Postgraduate workers protested outside the Dáil, students’ unions protested outside the Dáil, anti-war protesters protested outside the Dáil, and also people disappointed by the budget protested outside the Dáil!
The likelihood of any of these protests resulting in any meaningful change is minimal; the lack of truly disruptive protest movements has largely hampered the ability of students’ unions and student movements to effect any actual change. Protests aren’t just voicing your discontent against the college or the government.
They have to carry an inherent threat.
That threat can, and should, be non-violent of course. Financial loss and public embarrassment are the real drivers of change when it comes to university management or the government.
Every year, one students’ union seems to catch the imagination of the national media. Last year, it was UCDSU President Molly Greenough and her ‘Digs Drive’ media appearances. But this year, László Molnárfi of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union is that lightning rod for news articles.
When TCDSU blockaded the entrance to Trinity’s Book of Kells tour – a highly lucrative tourist destination and important revenue stream for the college – they knew exactly what they were doing. They weren’t merely shouting and holding placards, though they did that too, they were blocking access to one of the most important things to a university – money.
University Times reported that the Trinity College Dean of Students Dr. Richard Porter “condemned the protest” and argued that blockading access to the Book of Kells would lose the college money which would negatively impact students. When this sob story didn’t persuade the protesters to return to drinking cappuccinos in Café Nero, the Dean promised to “broker a 2% rent freeze with ‘the powers that be’, saying: ‘Going forward I’ll negotiate on behalf of you, strongly, but I need access to the place.’
This shows two things; that Trinity was so terrified of the reputational damage that this protest would have on the tourists seeking to get a look at some ancient collection of clerical ramblings that they were seeking to negotiate on behalf of students. But also, that the revenue that TCD was faced with losing was so important that any disruption left Trinity staff offering up vague threats of negative impacts for students
Protests will not be effective if they are the only trick up students’ sleeves. At present that is all we seem to have in the collective arsenal. If the only threat students pose is the risk of shouting outside the Dáil, or holding a placard near the Tierney Building, why would anyone fear going against student interests?
Over the past few months, I came across newspaper clippings from old protests held in UCD or in front of the Dáil. Hundreds of people attended sit-ins or blockaded access to various buildings in the college. In 2013, students even egged Enda Kenny when they came to campus. Those students may have missed the Taoiseach and hit UCD staff instead but at least they had a good understanding of the reality of protesting, even if they didn’t have a good throwing arm.
Speaking to the Irish Examiner at the time, one of the eggers Suzanne Lee said, “If we had stood outside and chanted things and had banners, there would never have been as much media coverage as there was of what we wanted to get across.” Lee and the other students faced the threat of expulsion for their efforts, but they understood that merely chanting things and having banners is not enough.
You need to be imaginative, disruptive and slightly mad.
Hugh Dooley – Co-Editor