SUs at odds with USI and activists over direct provision movement

Student activists have criticised unions for disregarding grassroots campaigners

Relations between students’ unions around the country and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) are fraught over developments in campaigning against direct provision. The tensions follow a meeting of students’ union leaders in recent weeks to discuss a national, union-led campaign against direct provision.

It also comes as a number of students’ union officers called on USI to consider rebranding their think-in to be more inclusive of non-USI bodies across Ireland, in the Facebook group for officers of USI’s member organisations. This concern comes from the possible exclusion of University College Dublin (UCD) and University of Limerick (UL), two of Ireland’s largest universities, from the USI campaign.

Since the meeting took place, USI have decided that they will host their own “student-led think-in” next month in the National College of Art and Design (NCAD). This will play host to all institutions who are members of USI, including Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).

The meeting of various students’ unions took place on January 14, and was announced in a tweet which stated: “Today UL Student Life (ULSL) convened a meeting of a number of student unions [sic] around the country to form a National Campaign against Direct Provision. As well as make a unified strategy to prevent deportations of our students #StudentsAgainstDP.”

When questioned by Trinity student and activist Róisín Hackett on whether any student activists were invited, UL Student Life responded and said that “there were a number of activists invited and attended [sic]. Residences from DP were represented [sic]. UL have our own activist group that was also present.”

However, this was disputed by a member of Aramark Off Our Campus (AOOC), Stacy Wrenn, who stated that “[AOOC] were not aware that the private meeting in UL was taking place until they posted about it on Twitter”. She added that they had received no contact and “neither were the groups that we are involved with externally, such as Refugee and Migrant Solidarity Ireland”.

De Rís also addressed this, playing down the significance of the meeting, and stating “it was just seeing who should be involved in such a campaign and how we should orchestrate it”.

TCDSU President, Shane De Rís, spoke to Trinity News about the meeting in UL, which he attended and supported. De Rís noted his surprise at a similar USI meeting, and said: “I hadn’t heard about the USI meeting until the event was put up this week.”

He also addressed complaints that he was the only Trinity representative at the meeting, saying it was because “it was a meeting to decide if the various SUs should band together to form a campaign”. He noted the success of the meeting and said that “the next meeting has been agreed upon, it will be in DCU [Dublin City University], and we will actively work to ensure that they are represented”.

However, Wrenn criticised the attendees of the meeting and said that the majority “have only begun campaigning to end direct provision, as recently as that very meeting, and thus the idea of them leading a ‘national campaign’ as UL put it is just odd”. She also recognised that grassroots campaign groups have “repeatedly asked for their help in their respective direct provision-related campaigns and have been ignored”.

“Any campaign that begins on such uneven footing cannot succeed. On the other hand, USI has actively engaged with these groups and consulted with us before it was announced,” said Wrenn. “I see their think-in as a very encouraging move and I, along with members of Trinity VDP [Vincent De Paul] and Aramark off Our Campus will be attending.”

When asked of the concrete steps that were agreed in the UL meeting, De Rís reiterated that the meeting was only regarding organisational structure, and that “this is what USI’s meeting will fail to achieve, since USI won’t be extending invitations to two of Ireland’s biggest universities, UL and UCD, which are both universities of sanctuary”.

While Shane De Rís noted that UCD and UL were not extended invites to the think-in, Cahill noted that it was her intention to “reach out to all groups who are doing work on this issue already and asking them to participate and collaborate in what is an exploratory space”. She also noted that she would extend an invite to UL, who expressed an interest in helping to “build momentum among students”.

However, Cahill made no reference to UCD, simply stating that “as President of USI, I intend to ensure that I am inclusive firstly of all our member organisations across Ireland, north and south, building their capacity, and elevating their voices locally and on a national level. That is my job and I will do it.”

De Rís noted that the issue was one which must “rise above affiliation, and USI obviously only want USI affiliated members involved with it”. However, De Rís believes that “the issue is much more important than that, it’s the scandal of our generation”. He hoped that this campaign would see “a much more mature approach to affiliations than other issues that have seen students’ unions’ involvement”.

Speaking to Trinity News, Cahill played down tensions between the unions, and said that “we’re delighted that ULSL and other unions are engaged in this issue and want to be part of bringing direct provision to an end and calling it out in every space, and to anyone who will listen”.

When asked of the separate events, and who would be taking charge of the campaign, Cahill stressed that “USI wouldn’t claim to be ‘leading’ on the issue”. She believes that there are various other organisations who have “been at the forefront of this issue for years, challenging what is a barbaric situation”. She also pointed to USI’s passing of a motion to support the ongoing boycott of Aramark, “a student-led campaign which has been particularly visible in TCD”.

Cahill continued: “It’s about basic access still and we won’t be shutting up about it, whether it’s behind a megaphone, with student groups directly, or at every committee table we sit at on behalf of the students in Ireland.”

She also alluded to the structure of USI’s upcoming think-in, where she noted that its intention is to “connect activists, share ongoing campaigns, and build student capacity to advocate and make noise on this issue moving forward”. She recalled that their last think-in, related to Repeal, was a “huge success, because it brought everyone together from all backgrounds of student activism”.

This is not the first time that tension has built between USI and students’ unions, with De Rís previously criticising USI’s response to the government budget in October 2018. At the time, he noted that he found their response was “extremely and disappointingly weak”. He felt that students had been “totally ignored” by USI. De Rís also told TCDSU Council that USI’s priorities “have been a bit amiss this year”.

The news comes as Trinity is compiling a proposal which would improve access for students who currently live in direct provision, and allow them to receive an undergraduate degree. Trinity has created a working group on the issue, who aim to have the offer available by next September, following a memorandum presented to University Council by TCDSU President, Shane De Rís, earlier this month.

Trinity currently accepts only students who have already been granted official refugee status, or those students who are on humanitarian leave and have been here for at least three years. This means that Trinity does not hold the title of University of Sanctuary, which is given to those universities which accommodate those seeking refuge.

This comes alongside the government’s Student Pilot Support Scheme, which has helped just one student seek higher education since its creation four years ago, leading to criticism of the scheme. This programme contains various criteria, including that a student must have spent a minimum of five years attending a school within the Irish education system.  

TCDSU has been mandated to campaign for University of Sanctuary status since 2014. This issue came to the forefront of Trinity student politics when a campaign to boycott Aramark, a catering company which also services direct provision centres, was widely supported by the student body last year.

Peter Kelly

Peter Kelly is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister Law student, and a former Deputy News Editor.

Niamh Lynch

Niamh was Editor of the 65th volume of Trinity News. She is a History and Politics graduate.