Donie O’Sullivan examines the potential implications of an ultimatum put to UCD Students’ Union by a group unhappy with the Union’s stance on abortion.
UCD Students’ Union is facing an unprecedented challenge from over forty of their members who are demanding that the Union revert to a neutral stance on abortion. The Union recently adopted a pro-choice stance on abortion following a referendum. The students say they will seek to leave the Union if it does not revert to neutral on the issue.
Only 12% of students voted in last month’s referendum, which saw UCDSU join the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), and local student unions in universities in Cork, Galway, and elsewhere in the adoption of a pro-choice stance.
Third year law student, Samuel O’Connor, presented a petition signed by over forty students to the Union on Friday. O’Connor believes that the Union should not take a stance on an area as divisive as abortion.
“It’s not something we want to be associated with. We are asking [UCDSU President] Michael Gallagher to review the stance and repeal it, and to go back to the situation as it was before the referendum where they had no stance. If that isn’t forthcoming we will have no choice but to seek to withdraw our names from the list of Union members.”
The debate raises two issues that are fundamental to the operation of students’ unions.
The first is whether students’ unions should take a stance on social issues such as abortion. Students’ unions have had a proud tradition of affecting change throughout the latter years of the twentieth century in Ireland, playing important roles in campaigns on the availability of contraception, and the decriminalization of homosexuality.
Secondly, the debate raises important questions on the constitutionality of the current system of student union membership and how they relate to our rights as Irish citizens. Particularly to freedom of association and, perhaps particularly relevant in this case, freedom of conscience. The current system sees students automatically become members of their local students’ unions with no obvious means of withdrawing their membership.
There is no national framework to decide fund allocation for students’ unions, and it is not as clear-cut as students paying a set amount to be a member of their union. Thus, it is unclear if a student were to leave their local students’ union how they could be reimbursed monetarily.
Although O’Connor, a third year law student, believes abortion is wrong in all circumstances, except when the woman’s life is at risk, not all signatories are of the same mindset. O’Connor says several pro-choice students have signed the petition who still believe it is not right for a students’ union to take a stance on such an issue.
The debate questions whether the Union should merely be a service provider or should also engage, as they traditionally have, in activism representing student’s views to government. It would appear that many students are happy for the Union to act as both.
If the Union is to be an effective body, which represents students’ views, it does have to take stances on important issues. “UCDSU, as fundamentally stated in its constitution, is a democracy” says SU President Micheal Gallagher. In a democracy votes are taken on issues and not everyone can get their way all of the time.
Samuel O’Connor says that although he has disagreed with stances UCDSU have taken in the past, including their stance in support of same-sex marriage, these issues do not go to the “core” of his morality, as the issue of abortion does.
On same-sex marriage for instance, O’Connor says, “it’s really a matter of legislation and of civil rights, it’s not the same as what some people will view as murder, which is how some people view abortion.”
O’Connor says he is happy for the Union to pursue a pro-choice stance as long as he is allowed to disaffiliate from the Union. The demand may seem naïve – but O’Connor is anything but, and fully understands the potentially far-reaching implications of this ultimatum.
Another referendum would be required for the Union to revert to its neutral stance on abortion. It is unlikely that the referendum, unless the Union itself campaigned in favour of a neutral stance, would achieve this.
This would then put the Union in the unenviable and awkward position of what to do with forty of its members who wish to revoke their Union membership. If the Union allows them to leave freely, it may set a dangerous precedent. Equally, if they do not allow the students disaffiliate it may result in legal proceedings, which could potentially have a profound effect on student representation in Ireland.
The Union did not indicate whether a student who sought to disaffiliate would be allowed, or able to do so.
UCDSU claims to be a democracy, and to most extents it is. However, if the Union’s stance on abortion does not revert to neutral, and subsequently the petition signatories are not allowed to freely leave – that is if, in the meantime, they are not convinced that staying a member of the SU is more beneficial – it raises some serious questions on the constitutionality of students’ union membership.
Members of political parties, trade unions, and representative bodies often disagree with the policies these organisations pursue. However, most choose to stay within the organisation, often because of the benefits of membership to them as an individual.
The importance here is that those members are afforded a choice. They have the option of leaving.
O’Connor says students’ unions “want to be treated like a real union. They want to run with the big boys but they don’t want the rules applying to every other union in the country apply to them.”
“If they were democratic they’d let people leave when they want to leave,” he claims.
Student union supporters have criticized petition signatories on social media, claiming that it is a case of pro-lifers throwing their toys out of the pram. Those students who threaten to leave the Union based on one issue are being irresponsible as it could potentially impact on the provision of important services that the Union provides such as the welfare fund and counseling, they say.
One student wrote of the petition, “This attempt to overthrow the democratic decision of students is unbecoming. The students have spoken.”
Although the “students” in this case included only 12% of the student population.
The issue of student engagement with their students’ union and with politics in general is hugely important and needs to be addressed. However, with turnout so dismal, that 88% of the student body did not turn out to vote, given the choice, many of them may leave the union in the morning.
Students have threatened to leave their students’ unions in the past. As far as UCDSU are aware no student has done so successfully in UCD, however, it is understood two DCU students disaffiliated from DCUSU last year.
The constitutionality of the system of student union membership has been debated many times before. What makes this occasion significant is that these students could potentially be the first to have the means to challenge its constitutionality in court.
It is no secret that the pro-life lobby is well funded and it in not beyond the scope of possibility that a pro-life organisation could provide legal support to students if their secession was obstructed. O’Connor says he wouldn’t rule out pursing legal action if the Union’s stance remained unchanged and he was obstructed from leaving the Union.
In legal terms, this is certainly unchartered waters. The 1997 Universities Act does not explicitly state that all students must be members of their local students’ union.
Article 40.6 of the Irish Constitution states that citizens have the right to form associations. Article 40.6 has been interpreted by the Irish Courts in Educational Company of Ireland v Fitzpatrick,to implicitly provide for the freedom of disassociation.
A successful challenge to the current membership policy of UCDSU, argued on the basis of the constitutional freedom of disassociation, could possibly result in an “opt-in” system whereby students would need to sign up to their students’ union in first year, and possibly reaffirm their membership annually. This would fundamentally change the nature of the student movement in Ireland.
SUs would essentially have to prove to students on an annual basis why membership was worthwhile.
Although it could make unions work harder to be more efficient and effective, and increase accountability, it could have some hugely negative effects also.
A Union that would essentially have to earn its right to exist each year would run the risk of pursuing populist policies at the expense of more important issues. Unlike trade unions and other representative bodies where members are primarily attracted for political reasons, in ensuring their views are represented to government, this is not necessarily the case in students’ unions.
Unions may focus more on the organisation of social events than campaigning for adequate library services. As is the case at the moment, a piss-up at a gig in the student bar makes the SU more popular than the hundreds of hours Union representatives sit on important university boards each year. It is perhaps this very dilemma that makes the system of student union membership so vague and ambiguous.
With a changing amount of members, and if capitation was adjusted accordingly, changing funds, Unions would not be able to guarantee the provision of important services like student counseling. While SU critics may say that services like these should not be the responsibility of the Union in the first place, rather be provided the university or the HSE, it is certainly no harm having additional services like these available to students through the students’ union.
O’Connor says the Union’s stance on abortion doesn’t rest well with his morality. It was put to him that his actions could inadvertently lead to the removal of important services like the SU welfare service.
O’Connor says that while he is generally supportive of the concept of student unionism and appreciates the important services the union provides, he says he cannot remain a member of an organization with a pro-choice stance.
O’Connor says that the Union cannot hope to be a unifying force on issues that directly affect students, such as student grants, while pursuing a particular agenda on an issue such as abortion.
Many students, on the left and the right, and in the youth wings of political parties, have questioned the system of student union membership in the past. It is unlikely that many of these groups will be willing to indirectly get involved in a debate on abortion in order to pursue this issue.
The Union will be able to use to their advantage the simple fact that many students in UCD are pro-choice, and it is likely most are more pro-choice than they are pro-life.
The Union will hope that this problem will go away, maybe that another referendum will be called, or one will be promised to coincide with the sabbatical elections in the spring. Then hopefully the summer break will help the issue fizzle out, as many issues often do. Unfortunately for them, O’Connor doesn’t seem like he is going to let this one lie.