Students’ Union elections: how important are they? Frank Doherty discusses…
Students’ Union full-time officer elections took place on Thursday, 7 March. At the same time, a referendum of the SU’s position on women’s reproductive rights and the on-going national struggle to provide access to abortion for all women was balloted.
The voter turnout of 3,646 in the presidential election and 3,596 in the referendum has been hailed as the highest in years; however that is only the case for the recent years for which the SU has kept records. Although the number is very high in the history of the SU, as a percentage of the student population it remains low in comparison with turnouts, and activism more importantly, in the 70s and 80s.
This year’s total poll in the presidential race, a percentage of the 17,318 or so students with a vote, works out at just under 21%. This is a small figure; it means that for 79% of students in NUI Galway, all paying members of the union, the elections (and one could infer the entire union) are perceived as irrelevant to their lives as students.
Some commentators may retort that these are “normal” numbers and that young people aren’t politically engaged or naturally shouldn’t be so. However, against this we have the historical record. In the 1982/83 presidential election, for example, the total poll tallied to 2,451 in a student population of just over 4,000. That means 61% of students eligible to do so, voted.
This contrasts starkly with contemporary turnout figures, and makes clear there are extant deficiencies in how the union interacts with and relates to its membership. That entire topic itself is due more consideration, here it merely illustrates the union’s current, apparent irrelevance to a large majority of its membership, while the SU, internally, lauds the great turnout “achieved”.
The most positive signals from the results, in terms of the development of serious engagement of NUIG students with the social and political issues of contemporary society at large, came from the only poll of substance; the pro-choice referendum. The 3,596 total poll for the referendum broke down as follows: 2,478 yes, 976 no and 142 spoils. The fact that 69% of the total count voted in favour of the referendum is a clear sign of student sentiment around the issue and its significance will be discussed at the end of the article.
Juxtaposed to this sentiment, no candidate in any of the three elections would express a position on the referendum on their campaign material and neither would most express a clear position on the canvass. They were all sure to state that they would accept the democratic decision of students, but would shrug any attempt to extract a personal position – afraid of alienating a few votes. The lone core principle of most candidates was simply to get elected and gain position – pure careerist “hackery”. This reflects the same behaviour of mainstream career politicians whenever an issue of contention comes up in national politics.
The adage that students are apolitical in their nature or ‘politics never changes’ or ‘all politicians are the same’ is completely false. If we go back through the history of student politics in NUI Galway, we find periods of both political conservatism and radical activity. We can compare the current clientelist, service providing students’ unions nationally to active, campaigning students’ unions in the past. We can compare tactics of today’s student leaders in taking comfort and companionship from lobbying their future selves, to the taking up of progressive political positions and use of direct action, protests and strikes.
In RAG Week 1976, the €1,000 raised was pledged to establishing Galway’s first family planning clinic, where people could inform themselves about contraception, then still illegal in Ireland. This was an important, progressive, political position to take. The church, much more powerful then than it is now, was in uproar and student houses were picketed by believers saying the rosary. Conservative students, including those in religious vocations and members of young Fine Gael, opposed the position and got the decision rescinded in a tight vote of 417 to 379 in an emergency meeting. Nonetheless, in that narrow defeat the positive example of progressive student politics stands out.
The independent student publication, Unity (which ran every Wednesday on campus throughout the 70s and 80s), provides many insights to fluctuating politics over the twenty or so years of its existence. In a 1973 issue, a young Eamon Gilmore, still in the Worker’s Party, wrote about the establishment of a Movement for Social Progress amongst students in UCG. The previous December, 800 students marched over the poor relations between students and the city, including extortionate rent and inadequate housing for students and the poor alike. This was a massive turnout when one considers the size of the student population which was less than a quarter of its current size.
By 1979, however, things were very different. In a column entitled “Observations” by a scribe under the penname Angus McBuffer, a student’s union discussion document “Is there any reason to protest?” is analysed. In the piece, the author describes the depoliticised union in blunt terms stating, “They are more worried about jobs in the future and haven’t a notion of getting involved in any ‘leftist activities’ or undue agitation which would be detrimental to their middle class horizons. Since when did genuine grievances become a no go area?” How relevant a question for today!
It is clear that the adage ‘politics never changes’ is baseless. Major shifts from periods of activism to periods of inactivity have taken place even within the microcosmic history of NUIGSU. When a small group of similarly-minded people have been allowed to run the unions (and the same is true of national politics), inactivity and conservatism have reigned. It has only been when the popular majority has materially engaged with political or social issues, and makes clear its position and its willingness to struggle for its objectives collectively, that things have ever changed for the common good. This is the challenge we face.
Significance of the pro-choice referendum
All governments since the X-case ruling in 1992 have failed to legislate for abortion when the mother’s life is at risk, including at risk from suicide. Today, national opinion polls show large majorities in favour of legislation for X, with support ranging from 60% to 87%. The inactivity of successive governments to legislate for abortion is analogous to USI’s inaction on fighting student fees. The disconnect between strong student sentiment on the abortion issue and union candidates’ apathy speaks volumes. A serious and progressive political stance was voted for by greater numbers than voted for each winning candidate, yet none of these candidates subscribe to this view. What a division between real political issues and personality politics!
As growing numbers of colleges adopt pro-choice positions, and as SU execs fail to advance them, women in Ireland will still have to wait until July for this partial legislation due 21 years ago. The government’s delay, whatever the excuse, is a plain denial of women’s rights. To this government, payment of socialised private banking debt has proved much more important than the rights of 51% of the country’s population. Pressure needs to be kept up!
So the campaigning will go on with renewed confidence derived from the support of NUIGSU membership, but it is up to the membership to keep pressure on the current union executive as well as the replacement units – those elected over the past two weeks. The referendum pledges support not just for life-saving abortions, but also full reproductive rights for women i.e. a woman’s choice solely. Therefore, after the legislation is passed, the next stage will be campaigning to win full access. One of the challenges involves how the media restrictively frames the debate around the arbitrary determination of health risk rather than giving a woman the right to bodily autonomy, thus stunting progressive public discussion. An addition challenge is the highly funded anti-choice lobby organised both here and abroad.
Pro-choice campaigns will greatly benefit the union’s political and material support, even so the denial of this right is ongoing and its resolution is of the utmost urgency and requires every conscientious person to support the campaign, get involved.