Anti-fees demonstration forces Ahern to abandon public interview

 

FORMER TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern had to abandon a public discussion in NUI Galway (NUIG) last night when he was jostled by students protesting over the planned reintroduction of college fees.

Several dozen gardaí were involved in trying to break up the protest, which began at the entrance to the campus shortly before 8pm and continued outside a lecture theatre for another 45 minutes. Gardaí made one arrest.

Mr Ahern, who was still on crutches due to his recent leg injury, had been invited to a reception in the college quadrangle before taking part in the public interview.

The interview, hosted by the NUIG Literary and Debating Society, was to have been conducted by Connacht Tribune editor Dave O’Connell.

As Mr Ahern’s approached the venue from Newcastle road, his car was held up by 30 students who sat on the ground and linked arms to prevent access to the campus. The students are supporters of the Free Education for Everyone (Free) campaign.

Gardaí following in three squad cars removed the protesters, some of whom claimed that they were “roughed up” by officers.

Mr Ahern attended the reception in the quadrangle, and was then escorted to the college concourse.

The former taoiseach was shaking hands with students en route to the O’Flaherty lecture theatre when he was then jostled. Up to 15 gardaí surrounded Mr Ahern and locked arms to escort him into the theatre. The demonstration continued outside, and a decision was then taken to cancel the function. Mr Ahern, who was visibly shaken, was unable to leave the theatre for about 20 minutes until arrangements were made for his safe exit. Protesters had blocked one lift, and the exit was limited to the main concourse door.

Several hundred students had been waiting for up to an hour to attend the discussion, and some expressed disappointment that the event had to be cancelled.

Literary and Debating Society auditor Dan Colley, a grandson of the late Fianna Fáil politician George Colley, said he was “disappointed” at the turn of events. “I think they were probably picking the wrong target in picking Bertie Ahern,” he said. “This was a failure of freedom of speech.”

He invited students to participate in a debate on Thursday on the college fees issue, which Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív has been invited to address.

The society was due to present a president’s medal to Mr Ahern; Mr Colley said that this would be presented to him at a later date. Mr Ahern was driven from the college to the G Hotel in Galway. Richard Manton of Free said the students had taken a decision to block any Fianna Fáil politician from entering the college by peaceful means.

“They want to block our right to an education by re-introducing college fees,” he said.

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