With UCDSU set to go full Lisbon Treaty and run the USI referendum for the second time to make sure they get the right result, now is a good time to examine why the union left the union of unions in the first place.
Let’s set the scene. It’s 2012 and Call Me Maybe is the latest hit song, UCDSU are hugely in debt with USI as one of their main creditors, and rumours begin spreading that the ‘cash-strapped’ union are looking to ditch USI.
At the time, Donie O’Sullivan (yes, the CNN one!) was the Tribune’s News Editor, he reported that UCDSU owed the Union of Students in Ireland nearly €250,000 in student contributions. That shocking sum paled in comparison to the shocking €1.4 million in total debt the union had accumulated due to financial mismanagement.
How did they build up this debt?
A financial investigation in April of 2012 revealed the dirty details. The Union didn’t realise they had to pay VAT and ended up settling with the Revenue Commission on a payment settlement of approximately €500,000. At the time, the student bar (R.I.P.) was run by the Union and haemorrhaged money at a shocking rate, free pints rained down like a cold rainy night in Stoke. The UCD Student Club was left drowning in €90,000 worth of debt and the 9 full-time staff drowning their sorrows as the shutters of Building 71 were pulled down for the final time in June of the same year.
UCD Students’ Union was saved from bankruptcy by advances on the annual €700,000 capitation grant from the university and more than €1million in loans from Bank of Ireland.
At the time, the students of UCD criticised their own union for being too focused on the national picture and had lost focus on its own campus and accounting. But UCDSU weren’t the only students’ union whose budget looked worse for wear; USI had found itself in financial distress too.
This proved the straw that broke the camel’s back and by September, a campaign was started to disaffiliate from USI with the union promising a referendum would follow. The issues students had with USI in 2012 were varied; a perceived lack of accountability and efficacy, concerns of the failing democratic elements of students’ national union and a poor return on the €120,000 The College Tribune then estimated that students gave to USI each year. The biggest issue was that USI had failed to prevent a more than 1000% increase in the students’ college fees.
Speaking to The College Tribune in 2013, Chris Lee, the head of the Disaffiliation Campaign said that USI, “let us down quite a lot over the years. Fees increased from 90 pounds in 1997 to 1000 euro in 2007. That is an incredible stat. That is a fee increase of 90 euro a year for 10 years, which is only just short of half the increase we are seeing per year right now.”
Echoing a popular sentiment on campus at the time, Lee said, “I think the feeling is that regardless of all else, right now we simply can’t afford USI.”
50 Way to Say Goodbye… to USI
Eventually in 2013, UCDSU did the unthinkable, with 65% of students voting to ditch USI. The national union had pulled out the stops to prevent the largest student body from leaving in what, then-USI President John Logue said would be “a major blow to the organization.”
USI had even struck a sweetheart deal with Belfield’s representatives to reform USI structures if UCD remained affiliated – including the introduction of direct elections for the USI presidency and a review of the affiliation fee structure. It was no use, UCD were gone for good, right? It’s not like they’d leave USI and try to rejoin two minutes later… right?
UCD’s Flaky History with USI:
This wasn’t the first time had UCD considered disaffiliating from the national union, referenda were also held in 1993 and 1998, the latter successfully ditching USI off the Belfield campus. Yet, less than a year later, UCD students voted themselves back into the national union in 1999 where they stayed until 2013.
So, in January 2015, when two students launched a campaign re-join USI (yet again) echoes of “seriously?” probably emanated across campus. USI were delighted to hear the Belfield Cash-Cow was thinking about coming home, along with its roughly €120,000 annual contribution. No wonder then-USI President, Laura Harmon said she was “pleased” to hear of the campaign. She said to The College Tribune at the time, “We certainly would welcome UCD back to the national student movement should the issue be put to a vote and should UCD students vote to rejoin … USI would lend support to a re-affiliation campaign should a vote be called.”
At the time, students were divided on the topic of rejoining. One student spoke to The College Tribune, 3rd year Arts student Rebecca Cleary, believed UCD should remain disaffiliated from USI. “In the past students have been let down by USI and I don’t see why that wouldn’t happen again. The money we were spending to remain in USI was also astronomical; I wouldn’t like to see our SU have to start paying that again.”
At least the students’ suffering wasn’t prolonged even further! Oh… turns out the powers-that-weren’t postponed the referendum by a year just to torture students – or because the Rejoin USI Campaign settled on a “change in tactics” and decided to stop “pushing for a referendum coinciding with UCDSU’s upcoming policy referendum and constitutional reform referendum.” Instead they would merely compete with a far less serious and important vote, the 2016 General Election.
Will they? Won’t they?
(Spoiler; they didn’t.) The votes were in, The College Tribune’s live blog had all but ended, and the counting room was quiet but for a few rats living in the ceiling of the student centre. Tens of people were waiting with bated breath for the results of the USI referendum.
Hugh O’Connor was the Returning Officer, slowly reading out the results of the fateful referendum. After months of promises from USI and encouragement from the UCDSU Sabbatical Officers, the students had voted to remain independent. A colossal 74% of students voted against rejoining the national union. Only one constituency had voted in favour of the referendum, Veterinary Science, with 73% in favour of the umbrella union.
In classy fashion, a member of the unsuccessful Yes side (in favour of USI membership) took inspiration from the referendum taking place in the UK that year and accused the opposing campaign of a “degree of mis-selling with regard to precisely what the USI is and does” as the Tribune put it at the time. To be fair, one thing which did age well was the Yes-side’s assertion that the referendum had build a base from which the movement to rejoin USI could grow.
The Inter-Referendum Era:
The discussion of rejoining USI largely took the back seat over the next few years in UCD. In its place came the Ascough Fiasco (undoubtedly the subject of my next deep dive article), a bucket-load of controversy from Andrew Deeks and a few campus boycotts. The only times USI came up on the Belfield campus over the next few years was during SU Hustings every year when weary Tribune and Observer Editors asked candidates the same question about whether they would look to rejoin the national body.
Invariably, the candidates would make noncommittal statements about potentially facilitating a USI referendum should they be elected. In 2021, speaking to a younger version of me, candidate Liam Coyle made the daring step of saying he “would not be opposed to a referendum on this issue” and Ruairi Power pushed out he boat by stating “a referendum should only be run if there’s a dramatic increase in engagement with the SU this year (which I will work to make happen).” Unfortunately that increase in engagement was precipitated by a mass reopening of nominations orchestrated by a now-defunct Instagram meme page and the referendum was not held.
During this period, the connections between UCDSU and USI gradually became stronger as both bodies attended the same protests, condemned the same government policies and published the same hopeful pre-budget submissions. Sometimes their budget proposals seemed to be a little bit too similar to each other such as when the University Times in Trinity reported that UCDSU had plagiarised word-for-word the USI’s Budget 2019 Pre-Budget Submission.
It is worth noting that then-UCDSU Education Officer Stephen Crosby explained to the University Times that the document “was created internally utilizing a number of resources as noted in the acknowledgements and references section of the piece”. Which sounds quite close to a plagiarism defence that an unwitting first-year student might give after submitting a Wikipedia page as an assignment.
Ah sure would you come in for a quick referendum vote?
Ah gowan then.
After the COVID pandemic, discussion at SU Council in 2022 over rejoining the national union (again) ran into something of an issue. As the Campaigns Officer Darryl Horan explained to me at the time, “after a decade outside USI, UCD students had little knowledge of the day-to-day operations.”
So the prodigal union reached out to USI and the next week, class representatives were treated to a presentation on what the national body does. USI’s general manager characterised UCDSU being outside his remit as being an example of “the free-rider problem” arguing that UCD students are benefitting from USI’s work despite not being a member union. Spicy.
A few months later a new sabbatical team emerged, headed up by a new SU President, Molly Greenough, who promised that a USI referendum would be held if she was elected – a surprisingly David Cameron-inspired move for the Massachusetts native. Greenough came good on her promise, delivering a referendum to students in April 2023.
The USI referendum was packaged alongside two other referenda, one to consult students on what drug legalisation and decriminalisation policy the SU should advocate for and another to pass a new referendum of the Students’ Union. Alongside more than 15 elections for different positions in the SU, the deluge of votes certainly didn’t aide the SU in passing their referenda.
The referendum to rejoin the Union of Students in Ireland received almost 80% of the vote in favour, 1393 – For, 399 – Against and 186 students abstained. While the referendum may have passed by majority of the vote, the union holds a requirement for policy referenda to meet a threshold of 10% of registered students turning out to vote. Once again, none of the votes last year reached that threshold.
There was a feeling in the SU at the time that USI hadn’t put any effort into campaigning for the referendum to pass, but students in UCD didn’t do much better either. There had been no campaign against rejoining USI, a testament to the apathy challenges that our student representatives have been facing over the last few years. The ‘Yes to USI’ campaign was largely anonymous, and you would have been hard-pressed to even find a poster on the issue anywhere on campus trying to convince you to shovel money into the USI furnace.
Déjà vu – Car rides to the SU
In the months after the most recent USI referendum failed, there was little, if any, talk in UCD of rejoining the national union. Two weeks ago, UCDSU opened the door to yet another USI referendum taking place in the first few weeks of next semester, and I couldn’t quite place that feeling that that we’re voting for the… fifth time?
I found myself on Belfield FM being asked the very question posed in the title of this article… ‘So why’d we leave anyway?’ Hopefully I’ve answered that question so far, so there’s only one thing left to ask…
So should we rejoin now?
If you listen to USI (which I don’t), you’d be left wondering how UCDSU still exists without the national union. But by all metrics, they’re doing fairly well.
So I asked UCDSU President Martha Ní Riada (above) that very question and after transcribing 2,005 words I can tell you she said;
“In my own personal opinion I would vote yes, I think we should rejoin USI. I believe in unions and I think we’re stronger together, and we can make more of an impact together. It is true that UCD, because we’re such a big university […] that we don’t need the same level of support as smaller universities would.”
“We would be the largest voting block in USI, we would have a lot of power and we could really drive forward USI. We’ve seen over the years that USI has lost a lot of power and hasn’t been that effective – and I’d like to see, if UCD was in it, what we could do.”
“What UCD could bring to USI is massive. so I think we should join it. It’s all well and good saying ‘oh look we’re speaking on behalf of the UCD students’ when we are lobbying and speaking to politicians. But we are only speaking on behalf of UCD students.”
Ni Riada believes that rejoining USI will give UCDSU more power in those situations, and will also bolster USI’s negotiating position on behalf of all students at a national level- without the caveat of the country’s biggest college being missing.
After having a grand auld chinwag about how amazing USI is with El Presidente, I decided to annoy the TCDSU President László Molnárfi (left) instead in the hopes that he’d stand outside Tribune events with a massive cardboard cutout of a vulture…
No luck on the vulture, seems my stance on predatory lending is too tame for him… but I did get an interesting perspective on why UCD should stay outside of USI.
Molnárfi is a critic of USI, having written a fascinating op-ed regarding his reservations on the national union for the Tribune previously. He criticised the lack of democracy within the union and called it “a dysfunctional bureaucracy” with a “fundamentally exclusionary ideological stance.” Spicy…
Speaking to me last week, Molnárfi said that the current set of USI officers are a considerable improvement over those he criticised previously, “they’re great in terms of engaging with the MOs and they’re open to criticism and feedback – so I think that toxicity is gone.”
But not everything is rosy in USI, the “bureaucracy” with undemocratic elements which Molnárfi criticised previously is still there and he says the existing structure, makes them “unlikely to be super-duper radical”.
He explained that the USI executive still aren’t directly elected – a promise that was made to UCDSU if they joined back in 2016, “but we’re making progress towards that.”
He did say that USI had taken more radical and critical steps in recent years, crediting the progress in tha area in no small part to Zaid Al-Barghouthi, USI VP for Campaigns.
“I absolutely don’t think that UCDSU should rejoin the USI, without the USI meeting the demands of 2016. One especially is very, very important. It’s in progress, but it hasn’t been implemented and I don’t believe it until I’ve seen it… is the direct elections. Because without the direct elections it’s very hard to hold the USI to account”.
“I would caution UCDSU not to rejoin until that is done.”
You’ve heard both sides now, and that’s a lot of me ranting about USI! So, when the referendum does come along, vote ‘em in, vote ‘em out, I don’t care… I’m not even a student anymore! But whatever you do, just make up your mind this time!