In the first Free Education for Everyone protest in Trinity, around 150 students turned up to send a clear message of opposition to fees to Batt O’Keeffe, the Minister for Education. However, in the second SU leader betrayal of the week, the Students’ Union President, Cathal Reilly welcomed O’Keeffe to the college with a handshake and a smile.
When FEE members in Trinity had discovered that O’Keeffe was to come to launch a PhD programme on Thursday, they quickly convened a meeting and agreed to organise a protest. Leaflets and posters declaring “If he blocks our access to college, we’ll block his!” were produced advertising the protest.
The Students’ Union also agreed to organise a protest, but wouldn’t agree to a blockade, instead calling for a silent protest. Their posters advertising the silent protest declared, “If he won’t talk to us, we won’t talk to him!”
With O’Keeffe due to arrive at 4.15pm, people began to assemble from 3.45pm. A few students and Students’ Union leaders had their mouths taped, ready for the silent protest. As FEE members talked to students coming to the protest and signed people up to the FEE campaign, it was clear that the majority of people agreed that O’Keeffe shouldn’t be allowed silently in. At the very least they felt he should be met with angry chanting, or preferably should be blockaded from entering college just as his fees would deny access to third level education to many young people. Students joined in with chanting – “No cutbacks, no fees, no Fianna Fail TDs!” was particularly popular. Some of those who had taped their mouths untaped themselves to join the chanting.
The Garda presence was relatively high, with seven or eight Gardai manning police barriers together with Trinity security. A number of FEE members from UCD were directed off campus under the Public Order Act for daring to stray outside of “the designated protest area”!
Behind the Garda barriers, awaiting O’Keeffe’s arrival were the Provost, Dr. John Hegarty, who has spoken out in favour of fees, and surprisingly to those students present, the Students’ Union President, Cathal Reilly.
The chanting continued as students awaited the arrival of O’Keeffe, who was running over half an hour late. Then at 4.48pm, the ministerial Merc arrived. Garda marshalling and the crowd being taken by surprise meant that the blockade that had been discussed didn’t come to pass. Nevertheless, O’Keeffe was met with a loud and angry response. The 150 students chanted “Batt O’Keeffe hear us clear, get your fees out of here!”.
When O’Keeffe emerged from his car, the loud chanting continued, accompanied by boos and cries of “shame”. But the most shameful act of the evening was still to come. After the Provost greeted the Minister, the SU President was next in line! He shook his hands and had a quiet word. According to the Irish Times he introduced himself politely and requested a meeting at some stage.
Seeing the SU President meet and greet O’Keeffe rightly enraged many of the protestors. Not only did Reilly not blockade the Minister, or even shout at him – he even broke his own slogan of “If he won’t talk to us, we won’t talk to him”. You’d be forgiven for wondering if he was taking lessons from his counterparts in UL who allowed another Minister, Martin Cullen onto UL campus on Monday!
Unfortunately, another SU leader acted disgracefully and betrayed those students (the members he is meant to represent) who turned up to fight fees. He should be held accountable by Trinity students.
Students’ Unions should be building mass militant campaigns across the country against fees. Instead, some of their so-called leaders seem to have more in common with government ministers than their own members.
Free Education for Everyone is committed to working with Students’ Unions where possible to build the most effective campaign. But where their leaders fail to meet their responsibilities, FEE is willing and able to organise independent campaigning activities while working to transform the unions.
FEE now has groups of activists in colleges across the country. Building these groups and extending to more colleges is necessary to lay the basis for a campaign that can defeat fees. Contact FEE to get involved at email@example.com.