This week saw NUS-USI have their annual congress. Here, our northern correspondent Róisín Jackman, who was also a delegate at the conference, give us a run down of the events and her opinions on the motions passed.
This week saw the second of Ireland’s two largest student unions’ conferences. Following USI’s four-day conference at the start of the month, NUS-USI’s conference took place over two days, April 16th & 17th, in the Killyhevlin Hotel in Enniskillen.
Formed in 1972 by a bilateral agreement between the National Union of Students (NUS) in the UK and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) here in Ireland, the NUS-USI is self-referred to as ‘the student movement in Northern Ireland’, representing over 200,000 students in the North between Higher and Further Education institutions. The conference itself was, naturally, of a much smaller scale than USI’s congress with much less than 100 attendees and only a handful of institutions represented.
Over the past year NUS-USI has been almost entirely in the background, rearing it’s head every now and then to make a press statement or launch a campaign which gets little coverage past the students already involved in NUS-USI, so it was important that there was an assurance at the conference that the NUS-USI would be pushing harder to represent students in the North this year. In my opinion, the glimmer of hope that there would be some concrete move by NUS-USI to get into gear was through quality motions being passed and through the officer and presidential elections.
Reluctantly making our way through a lot of buearaucratic and tedious sessions in the conference, motions came to call and, thankfully, a lot of good motions were brought to a vote for students in the North – albeit a very small number of them. It’s difficult to say that the votes carried through are truly representative of students in the North of Ireland; for the most part I think they are, but students in the six counties are very difficult to mobilise or to gauge opinion of because they largely recoil from political debate. On top of that, the delegates elected to represent students could get elected on a very small number of votes and they’re all union-involved people already; they’re not typical students, representative of the entire student body. In saying that, unlike the South’s terrifyingly careerist method of picking delegates, where hacks and careerists in the Unions can handpick their SU’s delegation if they so choose, at least the delegates at NUS-USI were for most part, if not entirely, elected to be there. Those elected voted not to let particular NUS-USI policy lapse, including a number of policies on supporting FE institutions – which are severely under-funded and forgotten about -, internationalism, mental health services and bringing LGBT Pink Training to the North through NUS-USI.
20 new motions were discussed by the delegates. Initially 21, Motion #7 (proposed by QUBSU, though not communicated to anybody in the delegation clearly, as it was opposed by most of them) was withdrawn. Motion #7 called for activists to retain the ‘Keep the Cap’ position on tuition fees and furthermore to be “realistic” in terms of the 2011 DEL Budget and to subsequently call “any group or protest which calls for free education… unrealistic and detrimental to the student body by offering something which in this current climate is unachievable” which was refused to be backed by most QUBSU delegates, particularly the two Free Education for Everyone (FEE) activists amongst them who were ready to argue against the motion on the grounds of it being defeatist, against the interests of students and contradictory to the policies of NUS-USI’s parent unions.
Discussed motions included opposing cuts to the DEL Student Support Funds which are in place to support vulnerable students, to support a private rented sector tenant’s association, to support internationalisation of students in the North, for NUS-USI to provide a platform for suicide awareness training, more engagement with LGB and T students (with a note that T and LGB issues are to a degree different and most be understood so) and to re-brand/re-name NUS-USI to stop confusion over the Union – all of which passed. There were two important Palestine motions which also passed: one on human rights in Palestine which mandated NUS-USI to condemn Israeli human rights abuses in Palestine, support and facilitate students groups involved in the promotion of human rights for Palestine, to implement the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and to educate students on these issues, and the other motion on LGBT rights and opposing “pink washing” in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. A motion calling for better organisation and mobilisation by NUS-USI amongst all students across the North was also passed, which is brilliant because NUS-USI’s campaigns are usually Belfast centred and are rarely felt outside that area so maybe this will help campaigns greatly in the North. Unfortunately the motion to support equal fees for British students studying in the North fell.
Three motions passed which should have been highly controversial within the six counties, but shockingly weren’t to those at the conference. Core Issues (an extremist Christian organisation which claims to ‘cure’ gay people of their homosexuality) came up and a motion passed to oppose any FE or HE involvement with the group and to fight their offensive and inaccurate disinformation. Secondly there was unanimous opposition to the DUP and their call to keep the blood donation ban on gay men, mandating the NUS-USI to “campaign and pressure the DUP… around the Blood Ban and hold them to account for their horrendously homophobic track record” and to “take a stand against the DUP’s anti-liberation stance”. Finally the NUS-USI for the first time ever took a pro-choice stance as a union, with delegates unanimously voting to “lobby the government and campaign for women’s right to choose, under medical guidance, to terminate a pregnancy without having to leave Northern Ireland and to support the sentiments of the Pro Choice Movement”.
Thankfully a lot of good motions were passed within such a short amount of time and this makes the NUS-USI a lot stronger and a much more militant union – on paper. I’d like to see in the next year the NUS-USI be active in its stances now, not just come back next year and do more of the auld back-slapping for passing motions and doing little about them. I fear that this may be the case, but I would love to be proven wrong and see a truly strong union in the North fight for the students in the six counties. Personally I felt this would have been a lot more likely with the election of Adam McGibbon, aforementioned. There was a close-call election for President with Adrianne Peltz being re-elected with 25 votes to 20. I find this result extremely unfortunate, Adrianne hasn’t been as strong a president as is needed for the NUS-USI and I feel Adam McGibbon, who has proven himself in terms of good ideas, carrying through with them and delivering, mobilising and relating to students and not backing down when it comes to important issues, could have actually achieved something for students in the North. If we’re lucky, he’ll still be heavily involved with student politics or at least student issues in the coming year, but if not we can just keep an eye out and see how “the student movement in Northern Ireland” goes…. unfortunately I fear much of the same is to come, please prove me wrong NUS-USI.
The officer board election to NUS-USI was as follows:
Re-Open Nominations/RON (Deputy President)
Thom Hinds (FEUD Officer)
Sarah Wright (Education and Welfare Officer)
Rachel Wallace (LGBT Officer)
Matthew O’Hare (Environmental Awareness Officer)
Justyn McKay (Community and Volunteering Officer)
Henry Adams (Equality Officer)
Nobody stood for Students with Disabilities Officer or Women’s Officer.
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