DCUSU delays USI disaffiliation referendum following internal disagreements

An emergency meeting of the Union’s Class Representative Council will take place on Monday

Dublin City University Students’ Union (DCUSU) is facing internal struggles over its sabbatical officers’ desire to hold a referendum to disaffiliate from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI). A decision to delay the referendum was taken after DCUSU’s Executive Board members were unable to reach the quota of 425 signatures on a petition, the required amount to hold a referendum in DCU. An emergency meeting of DCUSU’s Class Representative Council (CRC) will take place on Monday, after class reps expressed their dissatisfaction with “the lack of any consultation from students and DCU stakeholder groups towards the decision of the Executive regarding [their] affiliation with the Union of Students in Ireland”.

A motion to mandate the Union to adopt a neutral position, as opposed to campaigning against USI affiliation in an upcoming referendum, will come before the CRC, with the Council noting “the absence of any mention whatsoever of this being a pressing issue, or an issue of any kind, in any Officer Reports to Council this year”. Council also noted that the “precedent lies with Class Representatives and Council to decide on the campaigning position for USI referendums”.  

The development follows a series of sudden internal meetings by the Executive to push forward the campaign to disaffiliate. Sources familiar with the meetings noted that it is highly unusual for the Executive Board, which consists of DCU’s five sabbatical officers and the Union’s part-time officers, to push for a referendum.

According to the minutes of a DCUSU Executive meeting on February 7, the five person sabbatical team had decided to bring the USI referendum forward by one year prior to the meeting, as there was a “desire by the sabbatical team to bring this question forward to all students to exercise their vote directly”, despite some executive members objecting to this stance. The minutes also note that the referendum was being brought forward “due to frustration with the organisation from team members which has been brought to the attention of USI. It is not about the officers in either organisation. But [sic] a question of the compatibility of both organisations.” A vote to hold the referendum passed in the meeting by a margin of four votes. In response to questions from Trinity News, USI President Síona Cahill asserted that, apart from minor complaints about USI’s actions on direct provision, the first notice USI had received of frustration on behalf of DCUSU was when President Vito Moloney-Burke informed Cahill of the upcoming referendum a number of weeks ago.

At a second meeting on February 12, a vote was held as to whether the Executive should adopt a stance on the referendum, with the options being Yes to USI, No to USI or to Remain Neutral. The vote was tied between No to USI and Neutral, where the Moloney Burke made a casting vote in favour of the No to USI option. Consequently, the Executive was to campaign for a No to USI stance.

The two meetings were held prior to a February 14 deadline for referenda to be held in conjunction with the DCUSU sabbatical officer elections, which will be held from March 5 to 7. From the February 12 meeting until the February 14 deadline, Executive Officers were campaigning for students to sign the petition but were unable to reach the required 425 signatures. As such, the plans for the referendum were postponed.

Open letters from DCU’s LGBTA Society and Feminist Society were circulated to Moloney Burke this week. The Feminist Society said, “it is appalling that DCUSU has acted with secrecy and underhandedness to engage in a disaffiliation campaign without prior consultation or input at any level from students or class reps”, and that developments “denote[s] a deliberate attempt on the part of the DCUSU Executive to bypass democracy”.

Speaking to Trinity News, USI Vice President for the Dublin Region, Colm O’Halloran, said: “I’m disappointed by DCUSU Exec’s decision to take a stance in favour of disaffiliation, especially since there hasn’t been consultation with students or class reps. The DCU LGBTA Society and FemSoc DCU have outlined their concerns and many other students were completely unaware of the intention to have a referendum at all. There has been a noted lack of of attendance and engagement from the DCUSU President at USI events and National Councils, and DCUSU never communicated any dissatisfaction to USI before now. USI endeavours to support DCU students and we will be campaigning to ensure that DCU students remain members of USI.”

O’Halloran continued: “USI has been consistently working for DCU students, in particular campaigns fighting for student teachers and student nurses. In December, USI rallied outside Leinster House and campaigned for reinstating the Gaeltacht grant, which is of huge support for student teachers. More recently, USI has been supporting student nurses and the INMO [Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation] in the strikes and fighting to ensure that newly graduated nurses are not taken advantage of. In the same week of the Exec’s decision, USI were on the ground in DCU as part of the USI SHAG Week, handing out condoms, information, and awareness around consent and actively participated in the It Stops Now mural that went up in Glasnevin.”

Moloney Burke did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.

In the Executive’s proposed actions, if the referendum was called, the sabbatical officers appear to have disregarded the Union’s constitution, which notes that “a referendum on any issue may be called at the request of any of the following: Students’ Union Executive through Class Representative Council, Class Representative Council or 2.5% of Students’ Union members by way of a petition submitted to either the Students’ Union President or the Chair of Class Representative Council”. The DCUSU Constitution also highlights the procedure normally followed with regards to Union policy. Article 4.4 says, “the Students’ Unions operational procedures and policies may only be changed by Class Representative Council and may be proposed by both the Executive and Class Representative Council, pursuant to the provisions set forth within this constitution”, while Article 5.1 states: “There will be a Class Representative Council which will propose and mandate the Students’ Union policy.”

According to the DCUSU Constitution, the SU were due to hold a mandatory referendum on USI affiliation in the 2020/21 academic year.

DCUSU has previously had a tumultuous history with USI, with a vote to reaffiliate in 2014 after 12 years outside the national students’ union. Having previously voted to disaffiliate in 2002, a referendum to reaffiliate that passed was declared void by then-DCUSU President, Paul Doherty, in 2013. Doherty alleged that the vote was unconstitutional because the SU executive did not run an information campaign. DCU students voted to remain affiliated in December 2016.

Niamh Lynch

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