This article contains discussion of sexual assault.
University College Cork’s (UCC) Student Council has voted against mandating its union to issue an apology over its response to allegations of sexual assault made against a candidate running in the union’s elections.
An emergency meeting of the union’s council was held on Friday, March 19. Under UCCSU Council’s standing orders, an emergency meeting must be held if requested by fifty of the Council’s voting members – class representatives, faculty representatives, and sabbatical officers.
Two motions were put forward at the meeting. The first mandated that all sabbatical officers of UCCSU going forward undergo training around issues of sexual assault.
UCC currently runs a “Bystander Intervention” programme. The programme, which is accredited by the university and available to all students and staff, provides “understanding of key issues related to consent and the boundaries surrounding sexual assault, rape and abusive relationships”.
This motion was passed with no opposition.
The second motion called for UCCSU’s sabbatical officer team to issue “a statement to all students which apologises for the Students’ Union’s inadequate response” to the issue.
It made mention of the union warning about “legal actions” and said that “it is not the responsibility of the students’ union to caution students over their behaviour online”.
In early March, allegations of sexual assault surfaced against several people who had expressed their intention to run in UCC Students’ Union (UCCSU) elections, with some centring on a specific candidate.
Some of the allegations were made on personal social media accounts while others were initially made anonymously through the “UCC Confessions” Twitter page. Formal reports were subsequently made to both UCCSU and the university’s “Campus Watch” committee, which handles student misconduct.
A student, speaking to Trinity News on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that, when it was notified of the existence of the allegations, the UCCSU had contacted some of the students involved and warned of the potential “legal ramifications” of discussing these allegations online.
Separately, the union’s Welfare Officer told a group of female students that they were being investigated by UCC and that the university was considering bringing them in front of a disciplinary hearing, according to one of the students in question. This was after the group had privately advised other students to report allegations of abuse directly to the university rather than going to the SU.
Members of this group said that they had been emailed and phoned by the officer several times, and they felt that he had “put us in an awkward position and cause[d] us anxiety.”
When the students contacted Campus Watch, they were informed that no such investigation had ever existed. The students requested an apology from the union for the conduct of the Welfare Officer and were verbally promised one, but the union has yet to apologise or respond to any further emails from the students in question.
One of the students, again speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that the group “feel that we have been intimidated by the union”.
Trinity News has contacted UCCSU and several of its sabbatical officers but has received no response at the time of publication.
The motion on whether the union should issue an apology was debated at length during the Council meeting.
UCCSU Education Officer Eimear Curtin, who is also a candidate in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) elections next month, spoke against the apology motion. Curtin said that “Council must oppose this motion”, and that “there are certain issues that students encounter that go beyond the remit of SU officers”.
She said that doing any more than “[making] the relevant people in the university aware and [providing] a list of supports online” would be beyond the union’s remit. She also claimed that the union had not made any mention of legal issues to students. She concluded by saying that “there can be no doubt that our response was fully adequate”.
The union’s Entertainments Officer Tara Coughlan also spoke against the motion. She echoed Curtin’s sentiments, saying that “inaccurate information in relation to the Student Union’s role” was being disseminated, but that it was clear “that the Students’ Union response was indeed adequate”.
Both sabbatical officers also pointed to the need of sabbatical officers to remain neutral in matters relating to elections. Under UCCSU’s electoral rules, only the election’s returning officer is empowered to remove candidates from the ballot.
Two students from the group who said they had been contacted by the Welfare Officer spoke in favour of the motion. They discussed feeling intimidated and said that they felt that the union “attempted to silence” them.
Both speakers noted that their group had still not received the personal apology they said they had been promised, and encouraged passing the motion to mandate an apology for the overall conduct of the sabbatical team addressed to the student body as a whole.
Coughlan replied that she thought this matter was “quite personal” and “I just don’t think it’s relevant to the motion”.
Voting on the apology motion was tied. Under the Council’s standing orders, the Chair holds the casting vote in the event of a tie.
While voting on the motion was taking place, the Chair had announced his intention to comply with “Speaker Denison’s Rule” (a convention established by Speaker John Evelyn Denison of the British House of Commons in 1867 when voting on an issue of Fellowships at Trinity) which states that neutral chairpersons should always vote in favour of the status quo.
The motion was therefore defeated.