Ascough’s impeachment has started a culture war

I don’t think Ascough will ever understand why decent, reasonable people campaigned and voted overwhelmingly to impeach her, but she herself was responsible for it. Whatever actually happened with the handbooks, she was never going to be able to convince a majority of people in UCD that every other sabbatical officer, both student newspapers, and the college executive were biased against her or bullying her. And for most people, €8000 is just too much money wasted.

That said, by far the most depressing thing about this referendum has been the sheer denialism of both sides. Her concession speech, in which she characterised the result as a blow to freedom of thought and expression, was a sad abrogation of responsibility. Her argument was in essence that a pro-choice President would never have been impeached but, true or not, that was never the point. Her disregard for and distance from the concerns of the people she represented was clear to the end.

On the other hand, her contention that some people have wanted to impeach her from the beginning, because of her views alone, is true. On March 9 just after Katie Ascough’s election, Amy Crean, who would later head the “Yes” to impeachment campaign, posted on her personal Facebook page calling for students to impeach Ascough. She wrote that “democracy that supports oppression is of no meaning to me”.

The campaign itself has been much more toned down; the Yes campaign posted a statement on Facebook after the count emphasising that they had no personal issue with Ascough. In a video interview with the Irish Times during the count last night, Crean offered what has been the argument of the Yes campaign: that Ascough didn’t need to remove the information, and in doing so, broke her mandate.

The fact is that while the Ascough campaign’s suspicious professionalism and bizarre superhero theme distracted from its message, the Yes campaign had a simple message and stuck to it. But even if the handbooks and the €8000 were the focus of the campaigns, for Crean, it was never about that.

For her Ascough’s views meant that nothing was off-limits. Why not say so? In the last month in UCD, this attitude has appeared over and over again, in one way or another. This was a campaign in which people on all sides were repeatedly vilified and abused for their opinions. The University Observer, one of the two UCD student newspapers, crassly headed an early article about the booklets with a photo of Ascough with ash on her forehead for Ash Wednesday. Crean was booed and jeered by the Ascough campaign as she delivered the victory speech.

In a way, all of this is only to be expected. The Irish Times didn’t show up at the count to cover a story about an SU President being impeached for breaking a mandate. They were covering a battleground in Ireland’s culture war. It isn’t, like most student-political issues, a top-down and unrepresentative phenomenon. Of course, not everyone called for Ascough’s impeachment in March, and not everyone was rambling about free speech after the result, but almost everyone seems to have chosen a side.

In other words, this thing is full-blown. And in UCD, we’ve had a small-scale example of how a culture war can chew up and devour a political institution and everyone in it. All of the sabbatical officers but one applied for annual leave to campaign in the referendum. All other student issues – finance, housing, facilities – have fallen out of focus. For some, it has even proven a useful distraction. TCDSU President Kevin Keane’s op-ed on the handbooks, published in this newspaper, typifies this kind of attitude. It’s interesting that despite his insistence in the piece that free access to abortion represents some kind of unshakeable principle for him, he never explicitly condemns Ascough. It’s become a trend with Keane that he firmly believes something right up until it might make his life harder to do so.

The idea of that op-ed, in essence, is that Ascough is supposed to be a foil for Keane: unlike Ascough, Keane is willing to publish information on abortion pills, because he believes that “an unjust law is no law at all”. But she’s a better foil than he knows. While the particulars are different, Keane has also broken a key promise, if not quite a mandate, of his election campaign, by shamelessly u-turning on his support of the BDS movement. He has never properly apologised or atoned for snubbing many of the people who voted for him.

For TCDSU, the issue of abortion is the only thing that matters this year. There was considerably more effort put into the promotion of the Repeal March than the March for Education. At a time when postgraduate fees are increasing year-on-year and student loans for undergraduates are a serious possibility, they have taken the foot off the pedal. The party line in TCDSU this year has been that Education Officer Alice MacPherson – the deputy, in effect – is doing an excellent job, and a look back at this year’s Trinity Twenty would imply that the University Times are hearing the same things in this respect as I am. And whatever the context – the White House, the Dáil, the Students’ Union – heavy praise of the deputy usually means the same thing.

But all of this has become secondary now. Many substantive issues have been, if not abandoned, de-emphasised, and the biggest question has become what side of the culture war everyone is on.

One thing that the UCD referendum has made clear is that in universities the political right have been utterly beaten, rather than simply being suppressed, as Ascough and the editors of the Burkean Journal would like to believe. Ascough is probably correct that a pro-life person can no longer expect to be the President of the Students’ Union of UCD. But if this is true, it’s because the vast majority of Irish students want to repeal the eighth amendment.

The problem for the Repeal campaign will be when the culture war properly ignites, because even if they’ll win the universities, most Irish people don’t support their position. In an Irish Times/Ipsos poll in October 2016, only 19% of people said that they supported a “UK style” abortion regime. If the impeachment referendum is anything to go by, the referendum on the eighth amendment next summer will be one of the most bitter and divisive campaigns in living memory. A student-political issue is one thing, but it’s hard to see how two people with as much hatred and disrespect for each other as Crean and Ascough could ever have a discussion about something as emotive as abortion.

Most likely, the current trend will continue, with both sides becoming more extreme and lobbing the same tired insults and accusations at each other as before. It’s not just because each side believes the other is either a bigot or a murderer, but also because those insults will start to spiral. In UCD we witnessed the inevitable trajectory of these things, which is that they become personal. The impeachment of Ascough, and the inevitability of its becoming one of the talking points of the referendum, mean that this campaign will become at least in part about the people on either side.

At that point, with insults and hatred on a national scale, a path to victory for the pro-life movement begins to become clear. When faced with two intolerant, raging, opposing political campaigns, their hope is that most people will choose the devil they know.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.