pic taken by Hugh O’Brien from Limerick Blogger
“He blocks access to our education, we block his access to the opening. – Pa O’ Brien ULSU President, advocate of a graduate tax and Fianna Fail member.
Minister Martin Cullen attended the opening of the newly built Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) building on University of Limerick campus last Monday evening. Ahead of the scheduled event, ULSU issued a press release headlined “UL Students to block Minister from ICO opening”. What actually transpired was an entirely different set of events.
At about 1pm, ULSU officers led an impressive turnout of about 400 students towards the Thomond Bridge on campus to block vehicular access to the ICO. The only other access to the building was via the Living footbridge, which ULSU president, Pa O’Brien ensured us was being monitored by a fellow SU officer. The fact that the location chosen for the blockade was not the building Cullen intended on attending was originally put down to the assumed tactical naivety of the union officers, but the motives for the location chosen later became apparent.
Students were corralled onto the sides of the bridge to allow traffic through until Cullens car was within sight. After a long period standing in the rain, the minsterial Merc finally appeared in the distance. The union officers sprang into action. Adorned in matching yellow t-shirts, they attempted to whip the crow into a frenzy while arranging them into a nicely formed block, spread across the width of the bridge. At this point the almost total absence of campus security and gardai on the bridge sent the spidey-senses tingling.
The length and direction of the road meant that the protest was visible to anyone driving on it from a considerable distance plus Garda vehicles had been allowed to cross the bridge throughout the protest. It was not as though Cullen had suddenly been faced with a spontaneous protest, yet his car slowly crawled up to the bridge with only a single member of the Gardai between his chauffeur driven Mercedes and 400 students intent on a blockade.
Before the car reached the bridge, it stopped and turned around. The union immediately announced that the protest was over and free scoops would be available in the bar. As students began to leave the bridge, ULSU Community Relations Officer, Paddy Rockett stated to some of those present that a deal had been worked which would allow Martin Cullen access to the ICO as long as he agreed to do the u-turn at the bridge (hence the total lack of security on the bridge itself). Rockett stated, “We agreed to block the bridge, not the minister. He had to turn away so it was a victory for us”. When asked where the minister was going Rockett stated,“He’s being chaperoned to the ICO”. In yesterdays Limerick Leader Cullen claimed that, “There was an agreement that we would go up, recognise them, which is fine, I have no issue with that…”
A deal had been arranged between ULSU president (and Fianna Fail member) Pa O’Brien, Cullen and the Gardai which enabled both Cullen and ULSU to get what they wanted – ULSU got their photograph of Cullen turning away against a backdrop of student extras while Cullen was able to waltz into the opening of the Irish Chamber Orchestra building totally unimpeded. Once Cullens car turned around, it simply headed off on in the direction of the other bridge.
“Following the confrontation, students wearing student union T-shirts angrily remonstrated with the protesters.” – The Examiner
As the union called an end to their protest, members of UL Free Education for Everyone argued that they should attempt a blockade of the pedestrian bridge. Realising that they had been duped by the union officers, about 80 students made the trek across campus but were unfortunately too late to block Cullens access. A group then attempted to gain access to the ICO building itself but were prevented from doing so by the Gardai. As word travelled across campus of what was occurring, the union officers downed their free pints and legged it across to the “unofficial protest”. When they arrived, they hysterically started screaming at the students involved to leave.
” One student said that a group who were not students at UL had come on campus to commandeer the demonstration. ” – The Examiner
UL Free Education for Everyone (FEE) had asked two members of UCD FEE to come down to Limerick to speak at a public meeting after the protest to talk about the successful blockades which had been carried out there. There was no group of outside agitators who tried to “commandeer the demonstration”. It was UL students who made the decision to head to the ICO building.
Under constant harassment from union officers, the numbers present at the ICO slowly dwindled until only a few were left. Due to the numbers, those present decided not to try and block Cullens car given the Garda-student ratio. When the minister eventually strolled out of the building, protesters walked towards him chanting “No cutbacks, no fees, no Fianna Fail TDs”. At this point several Gardai, including armed special branch officers, tackled protesters to the ground, kneeling on the neck of one of those involved. As a number of students were being physically held by Gardai until Cullen left, one of the plain clothes detectives stated to a protester that, “this wasn’t what we’d agreed with ye”.
ULSU treated its members with utter contempt and disrespect in Mondays macabre charade. Mobilising students on the pretence of a blockade, only to use it as a diversion to facilitate easy access for the minister to a building, was a sickening action for a union to undertake. By orchestrating a spectacle away from the building Cullen was heading towards, the possibility of Cullens access being genuinely blocked was negated. When students themselves tried to organise a protest they had their efforts, including the scope for successful direct action, undermined by the union leadership.
Aware of what they were doing, the union deceitfully misled students on the bridge by failing to tell them that the outcome of the protest had already been decided. All students had to do was play out their predetermined role in a script crafted by the SU, Cullen and the Gardai. Despite the rhetoric of direct action, and what was subsequently written in the papers, the protest was little more than a stage-managed photo opportunity. There was absolutely no attempt by ULSU to block the ministers access to the opening of the ICO despite stating in the press release that:
“It is our understanding that Minster Batt O’Keeffe has crossed the line in terms of registration fees and barring access to education.
With that in mind, we believe we should show his fellow Minister the same hospitality that we have been afforded: he blocks access to our education, we block access to the opening.”
In UCD the grassroots campaign group, Free Education for Everyone (FEE) has taken the inititative and organised blockades of members of government. As a result, UCD is rapidly becoming a government-free zone with Conor Lenihan, Mary Hanafin and Martin Mansergh all pulling out of planned appearances in Belfield due to student pressure.
Cutbacks, the increase in registration fee and the threatened reintroduction of tutition fees can only be defeated if students start organising themselves at a grassroots level, enaging in protests which move beyond catharsis. Turning up and consuming a protest before consuming a few pints doesn’t work. People need to decide for themselves the nature of protests they want, rather than relying on other people to do it for them. This can only be done by working alongside local student unions (where possible) and USI in independent grassroots groups which make links with groups in wider society. It wasn’t voter registration campaigns that helped abolish third-level tuition fees orfees for student nurses – it was grassroots pressure which did.
In addition to FEE in UCD, branches are now in the process of being established in UL, NUI Galway, UCC, Trinity and NUI Maynooth. If you want to get in contact please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Today – UL Free Education for Everyone meeting
6pm at the Foundation Building, Allegro cafe
UL FEE will also be distributing leaflets about ULSUs role in the Cullen demo throughout the day
Today – UCC Free Education for Everyone Protest
Department of Education on Washington Street Cork on the 19th. Meet
at the gates of UCC at 1.30PM. For more info contact – email@example.com
Tomorrow (Thursday) – Trinity Free Education for Everyone Blockade of Minister of Education Batt O’ Keefe
Minister of Education Batt O’Keefe is planning to make an appearance in the Atrium in Trinity at 4.15pm this Thursday, 20th November to launch a new PhD programme. This is a politician that is currently
trying to block access to our universities and colleges by reintroducing fees. We need to now send him a clear message that as long as he or any other politician is planning to do this, we will block their access. He is not welcome here.
Meet at Front Arch at 3.30 to march on the Atrium. Bring banners, placards, whistles, drums and anything else to give O’Keefe the reception he deserves.
Monday 24th Nov (and every Monday) – UCD Free Education for Everyone Meeting
Outside the Arts Cafe @ 5pm – firstname.lastname@example.org
Saturday 29th Nov – Donegal: Fight the Education Cuts
INTO demo – details here closer to the date
Saturday 6th Dec – Dublin: Fight the Education Cuts
more details closer to the date
The bottom two photos come from chemicalsunday(Denis Vahey)’s flikr photostream