Comment & Analysis
Mar 4, 2016

Voting No to USI is Not Just a Simple Rejection of a National Union

Chris Lee, a campaign manager for the no side in the 2013 UCD disaffiliation referendum, argues that the debate about reaffiliation is more nuanced than some imply.

Chris LeeOp-ed Contributor
Voting during USI's 2013 congress.
USI Photo

As the debate about UCD rejoining the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) rages in Belfield, writers here in Trinity have been quick to analyse the choice facing UCD students. An article by Daniel O’Brien, the Assistant Editor of The University Times, championed the case of the national union, but fell desperately short of seeing the true depth of the no side’s argument. He suggested that the only driver behind the referendum in UCD in 2013 was the financial problems being faced by the local union. As a campaign manager of that no side it was disappointing to be painted so one dimensionally. Let me assure you, UCD voting no to USI had nothing to do with financial cost, and everything to do with opportunity cost.

The UCD no campaign in 2013 was the only successful no campaign of that year. UCC, Trinity, NUIM, NUIG and DCU all went to the polls around the same time. What made the UCD referendum different was the depth of the no side. I will not pretend to know the full background of the campaigns in other colleges, but from my understanding most no campaigns were run by students with little no involvement in local students’ unions. In Maynooth, the no platform was at least partially a grassroots pro-life organisation. In Trinity, the campaign management was largely drawn from Young Fine Gael.

A strong national union was an absolute necessity and USI in its current form was failing in that role


In UCD the campaign team was very diverse. Many of us had been to USI’s congress before, some more than once. Many of us were final-year students, with extensive experience in student politics. Our main criticism of USI was not a rejection of the idea of a national union. Instead, it was a belief that a strong national union was an absolute necessity and USI in its current form was failing in that role.

USI was not an inherently bad concept. It was merely a flawed organisation: an organisation whose greatest decision-making organ, its congress, was entirely comprised of “whoever was available to fill the slots on the delegation” – an organisation where officers last one year but mandates last three years, thus never mandating an individual to do anything, and an organisation with such a large democratic deficit that in 2013 congress voted by majority to declare an anti-Israel motion an “Irish student issue”, while simultaneously voting down a similar motion to declare a policy on drug culture to be a “non-student, national issue”.

Attending USI’s congress can sometimes feel like a mix between a support group and a circle jerk. Meaningful debate is kept out and hopeless romanticism is put front and centre. An outgoing officer board member will use their officer report to thank those who helped them get elected and reminisce on the experiences they shared with the friends they have made on USI. Etiquette dictates that the questions asked of them focus on what their fondest memories will be, rather than focusing on why their mandates remain incomplete.

Mandates are voted in purely on their philosophical merits while ignoring their practical implications. A badly written and potentially damaging motion on mental health will always get accepted. It is not unusual for a proposer to spend two to three minutes of their five-minute speech outlining the personal circumstances that inspired them to put forward this motion. It is not unusual for two of the three questions they are asked to consist entirely of the questioner thanking the submitter for handing in the motion. It is almost impossible to debate these motions in any meaningful way.

As an organisation USI needs to grow up and become a serious political entity

As an organisation, USI needs to grow up and become a serious political entity. Every sports club and society in Trinity takes their intervarsity more seriously than the average delegate takes USI’s congress. There are 266 pages of mandates in the USI policy manual. I implore those who wish to champion the virtues of USI to read them and keep in mind that every single one passed congress with a majority. You will see hundreds of mandates with single-sentence explanations, giving vague instructions on how to achieve grandiose goals.

For the 2013 congress, mandate 13 NA6 was submitted by text message: “Officerboard to lobby the government to initiate and release funds to fund PhD scholarships who would look into both causes/solutions of the current crisis and debt reduction.” There is no preamble and there is no evidence. It is not aimed at any specific officer. The phrase “initiate and release funds” is meaningless.

The proposer spoke on the motion for the better part of 90 seconds, and used the remaining three minutes until the guillotine to make person jabs at delegates he did not like

The same delegation in 2013 submitted the following motion, allegedly also by text message: “Officerboard to set up a committee whose function it is to establish ties and affiliations with other groups in our society who oppose austerity.” This motion sparked a UCDSU walkout. The above sentence is the full extent of what was being debated. There was no preamble or guidance. The motion came up for debate less than five minutes before the “guillotine fell” on the debating session. This meant that the proposing speaker knew that all he had to do was speak for five minutes and no opposition speaker would be allowed to take the floor as we would be out of time. A motion to raise standing orders to extend the sessions was called by TCDSU and UCDSU. It was ruled out of order. The proposer spoke on the motion for the better part of 90 seconds, and used the remaining three minutes until the guillotine to make person jabs at delegates he did not like. The motion passed.

Ignore the fact that USI allows clearly incomplete motions to be submitted. Ignore the fact that USI allows motions to be voted on when no opposition speaker has been allowed to debate them. Ignore the fact that increasing time to allow one opposition speaker can be ruled out of order. Ignore the fact the no chairperson stepped in to prevent an obstructionist speaker using personal attacks to fill his time. Put all of that to one side for just one second and consider the fact that the above mandate passed that room, in those circumstances, with more than two-thirds of the vote.

That’s the kind of serious political organisation we were paying €120,000 a year to be a member of. By continuing to pay we were continuing to endorse that standard of democratic input. We did not leave because we needed the money. We left because for that sort of money we expect a lot better.

Chris Lee was a campaign manager and spokesperson on the no side in the original 2013 disaffiliation referendum in UCD.

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