“People-power and protest”: the leftist organisations mobilising students

Trinity News examines the methods and motivations of increasingly prevalent left-wing activist groups

On September 13, a group of students blockaded the entrance to the Book of Kells in protest against College’s decision to increase the amount charged for its student accommodation by 2%, the legal maximum within a rent pressure zone like Dublin. The most obvious thing uniting these students was, of course, their immediate goal. However, dig a little deeper and it is possible to find another common – if perhaps not ubiquitous – characteristic: their association with left-wing politics and organisations. Aside from representatives of Trinity’s Students’ Union (TCDSU), the crowd also contained students involved with College’s branch of People Before Profit (PBP), a leftist political party who’s leader Richard Boyd Barrett spoke at the protest; the Connolly Youth Movement (CYM); and Trinity’s Trans and Intersex Pride, a group described by its organiser Jenny Maguire as “an expressly socialist movement.” On the same day, the Revolutionary Housing League (RHL) – an organisation which uses the traditional symbol of Irish leftism, the starry plough, as its insignia – set up a stall in the arts block with the aim of recruiting new members. 

Common goals and common enemies

The immediate material goals of these organisations are reasonably consistent. In conversation with Trinity News, members of the Trinity PBP, CYM and RHL all referenced the housing and cost of living crises as key motivators of their work. But the commonalities go further than that. “Each issue that comes up is key but we connect it to the wider capitalist system and show that we need to address the fundamental aspects,” Cian Parry, Librarian of Trinity PBP said. This identification of ingrained societal issues is a theme embedded in the foundations of each of these organisations; CYM’s website sets out its belief in “systemic flaws” in society “occurring as a result of one main feature: the profit motive”. The concept of the “profit motive” is also central to the ideas underpinning the RHL, which opposes the “dominance of vulture funds, Airbnbs and multinationals over Irish housing” as part of its Ten Point Political Programme handed out to students in the Arts Building. 

Direct Action

While the identification of these “systemic” issues is undoubtedly an important part of these groups’ identity, each is at pains to state that they are not merely interested in critique; on the contrary, direct action is at the very core of what they do. Jack Edmunds-Bergin, CYM’s Communications Secretary and Chair of its Dublin branch, tells  Trinity News that “organically recruiting” members through their outreach stalls and donation drives is a central pillar of their work. He says that “the workplace is the most fertile place for people to get radicalised”, referencing the groups’ extensive engagement with the workers of  Iceland supermarkets during their recent industrial dispute. Engaging with those affected by the housing crisis, he added, is “a close second” when it comes to recruiting new members 

Housing is also a central source of engagement for RHL which hopes to combat the sense of powerlessness surrounding housing issues in Ireland. One member told Trinity News: “The actual housing crisis itself is quite depressing but then again, that being depressing is what led me to join a group like the RHL.” 

Cian Parry of PBP, meanwhile, notes that the organisation’s biggest influx of members came in the wake of “Take Back Trinity”, a direct action campaign set up to protest tuition fee increases in 2017.  

Once members join, these groups do everything they can to get them  involved on the ground. Cian emphasises that Trinity PBP is “not a training ground” in which members “get ready to do big boy politics” but a living, breathing, political movement. According to Jack, the CYM is of the same mind. He tells Trinity News how members are actively encouraged to engage with the group’s programmes, be they protest marches or community outreach stalls in working-class areas. CYM’s  “cadre” system allows smaller local “cummans” to implement the action best suited to their means and area. The RHL’s action, meanwhile, involves occupying vacant buildings and resisting evictions. “Given the nature of it [RHL] as a revolutionary group,  it’s a lot more serious about what it wants to achieve which I think is absolutely necessary,” one member told Trinity News. 

This emphasis on direct action often brings these groups into contact with one another and fosters the kind of cooperation which has not always been a feature of a perennially fragmented Irish left

This emphasis on direct action often brings these groups into contact with one another and fosters the kind of cooperation which has not always been a feature of a perennially fragmented Irish left. Cian tells Trinity News how PBP has worked with organisations ranging from the “Cost of Living Coalition” to “Raise the Roof”: “we don’t try to separate ourselves and make our own campaign […] we want to put our own members in there.” Jack is also enthusiastic about the CYM’s ability to overlap with groups like the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU), saying that he sees “a strong sense of unity” in the left, though he accepts that his organisation is somewhat “ideologically stubborn”, adhering as it does to Marxist ideals. 

Where is this all going? 

So where is all this activism headed? The answer is almost certainly not the Dáil, as all three organisations express scepticism about the Irish political system’s ability to facilitate change. The RHL emphasises that the “housing crisis can not be resolved through the present political system” and Jack tells  Trinity News that what the CYM is ultimately working towards is “a popular movement which will overthrow the current ruling class.” The CYM formally disaffiliated from the Communist Party of Ireland in 2021 and while Jack expresses an interest in establishing a mother party, the feeling seems to be that this is still a long way from being realised. Finally, while PBP does have a parliamentary wing, its recent expression of scepticism towards Sinn Féin in its pamphlet discussing “The Case for a Left Government” puts its ability and willingness to influence electoral politics in some doubt.

“Before anything else we’re for students. But yes, this is a leftist movement

The future of these organisations, then, appears to be on university campuses. The turnout at the rent increase protest on September 13; the presence of the RHL on Trinity’s campus; and the election of László Molnárfi (former chair of Students4Change) as head of Trinity’s Student Union on a radical mandate are all signs that leftist activism is growing in  college campuses. “What students can do is show people not just in third-level education but across the country that people-power and protest is actually what’s necessary now,” Richard Boyd Barrett TD told Trinity News, calling for students to take part in planned protests on the housing and cost of living crises on the 3rd and 7th of October. In these endeavours the left will be at the forefront. “Before anything else we’re for students. But yes, this is a leftist movement,” a deputy STEM Convenor of TCDSU told Trinity News. For students themselves, it seems unlikely to matter where the calls for change come from; as long as they’re based on principles of equality and are serious about having a real impact on students’ increasingly difficult circumstances, these organisations are likely to be welcomed onto campuses with open arms.  

Sam Walsh

Sam Walsh is a Deputy Features editor for Trinity News. He is currently in his Senior Sophister Year studying Law and French.