Donal Fallon returns to talk about USI President Gary Redmond, in the wake of his unopposed re-election
This is without a doubt a crucial time in student politics in Ireland.
With the election of a new government, all interest groups will attempt to argue their own corner, in defence of their own interests. The Union of Students in Ireland, having recently bizarrely called for the scrapping of the Croke Park Agreement, finds itself in new waters. Traditionally there have been strong links between the Union of Students in Ireland and education workers on third level campuses. The call from the union for the government to “initiate an immediate renegotiation of the Croke Park Agreement” was greeted with surprise from the trade union movement. When I contacted Jack O’Connor of SIPTU view email for opinion, he told me that it was clear many of those he had recently met from the USI held considerable anti trade union views. Such a statement would surely qualify for the understatement of the year.
Gary Redmond, The Phoenix magazine noted in an expose on the USI President before the November march against fees, “…can hardly be described as the Irish answer to Daniel Cohn-Bendit.” Indeed, Redmond is seen not so much as Paris circa. 1968 as he is Galway tent circa.2002. It is, to his credit, quite simple remarkable that he has survived the re-appearance of a photograph of him with members of the Kevin Barry Cumann in University College Dublin calling on people to “VOTE FIANNA FAIL FOR JOBS”. Remarkably Redmond is photographed in a Fianna Fáil campaign shirt alongside the likes of Noel Dempsey and Mary Hanafin. Hanafin has lost her job since, with “VOTE FIANNA FAIL FOR JOBS” a completely discredited slogan today.
A critical assesment of Redmond’s year in the USI reveals it to be a year of failure for the union, by the standards of anyone. The Irish Times news-report on USI conference 2011 noted that Redmond had organised the large march against the rise in the registration fee in November 2010, and this is true. One large rally does not a successful year in office make, and 25,000-40,000 students on the street, while an impressive visual spectacle, is worth nothing if not followed with active campaigning against fees. That campaign ended in failure, with a new “student contribution” fee of €2,000 awaiting us all next year.
In 1996, the student registration fee stood at £150. To present a 2010 increase of €500 instead of €1500 as a victory is insane. The fact is the Union of Students in Ireland have failed to realise that lobbying against fees is not sufficient to defeat fees. The self-congratulatory attitude to the march in November from many within the union proves this. Such marches, when not part of active campaigns, are merely glorified photoshoots.
Undoubtedly the most controversial aspect of Redmond’s year as President will be his handing of the events at Merrion Row on the day of that protest. The union blamed “left wing groups” for what the USI termed “destructive and anti-social violence”. It was a remarkable example of a pot calling a kettle black, from a union which has seen previous leaders imprisoned (for example Joe Duffy of Trinity College Dublin) for actions against education cuts.
I invited Gary Redmond to attend a demonstration against the Public Order Units actions the following week with an email to the USI office and indeed a public press release. Over 500 students did attend, including former members of the USI officer-board, but Gary himself was absent. The image of 500 students chanting “Where is Gary?” outside of Pearse Street Garda Station is something that will stay with me forever. In a disgusting move, as reported in The Irish Times of the following day, the USI moved to distance themselves from the protest against Garda brutality too.
Redmond had, as President of UCDSU, led that union into €25,000 of debt. He supported UCD President Hugh Brady in implementing health charges. Health charges are undoubtedly up there with tuition fees as an issue student unions in this country have a long history of opposing. His unions campaigning for the reversal of the Coca Cola boycott was greeted with dismay by many former UCDSU officers, but to those of us on the left was an unsurprising and ideological move.
The national student union is today led by a student who arrived in UCD in 2004 and has not yet finished a degree, having spent years in student union circles, many of them in paid positions. He is about as disconnected from the student movement as any individual could be.
The failure of USI to win the support of DCU students in a referendum on affiliation there was telling. Indeed, such defeats are common in the history of the union when such referendums emerge. Re-affiliation was only won here because of students already active here from the FEE network campaigning for a ‘Yes’ vote. The fact is students are hesitant to join a union they don’t think is working. We on the left argue it can only work through grassroots engagement, and we must be honest with ourselves and see the re-election of Redmond as a critical failure for the left in student politics.
What are the successes of the last year for the Union? Registering thousands of students to vote? USI’s critical failure is not convincing large numbers of students to take action for themselves. As The Phoenix expose noted, the authorities at University College Dublin are said to have urged Redmond to consider running for the position of UCDSU President again. Universities today refer to students not as ‘students’, but rather as ‘clients’. We will not defeat this commercialisation of education by befriending the authorities in our universities and indeed in government, but by showing the authorities our ability and willingness to campaign for free education and nothing short thereof.
Tell your friends!