By Conor Brummell
The Students’ Union has called a referendum for the 23rd of January to abolish five of the part-time SU Officer roles, among other changes to the Executive Committee. The referendum, if passed, would see the end of the Gender and LGBTQ+, Ethnic Minority, Mature Student, Disability Rights and SU Chairperson roles on the executive. These changes would appear strange to anyone following Student Union politics, as three of the roles up for dismissal were only introduced in the past two years. More recently, the Ethnic Minorities and Mature Student Officers were introduced, and the LGBTQ+ Officer was elected just before Christmas. With the recent establishment of these roles, one begs to question why the Students’ Union is actively getting rid of them?
The answer may lie in the fact that when the Students’ Union takes one step forward, they take two steps back. They try to be as active as possible, and if that means holding a seemingly pointless referendum to restructure the executive, then this can be seen as said activism. The Students’ Union is supposed to be on the side of the students of NUI Galway, to fight for our rights within the University and to be the bridge between the University and the student body. This cannot be possible, however, when minorities around campus will no longer have direct representation on the Students’ Union Executive.
The proposed abolishment of these roles will lead to the creation of a part-time Equality Officer who will have to do the work of four officers – to take complaints and support four different minorities around campus. This is a difficult task to do for a part-time college student who is not being paid for their role on the executive. The decision to abolish these roles has not been discussed enough publicly either – the Union released a notice of referendum on their Facebook page, with no further discussion as to why this is being done. They have since pushed to get information out to people, but more generally, transparency has become a great issue for the Executive in the past few years, and students have become disinterested in the politics of the Union as a result.
You see, NUI Galway’s Students’ Union is apart of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), which is a national organisation that stands up for the rights of students on a national level. Campaigns and ideas that are being brought forward on a national level trickle down to all member unions across the country, and while this is great, NUI Galway seems to be suffering as a result of being caught up in national campaigns. There hasn’t been much change in NUI Galway in the three short years I have been there – despite promises being made every time a new executive is being elected. Lecture hall seats remain broken, seating around campus remains an incredible issue, and the James Hardiman Library hadn’t received funding in twenty years up until last year.
These are problems on a local level that need addressed and the Students’ Union is the body who needs to address these with the University. It becomes clear that transparency and responsibility is limited when you look at the Dr Jim Browne charity scandal that happened before Christmas – up to an incredible €185,000 was misspent on various luxuries like taxi trips to and from Dublin, as well as Business class flights to America, among other things. The Students’ Union had a meeting with the current head of NUI Galway to ensure that this cannot happen again – they concluded that a student representative would sit on money spending committees so it could not be allowed in the future. Yet I believe the Union should have caused much more of a fuss about the situation. The money misspent should have given to things like the underfunded counselling services, or the refurbishment of the library – not week-long indulgent stays in five-star hotels in America. There should have been outrage, but it seemed to have been blown over because of Christmas.
With everything that is currently happening in Ireland in terms of housing and the hospital crisis, it is easy to become disinterested and benign in the face of politics. This does not mean that we should stand by and watch the Students’ Union abolish four part-time officer roles that support minorities around our campus. A logical step for a referendum might have been to eliminate waste, to become a plastic free University- seeing as the Union spent hours during the Christmas exam period handing out free coffee cups. Instead, we were blindsided by a referendum that makes little to no sense in terms of student welfare. It’s one step forward, and two steps back.