Dave Ryan reports on the bizarre scenes from November 16
At the ‘Stop Fees, Save the Grant’ protest on November 16, a human chain of USI stewards, and members of an Garda Síochána formed to prevent the entry of Free Education for Everyone (FEE) and Occupy Dame Street protestors from entering the main parade. The USI have been accused of colluding with Gardaí to exclude this breakaway crowd, some of whom were students whom the USI theoretically represents. The #occupyuniversity group, in a statement released after these events said:
‘we must strongly reject the actions of Union of Students in Ireland stewards this afternoon.
We need a third level education that values democracy and free thought, not privilege and obedience.
In light of this, it is deplorable that Union of Students in Ireland stewards collaborated with Gardaí in restricting the freedom of movement of people, including i) the Free Education for Everyone student campaign group, ii) members of the #occupyuniversity working group and iii)participants in #occupydamestreet carrying the banner of the occupation, who wanted to protest outside the Mount Street headquarters of Fine Gael, the main government party.’
USI has responded to claims of collusion by stating that the block was in place as the protesters were trying to enter through a fire exit for the march, making it a health and safety issue. However, if it was a genuine health and safety issue, no one would have been able to pass through the block. I, and many other journalists and pedestrians passed freely through the block without being questioned. Furthermore, several stewards were heard to remark that they were there to stop the group from getting in, though this could indeed be a personal stance as opposed to legitimate USI directive. For the FEE/Occupy point of view, I asked FEE’s Aidan Rowe what happened from where he was standing:
As the march reached Leinster House. FEE decided to lead a breakaway to protest outside Fine Gael headquarters on Mount St. along with members of the Occupy Dame Street group. At that stage there was a half-hearted attempt by the stewards to prevent us from leaving the official march route, but we were able to walk around them. We held a sit down protest outside Fine Gael headquarters for about 20 minutes, after which we decided to leave due to the disproportionately large police presence, including the mounted police. We attempted to rejoin the march to hear the end of the speeches but were met by 3 rows of USI stewards linking arms, backed up by uniformed Gardaí, preventing us from rejoining the march. The official reason for this according to USI was that this was an emergency exit and that no students were allowed in or out this way. In reality, the stewards were perfectly happy to allow non-FEE students in and out that way. At the time we were told by stewards that we were being blocked because we “had different aims” to the main protest. I was personally told by a Garda that we weren’t being allowed through because “they don’t want you”. At no time were we told that we were being blocked on Health & Safety grounds. The obvious conclusion to draw from that is that Health & Safety grounds were developed after the fact to justify exclusion on political grounds.
In the wake of these events, a source inside FEE has told the Observer that USI President Gary Redmond and Vice-President Colm Murphy have met with members of FEE’s Galway branch. The details of the meeting remain unconfirmed, but is sure to be of interest to many when they do come out.
These events have left a bitter taste in the mouths of USI’s detractors, many of whom would be invaluable and dedicated campaigners were everyone on the same page per se. It seems that the divide in the student movement is only widening. I asked Aidan Rowe about how he saw USI’s approach to campaigning in light of Wednesday:
‘I think there’s been a consistent problem with USI considering itself to have a monopoly on the expression of dissent by students: that student protests are organised and run by USI officials with students expected to play the role of willing pawns in a stage-managed media event. From the point of view of a USI Officer with political ambitions, this makes a lot of sense, but so far as the fight for free education is concerned its hugely destructive. FEE fully supports mass mobilisations of students, and for those who only wish to march from A to B to express their dissent, that’s prefectly fine. But I think we all need to recognise that this has a very limited impact, and mass protests should also be seen as an opportunity for those who want to engage in non-violent direct action to do so. The reality is, that FEE were excluded from the protest on political grounds, which is problematic not just because political discrimination is wrong in a moral sense, but also because if our campaign is to be effective it has to be political, otherwise students become just another special interest group asking for the cuts to be directed at someone else, rather than a section of society standing in solidarity with the other targets of Labour/Fine Gael austerity.’
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