UCD students’ union marks 40th anniversary

Student leaders say that despite changing times some issues never go away

 

Students today are accused of lacking the radicalism of their predecessors but, according to Diarmuid Coogan, who lent his name to one of the most famous student protests of the past 40 years, this is based on nostalgia. “There was always a lot of apathy at UCD – an ‘I’m all right Jack’ attitude that did not really care about inequalities in society. It was an effort to make people engage,” he says.

In July 1988, Coogan became president of the UCD students’ union, an organisation which is marking its 40th anniversary this month with a series of events including a dinner for past office-holders today.

The day after Coogan took up office all of 27 years ago, a couriered letter arrived from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (Spuc) threatening legal action if the union published any information on abortion in its annual welfare guide.

“It was not a burning issue for any of us,” he recalls. “It was not to the forefront” – but it soon came to be as Spuc vs Coogan was lodged in the High Court.

“We had this massive general meeting to see if there was student support for the mandate. It was a very emotionally charged meeting in Theatre L and the majority voted in favour of distributing material, and later that afternoon we distributed it. I was sort of looking over my shoulder going home: Are the police going to be called now?”

High Court win

The students won the High Court case but lost in the Supreme Court two years later where their legal team included Adrian Hardiman, one of the last presidents of the union’s forerunner, the Student Representative Council.

“Within a month of the ruling I got a bill for £38,000. Back then you would have bought a nice house in south county Dublin for that.”

He got the letter exactly a day after he was laid off from his first job in a small packaging company, and there were other anxious times ahead.

A final order for payment came in 1992 “when I had just received notice that the interest rate on my mortgage was going up to 18 per cent”.

By then, however, the taxing master had reduced the bill by three-quarters and the union – despite its unlimited status – agreed to pay it off with the income from its shops.

“Ultimately information on abortion was allowed,” Coogan notes. “The stand we took was an important part of that whole process and was something that made a change in society. So it was good from that point of view.”

There were other famous campaigns down the years over student accommodation, access to contraception, and conditions for the campus’ underpaid cleaning staff.

When Marguerite Ahearne took over in 1980 as the first woman president of the union “the dominant themes were the liberal agenda; gay rights was just beginning.” She says “there was not even a mention at that stage about abortion” but the union had been fighting the law introduced by Charlie Haughey when he was minister for health demanding a doctor’s prescription for the sale of condoms.

“We would sell them out of our offices and we would try to get ourselves arrested but never did,” Ahearne recalls. While some of this was just theatre, she was struck at how awful the law was when she met college porters and other staff calling in to buy condoms.

The Troubles gave an added edge to student politics, and Ahearne recalls tensions with the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) – an organisation then associated with the “Stickies”; Soviet-leaning activists sympathetic to the IRA.

Opening up university

She had been involved in a convention of college unions that wrote the USI’s new constitution. It was there she also met her future husband Jim Collins, who was head of the delegation from NIHE Limerick, the precursor to University of Limerick. Their two children went in turn to UL and UCD.

“My biggest motivation was opening up university to working class people. I was from a rural background and I saw quite wealthy, farming families who had no problem getting a grant for their children.

“My dad was a carpenter, and I didn’t get a grant because of his overtime. So I had to work instead and I saved every penny for two years to go to college,” says Ahearne, who retains an interest in education and chairs two school boards in New Ross, Co Wexford.

Unequal access to higher education remains “a huge problem”, she adds, citing the absence of a university in the southeast. She might equally have pointed out the Coalition’s ditching of Ruairí Quinn’s plan to tackle abuses of the grant system by wealthy land owners.

Feargal Hynes, current president of the UCD students’ union, says the cost of education remains the biggest issue on campus today. Its busiest services are in welfare and educational support, particularly accommodation, although more mundane issues consume its attention too.

“You might be involved in designing academic disciplines or dealing with a water fountain in a classroom. Either of those could be very important to the students involved.”

The union broke away from the USI in 2013 on a mixture of policy and cost-saving grounds and “there is no eagerness to go back”, he notes.

“One thing that has changed a lot is party politics has fallen out of favour.” While Fianna Fáil has been hit hardest on campus, even Sinn Féin’s presence “is less than four years ago which is unusual because it’s against the national trend”.

But Hynes says students are “mobilising” around single issues, and the union is launching a campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum on marriage equality next week – having secured a 97 per cent mandate in a campus poll.

To mark the anniversary, archive material from the union has been collated at su40.ucd.ie and is also being shown to visitors in an interactive display at the UCD student centre until the summer

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