10,000 students take to streets


STUDENTS MARCH:STUDENT protesters brought traffic to a standstill in Dublin city centre yesterday afternoon as an estimated 15,000 young people took to the streets to voice concern about the potential reintroduction of third-level fees.

Students gathered in Parnell Square at lunchtime ahead of the march, which culmintated with a rally outside Leinster House where the protesters were addressed by student leaders and opposition politicians.

The students cited budgetary cutbacks in the education sector, a €600 increase to the annual student registration charge announced in the Budget and recent comments by Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe on the possible reintroduction of third-level fees as the fuel for their protest.

The protest was organised by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the representative body of some 250,000 third-level attendees in the State.

USI president Shane Kelly said he was delighted with the response of students, which he said was one of the largest student protests in years.

"There is an appetite among the student population to have their rights and their voice listened to," he said. Mr Kelly said he believed the imposition of fees would be a disaster for students and their families, and would put plans for the development of a knowledge-based economy for the State severely at risk.

The march commenced to the beat of steel drums shortly before 2pm, then proceeded down O'Connell Street, on to College Green, up Dawson Street and across Molesworth Street before culminating at Leinster House.

Students carried banners and placards stating "education not recession", "free fees means more degrees" and "Enda Kenny would not approve of this".

Chants of "no cutbacks, no fees, no Fianna Fáil TDs" and "education is a right not a privilege" could be heard throughout the afternoon.

A strong Garda presence could be seen throughout the good-natured protest and gardaí last said there had been no trouble or arrests following the march.

A number of TDs and senators were awaiting arrival of the students to Leinster House, among them were Labour Party education spokesman Ruairí Quinn, Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes, Sinn Féin Senator Pearse Doherty and Independent Senator Ivana Bacik.

Addressing the students, Mr Quinn said he was encouraged by their passion and that the Government should be wary because students were not prepared to lie down on this issue and accept the return of fees.

"It just shows how many students value free access to education and how wrong the Government would be to reverse the decision to bring in free fees," he said.

Mr Hayes said the protesters were sending out a strong message that young people would not pay the price for the mishandling of the education sector and the economy by Fianna Fáil over the past 11 years.

Both Mr Quinn and Mr Hayes said in order to make a difference students would have to take their impressive energy back to grassroots level and lobby their local TD about the matter.

Mr Quinn said the Government had buckled on the issues of medical cards and income levies following the budget and that he anticipated they would do so again on the issue of education if the were pressured.

Mr Kelly said one of the primary reasons for the protest was Mr O'Keeffe's refusal to sit down and discuss the current Government position on university fees with student representatives.

"He is very happy asking for our money but he doesn't want to listen to what we have to say on the subject.

We are here as the second biggest union in the country demanding to meet with the Minister and his Department," Mr Kelly said following the student rally.

A spokeswoman for Mr O'Keeffe last night said he had responded to a request to meet student leaders but was later unable to do so due to commitments arising following the budget.

She said the request is still on hand and that a meeting will be scheduled as soon as the Minister's schedule permits.