On Tuesday, November 23, Trinity College Dublin Student Union (TCDSU) joined the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) in a “Fuck the Fees” protest – a three-day collaborative effort with universities across Ireland to try and do something about the fact that Ireland currently has the highest university tuition fees in Europe (something even more frustrating when taken in tandem with the government’s consistent & dizzying assertion that we have “free fees”). Taking a look back at the union’s history of campaigning in this area, it doesn’t look likely that the protest will change all that much.
It’s not the matter, but the method which is objectionable here. It is, of course, true that the way students are treated by the government is abominable. Despite a budget which looked like it was specially designed for the youth population (with cheaper travel and free contraception available for those in their early 20s), there was a notable lack of substantive positive changes made. On top of fees, accommodation and the cost of living in Dublin both remain prohibitively expensive, locking many young people out of higher education – USI hardly needs to tell students this.
There was a great episode of the most recent edition of Reeling in the Years (the RTÉ program which looks back at Irish history through music & archival footage) which looked particularly at the 2011 banking crisis, and its repercussions on welfare, employment, and education. About 10 minutes in, there’s a powerful video clip of a USI protest to the backing of Shake it Off by Florence and the Machine. USI president at the time, Gary Redmond, screams from a podium: “Today we are sending a message to that government: Shame on you.” It’s an exciting, well-edited piece of television, representing what looked like an exciting moment to be in student government. But the thing is, fees were €3,000 a year then, as they remain today. This is a message USI seems to have been sending to the government for a decade, so the question remains: what will make it more effective in 2021 than it was in 2011?
This clear inefficacy somehow feels less excusable than similar criticisms of TCDSU and its frequent political failings. Our smaller, more localised union dedicates a significant amount of time and energy to localised issues – individual student casework, provision of condoms and tampons to students. Even if you’re dissatisfied with the union’s political action, how they work with college, or how they run council, they clearly serve some important function to the student body. What does USI do? They organise large campaigns, with very bold swear words, and pretty graphics.
“Ireland has always had a problem with protests that look eerily like parades, and student activism is no exception.”
The problem with the 2011 campaign was not a case of student mobilisation. 20,000 students showed up to a protest, waved placards, talked to newspapers about their dissatisfaction, and then proceeded to go home. Ireland has always had a problem with protests that look eerily like parades, and student activism is no exception. Are USI under the impression that the government doesn’t know we’re dissatisfied? Do they think that we just need to ask a bit louder to cut through the noise of bureaucracy? Would an asterisked swear word help?
“The reason the government isn’t listening is because the USI poses no fundamental threat to them. So, the protest held up traffic for a while, as do GAA matches and rush-hour cars.”
The reason the government isn’t listening is because the USI poses no fundamental threat to them. So, the protest held up traffic for a while, as do GAA matches and rush-hour cars. At this point, USI’s failure to engage in meaningful action is an endemic problem. The prospect of organising students against voting for this government in successive elections is far too partisan for such a large, bureaucratic organisation and the idea of occupying buildings not respectable enough for a group of people who presumably have their eyes on the historical USI-to-public-office pipeline.
This year, 250 students showed up to the Dail for “Fuck the Fees”. It’s hard to blame them for showing up in significantly lower numbers than they did 10 years ago. It hasn’t gotten easier or cheaper to be a student since then, just clearer that the USI probably aren’t going to do anything to change that.
Looking back to 2011, we can see that some element of direct action was planned when USI occupied the Department of Jobs in an attempt to ambush Eamon Gilmore, the Táiniste (and, funnily enough, a former USI president) at the time. Despite having food supplies to last several weeks, they left as soon as Gardaí entered the scene, 15 minutes after the occupation began. This was absolutely the right idea, with the sheer number of people that the USI is clearly capable of organising, an occupation would have been desperately inconvenient for the government, as well as a huge amount of free press for USI. However, the way the action ended feels annoyingly prescient for today’s USI – plans to agitate, empty threats, home in time for dinner.
“It’s true that the USI has been playing nice for far too long, and it’s true that no one is listening, but the only thing that seems to have changed since 2011 is the confidence to say the word ‘fuck’.”
In a promotional video for the “Fuck the Fees” protest, USI President Clare Austick says: “We’ve tried playing nice, but the government isn’t listening.” It’s true that the USI has been playing nice for far too long, and it’s true that no one is listening, but the only thing that seems to have changed since 2011 is the confidence to say the word “fuck”. The organisation has been protesting the same single issue for a decade, and have, in a very literal sense, achieved nothing. Radical change is needed both within the organisation and the way in which it mobilises if anything is to be done.
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that the protest in Dublin took place on October 23. It was in fact November 23. Trinity News apologises for the error.