The announcement early this morning that Katie Ascough has been impeached as president of University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) is undoubtedly one of the most significant events in the history of Irish student politics.
The union that Ascough once led was established in 1975 as a successor to the college’s Student Representative Council in order to represent the views of its membership and to defend its interests. Like most students’ unions, UCDSU has been at the forefront of progressive social change since its inception.
In the late 1970s, it sold condoms when the sale of contraceptives without a prescription was still illegal in the republic. In the 1980s, it fought to publish information about abortion. And in the recent past, it campaigned for same-sex marriage up until the successful referendum in 2015.
This begs the question, then, of why UCD students decided to elect an openly pro-life candidate at a time when the abortion debate was reaching a climax? And not only is Ascough ardently pro-life, but has familial ties to the Iona Institute, a Catholic lobby group that is surely as close to the antithesis of the student movement as one could find.
When you look at the pro-impeachment campaign in this referendum, it is hard not to be inspired
At the beginning of this saga, when it was announced that Ascough had removed abortion information from UCD’s freshers’ guide, this newspaper argued that it was a general apathy towards students’ union elections that was to blame for Ascough being in the position in the first place. It is difficult, in my view, to find a more accurate explanation.
It makes little sense that a student body would vote overwhelmingly to maintain its pro-choice mandate in November and then elect an up-and-coming member of the conservative Catholic lobby to be its president and preside over that mandate only months later.
Students’ unions are commonly derided for being inconsequential and described as a playground for budding politicians. Indeed, there is a certain truth to this and I would argue that the political limitations of students’ unions can often render some of their endeavours futile. However, when you look at the pro-impeachment campaign in this referendum, it is hard not to be inspired by the commitment given by students to fight for their right to be properly represented as members of UCDSU.
In her concession speech, Ascough showed just how poorly prepared she was to lead the union. By making the obvious point that “respect for those with different beliefs is integral to the basis of university”, she once again tried to make this referendum about freedom of expression and association when it was not.
They should be proud, though, knowing that they stood up for the right cause and even managed to inspire seasoned sceptics
Ascough wasn’t impeached because she is “pro-life”, but rather because she failed to understand a rudimentary lesson of holding any political office: that compromise is often necessary to succeed. Even though she disagreed with the union’s pro-choice stance, it was her role, at the very least, to delegate those responsibilities to others, not to subvert a student mandate.
It will now take some time for UCDSU to regroup from these turbulent three weeks, but they are on the right track and can make a fresh start. For Ascough, presumably a leading role in the pro-life campaign is what awaits.
For the students of UCD, I’m sure they will be happy to see this campaign reach a conclusion. They should be proud, though, knowing that they stood up for the right cause and even managed to inspire seasoned sceptics that student politics can still be a noble pursuit.