Free Education for Everyone (FEE) activist Donal Fallon reports on the success of NUI Maynooth students in organizing to oppose Fianna Fáil corruption and support the unions.
The ‘Student Movement’ in Ireland is a funny one. It tends to find itself in a stagnant state and with its banners well and truly under the stairs for three to four years at a time. Then, as if like clockwork, a wise Minister of Education will come forward with the idea of third level fees and once more students will be loaded onto mini buses to parade from the Garden of Remembrance to the front of Dáil Éireann.
The last threatened implementation of fees created a scenario where the left found itself in a position where there was a dire need for a grassroots, left campaign. This campaign, Free Education for Everyone (FEE), began in University College Dublin but spread to other institutions. In NUI Maynooth, even after the threat of third level fees had been removed from the table, dozens of students stood behind the FEE banner on the picket lines (and in the pouring rain) with staff at the University during the Irish Congress of Trade Unions day of action last November. Students, then, can clearly organise on matters other than ‘Me Féin’ anti-fees demonstrations, as the success of our campaign in NUI Maynooth has shown.
The laughable appointment of Bertie Ahern T.D as an ‘Honorary Adjunct Professor’ by the University led to the sort of action you would expect rational people to take in any institution that deemed such a man worthy of praise. As political activists, we made sure there was much more than ‘fees’ at the heart of our campaign against the appointment. The Corrib Gas debacle, the culture of corruption within Fianna Fáil and the economic mess Bertie and his party are responsible for featured in the campaign from day one.
A petition of well over 1,000 signatures was delivered to the office of the University President by a rally of several hundred students and staff. This action was grassroots, and was not endorsed by the Student Union, after Union Council voted against opposing the appointment. What we witnessed in NUI Maynooth was the sight of hundreds of students taking action for themselves, speaking up for themselves and organising democratically among themselves.
The campaign against Ahern gained massive media attention, ranging from the front page of The Irish Times to a feature piece on the George Hook radio programme . The University insisted to a local media publication that Bertie would deliver an inaugural lecture and that it would be publicly advertised.
Of course, we all know what will follow. Either Bertie will arrive, sunglasses and all, during the summer break to an empty campus, or that ‘public notice’ will go up an hour or so beforehand. Still, whether or not the actual event is opposed on the day, the farcical nature of it has been exposed. The Irish Daily Mail for example highlighted the fact that the academic who proposed Bertie for the position is himself a Fianna Fáil member, and had attended a Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis in the presence of Bertie and his sort before proposing him for the role. Another case of ‘jobs for the boys.’
Of course we cannot get hung up on Bertie. Considerable blocks of NUI Maynooth students on ICTU demonstrations, the fantastic sight of students holding the picket lines, the presence of left wing activists pushing a solid political line at Union Council level and the new links built with staff and Unions on campus are all a sign we’re moving in the right direction.
The slogan ‘Pages not Wages’ used by Trinity College Student Union during a recent library sit in was a fine example of what we must avoid in our movement. We cannot alienate the workers within our communities, nor can we turn a blind eye to the world beyond our campus walls. Students, on a grassroots level, must become active. It’s not about ticking boxes in a Student Union election once a year, but rather remaining active and vocal throughout the year, and helping to create the society we want to see.