in Irish society”.

Phil Kearney, Member of an Taisce Climate Change Committee, spoke on a personal basis.

He is a seasoned activist. Kearneys first protest was on O’Connell bridge in 1968, where he was hit in face by a Garda while protesting. Throughout his activist life, he has been arrested when protesting nuclear arms, has fasted outside the Dáil to try and get climate change on the agenda.

Kearney believes we are entering into a new stage were our certainty about access to resources, transport and other necessities is weakening. “We are collectively speeding towards” ecosystem collapse, and we are the drivers. It’s “unfolding as we speak” but not so clearly visible.

He describes himself as an “eco-zealot”. Kearney lamented that environmental activists are told to modify our speaking so as not to scare people. Kearney is no longer in favour of this idea, he is calling for drastic measures in the face of this disaster.

Áine O’Gorman spoke on behalf of Fossil Free TCD. O’Gorman explained that the object of Fossil Free TCD primarily was to stigmatise fossil companies and to create a “trust issue” with them. The Fossil Free campaign started in US. Fossil free TCD  took elements of it and fit it to Trinity, which O’Gorman argues is a strong element in how effective it is.

Also very important is the tangibility. Environmental issues seem unmanageable even to interested individuals. People “switch off” from environmental issues. Divestment campaigns targeted fossil fuel companies and made a tangible connection between students wanting to have pride in their universities and their universities actually investing in fossil fuels. This “tangible connection” leads to a “tangible results” for example the recent statement by the CEO of Shell, who articulated that they are facing difficulties doing business due to the lack of trust customers have in them.

Taking ideas from other campaigns means you’re not “reinventing the wheel each time” when trying to campaign or lobby. It is also important, she argues, to make connections with other activists which can be helpful.

Ailbhe Smyth,  Co-Founder of the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment and Leading Feminist Campaigner argued that if there was ever a time we need more political activism in ireland “we need it now” and “we need students to be involved in that activism”.

This can be difficult because “universities do not like activists”; to say you are an “academic and an activist” is a kind of “oxymoron”. But universities are very important in activism. Smyth argued that we need to be here as academics and students saying “the making of knowledge is not a neutral activity” it is about power, and we need to question it. Being an academic and an activist may be an oxymoron, but it can teach you to ask the right questions.

Smyth believes that activism can involve identifying “what needs changing in the world”.

In the coalition her work involves general public awareness raising, and also a great deal of lobbying of politicians.

It is clear to Smyth that We still coerce and punish women in Ireland. “Coercion, punishment and control” are still central to our treatment of women’s bodies in this state. We need to be seen as a country which values freedom and equality. We have to talk to all the people of ireland to encourage them to get behind the repeal movement., “in order to persuade people, you have to understand what their problems are”.

Finally, Sorcha Casey who is Chair of the TCDSU Lobby Group Repeal the 8th Campaign, gave her insights. She reflected on the fact that she Would have been politically inactive prior to the repeal campaign. It is not a new fight, but “it’s an issue that’s really gained momentum” and students have had a big part to play in this.

She has done a lot of lobbying for strike for repeal. What struck her during this campaign, is that politics is quite accessible. It’s not that difficult to contact politicians in Ireland. We can also take advantage of this. But this close contact  “is not the same as engagement”. The citizens assembly has been used as a shield by politicians to dodge engaging with repeal campaigners.

McNulty closed the conversation by noting how This year  in trinity there has been an “upswing” in activism. He suggested to those present that If you want to change you can make small changes like two minutes to email a TD and so on to introduce activism into your life.

“There is hope” as there is a lot of activism going on in Trinity, but we must continue, and not just rely on social media, though it is a useful tool.

The discussion was informative and gave a wide range of perspectives on the role activism has to play in our society and the challenges activists face. The speakers were impassioned and aimed to inspire activist sentiments in the attendees.

Alice Whelan

Alice Whelan is a former Comment Editor and Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. She is a Sociology and Political Science graduate.