'We got our message across'

 

MY EDUCATION WEEK:Gary Redmond President, USI

THURSDAY

Met Ruairí Quinn in Marlborough Street today. Actually, less of a meeting and more of a briefing. He outlined the situation with the public finances and the difficult choices that have to be made. We just got the news that the Grangegorman project is on ice, so our DIT members are going to have to stay put – health and safety notwithstanding.

The distinct impression I got from the Minister was that the primary sector will be prioritised in this budget; there are not enough schools for the amount of children being born. We came away worried.

Also worried about where I’m going to find a clean shirt and an iron for tonight’s Prime Time. It’s always hard to know what to wear as a student representative – should you look like the people you represent? I think it has to be a suit if I’m going to be taken seriously.

Alone in the green room at RTÉ. The Minister is already on set, talking about mortgage interest rates. Can’t decide if it would have been better to have him here in the green room for small talk (or big talk) while we wait. On balance, I think it’s better that I’m alone to gather my thoughts.

Appearance went well, I think. My mother says so anyway. Got a huge response on Twitter. I’m surprised at some of the people who sit in to watch Prime Timeon a Thursday night! I tried to push the message that the fees and grants issue isn’t just about students, it’s about families struggling to meet costs. From the response I got, I think that came across and linked well with the mortgage rates item.

FRIDAY

Got up early and headed for Stephen’s Green to set up school desks and chairs for an outdoor classroom. It’s all part of a photocall to highlight the Stop Fees protest next Wednesday. Since becoming president I have tried to make the photocalls more and more interesting – give photo-editors something to work with. Unfortunately, it rained on our outdoor classroom for an hour and a half.

Spent the afternoon with solicitors working on a case that some students are taking against the Department of Education over budget changes last year. Because of where they live their grants were cut from €6,000 to €2,000 overnight. (The non-adjacent grant, provided for students who travel to college, was altered so that you have to be 45km away to qualify for the top rate now.) Left with 182 pages of the Minister’s response.

A long afternoon of reading, armed with a legal terminology guide and a dictionary. I think my Latin has come on a bit. Enough! Off to the pub to watch Ireland. I wanted to be in Tallin but there’s too much on this week. My first engagement when I finish at USI will be a trip to Poland.

SATURDAY

Woke up to an Irish Timesinterview with UCC president Michael Murphy, calling for student fees of at least €4,500-€5,000 a year. The Stop Fees protest has a fight on its hands. Let them come in decent numbers! Imagine if I’m standing on a stage in Merrion Street on Wednesday talking to 10 people! The student union leaders on the ground are telling me otherwise.

Met senior Gardaí to plan the route of the march. I am pushing hard for the final stage to be set up outside the Department of the Taoiseach on Merrion Street, rather than on the square. The optics are important, I think.

We’re all hoping that the march will pass off peacefully. I don’t want to spend Thursday doing interviews about trouble on the march.

Students and their families are angry. On the eve of the last general election it looked as though Fine Gael might form a single-party government. Many of our members and their families voted Labour because of their pledge on fees and now they feel duped.

SUNDAY

No day of rest this week. Too much planning ahead. We’re working hard to raise the profile of this union as high as possible. The atmosphere is different out there than it was when I joined the UCD students union in 2004. You wouldn’t get thousands of students out on to the street back then.

MONDAY

Back-to-back local radio interviews. We didn’t used to pay much attention to local radio – we thought that all the agenda-setting happened on the national airwaves. We know better now. If you want a chance to explain the campaign to the people that it will effect, local radio is essential.

Tonight, it’s The Frontlinewith Pat Kenny. Very strange show, this one. Because of the studio audience you don’t know how it’s going to go. Higher education was left to the end and we only got five minutes. It was enough – whatever I said to Brian Hayes nearly got him out of his seat. He reminded me that he told me he would sign no pledge on fees. Touched a nerve there. I think it’s reflection of the pressure politicians are under over the fees issue. Our campaign saw 10,000 people e-mail their local TDs last week.

TUESDAY

Tomorrow’s the day. I heard that while me and my suit were taking on the Minister last week, 10 Labour backbenchers were meeting on the subject of the fees issue. Pressure’s on.

WEDNESDAY

Woke up with a sick feeling that no one would show up at the march, but stifled it and headed for Morning Ireland. An important interview to set the tone for the day. By 10am I had word that the buses were filling from Letterkenny to Tralee and I started to relax. By 2pm there were so many students in Parnell Square that we had to start the march early to ease the squeeze. Depending on who you ask, we had 15,000-25,000 people marching. We filled O’Connell Street at one point, which looks good.

It was a great feeling to address such a large crowd on Merrion Square. It felt great to see that so many people are passionate about Ireland, recovery and the future of this country. I think we got our message across.

Tonight, a stint on Vincent Browne. Going on that show is like playing darts blindfolded. You just don’t know how to approach it, it could go any direction. I was up against Simon Coveney of Fine Gael and it got quite heated. He said that the pleas of students would have to be considered in the light of a Sustainability Report soon to be issued by the Higher Education Authority.

I told him there was nothing new in that report, that it was all said by Hunt already. He told me that I couldn’t possibly know the content of that report – it hadn’t been published yet. I reminded him that as a member of the board of the authority, I’ve had a copy of it for days. That threw him.

Ministers always make the mistake of not taking the USI as seriously as other unions. We are much more professional and well- briefed than they realise.

THURSDAY

Seán Flynn reports in this newspaper that Quinn is backing off the idea of fees averaging €5,000. What was that I was saying about the power and influence of the USI?

THIS WEEK I WAS. . .

READING

184 pages of a legal document prepared by the Department of Education

WATCHING

The West Wing, for the sixth time

LISTENING TO

The new album by The Coronas, Closer to You