Editorial: Direct action is no longer a radical notion

That students of all political persuasions have coalesced around the effectiveness of disruptive protest bodes well for the future

At the final Council of his term as president last week, László Molnárfi proclaimed the successes of a year in which “the student movement woke up at the 11th hour”: “Students realised that we don’t have to lay there and take it.”

Indeed it has been a watershed year for our students’ union. Its blockade of the Book of Kells set the tone for a year in which direct action went from near-taboo to a regular means of protest in dealing with College and government. A series of smaller but no less visible instances of direct action punctuated the union’s campaigns, from a coordinated flag drop in Front Square and a sit-in at the junior dean’s office, to the overnight occupation of Regent House, all with the same message: We’re serious about this.

Of course – and thankfully – these haven’t been uncontroversial. College labelled the Book of Kells blockade “counter-productive”, while the Dean of Students told Trinity News that students were “biting the hand that feeds them” by participating in the blockade. The protest would not have been effective had College welcomed, or even sanctioned it; the effectiveness of direct action lies in its disruptiveness.

Yet beyond College’s unsurprising response, the move was met with resounding support from students across the board. Ordinary students showed up to participate in the blockade which lasted for eight hours; online, students praised organisers and participated and echoed their demands for a rent freeze and for College to properly engage with students’ demands. Even members of staff privately expressed begrudging admiration for the protest, which struck at a vital artery College’s revenue.

Polling conducted by Trinity News in February revealed that over three quarters (76.6%) of students agree that direct action had been at least somewhat effective. While this was stronger among left-wing students, a majority of students who indicated a preference for centre and centre-right parties also agreed that direct action had been effective. Irrespective of its many ups and downs and internal disagreements, one conclusion is certain at the end of this year: direct action is no longer a radical idea.

“The nationwide student “walkout” organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) generated the optics of collective action with none of the direction”

Up to now, TCDSU, for all its constitutional complexity and organisational prowess, has lacked the ability to back up its words with actions. Desperate pleas in open letters fell on deaf ears; threats of escalated action were not followed through on. With students excused from class, the nationwide student “walkout” organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) generated the optics of collective action with none of the direction; it was over in time for students to make their next class, and was followed up by nothing more than a weak attempt to “lobby” government TDs by phone and email. While paying lip service to the plight of students, College continued to raise rates in its accommodation units across the board.

Direct action has granted students leverage when it comes to bargaining with College. By backing up rather reasonable demands with credible threats of repercussions for non-engagement, TCDSU has forced College to reckon with the student voice in a way which it simply did not before. What’s more, the consistency with which the union has employed such tactics has meant that College can no longer weather out the storm when it comes to formal demands; it knows well enough to take students seriously in the knowledge that pressure will otherwise be brought to bear.

“For College to continue to feel the weight behind student demands, the buy-in and engagement of this year must continue”

In response to this new momentum, College has claimed that “students have every right to protest peacefully and we are always willing to listen to their views and engage in dialogue”; the Dean of Students called it “a sad irony that the TCDSU chose to block the entrance to the Old Library” Some will argue that an increase in direct action comes at the expense of constructive conversations. While any sensible person would favour open dialogue over disruptive protest, this wasn’t a choice previously available to students or their representatives; the only real options were protest and be heard, or speak and be ignored. Students tried open dialogue; every time it came to fees, it failed. Instead, they have chosen to be heard, whatever the route. An “all ears” attitude suddenly materialised only in the wake of a more invigorated and disruptive student movement, willing to stand up for what it wants. College merely wishes that students would stick to “peaceful protests” in the manner of sanctioned walkouts so that it can continue to ignore the demands being made. Students are past that stage. A year of consistent direct action has levelled the playing field and forced College to the table on several issues. If it tries to step away again, students won’t hesitate to use the means available to them to force it back.

Simultaneously, it falls to a new cohort of students to continue this precedent. We need not jump to occupy a campus office at every opportunity – perhaps after this year College will indeed be more receptive to straightforward dialogue and compromise, in the knowledge that students really mean business. For this to remain the case however students must in fact mean business; we mustn’t leave it to a select group to carry out direct action every time the need arises, but must all be ready to contribute to the change we wish to see. For College to continue to feel the weight behind student demands, the buy-in and engagement of this year must continue. This paper welcomes the fact that direct action is no longer a radical notion, and commends those that have made this the case. If students contribute to direct action on issues they care about, then the future of the student movement is bright; indeed, what has been achieved this year “will pale in comparison to what is yet to come”.