This SU election season, introspection is required

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on January 25th, and will probably not make much sense to you if you don’t go to Trinity College. Sorry about that.

Photo by Lauren Boland for Trinity News

As election season barrels towards us, it’s perhaps a good time to look at the state of TCDSU since this time last year. It has been an eventful twelve months for the Union. Two of the first three Council meetings of the academic year failed to reach quorum, preventing any kind of decision making. Two weighty referenda were held, but neither reached a turnout of even 13%. Perhaps most strikingly, the Union was revealed to have haemorrhaged some €70,000 in the previous academic year, leading to questions and scrutiny from council over potential mismanagement, and the role of the University Times.

These facts paint a picture of a body with deep rooted problems of both internal organisation and student engagement. At a most basic level, the Union needs to be able to balance its own budget and organise Council in such a way that class reps are aware of it and able to attend. Without funds and the direction of Council, it has neither the ability or the mandate to do any of its important work.

Indeed, mandate represents arguably the Union’s biggest problem. Far more than just lacking quorum at meetings, it is unclear how much actual democratic backing any of its actions have, including those made by sabbatical officers and directed by referenda. After the Tobacco Free Trinity vote, the headline in this very newspaper was that “70.6% of students vote[ed] in favour” of the measure. In fact, the approximately 1022 people who voted positively represent less than 7% of the overall student body. At a local or national level that would be considered farcical, and a tiny fraction of the kind of turnout needed to actually inform policy.

Sabbatical elections are no different. The turnout at last year was lauded for increasing by a fifth over the year before, but this still represented less than a quarter of students bothering to take the two minutes necessary to vote. If TCDSU were a country, it would have the second lowest voter turnout in the entire world.

But the SU isn’t a country, it’s a representative organisation. This arguably puts a significantly higher onus on it to, as the name suggests, represent its members. Short of that, it has no reason to exist. I personally don’t want the Union to stop existing, but it is therefore its responsibility to find some way to address this crippling engagement problem. It would be disingenuous to suggest the problem lies with students, given they don’t actually choose to be members of the Union, and it definitionally exists to serve them. The very point of having a student union is for it to unify students.

At the point where it continues to fail in this regard, serious questions can be asked. How can the Union justify spending the amount of students’ money that it does, and in an apparently poorly managed way? In what way can representatives of the Union, when communicating with college and the wider political world, have any claim to being the rightful representatives of Trinity students? What legitimacy does the Union have in making campus policy, such as the smoking ban?

To be clear, again; my proposal is not that we abolish the Union or that it should stop trying to do any representative work. I think it is vital to be able bargain collectively with college authorities, and to make our voices heard on the national stage. I just don’t think we can meaningfully do these things, or even straight-facedly claim to be doing them, without a solid democratic basis to the way in which the Union is run. And the hallmark of a properly run democracy is not just that you go with whatever decision or candidate happens to get the most votes on a particular day, it’s about a more general level of representation and engagement with a population. That is something we lack right now.

I lay no claim to being a political expert or to having any kind of easy answer to hand for the Union’s woes. But it is undeniable that those woes exist; that previous officers of the organisation categorically failed in some of their duties to the student body, and that a staggering majority of said student body has absolutely no interest in engaging with the Union at all. And given the existence of these woes and their extent, it is absolutely essential that all relevant candidates in the upcoming election have at least some kind of plan to address them.

This is not something that has existed at previous elections. Lip service has been paid to “unlocking the SU” and various small measures have been proposed to ensure individual officers communicate more with students. But given the problem continues to exist and has arguably gotten worse, and given the deep-rooted nature of student apathy towards the SU, it is clear these have not worked.

There will be many other issues rightly competing for attention at hustings and in manifestos this year. The country remains in the throes of a housing crisis which particularly affects students, higher education is significantly underfunded, and students report serious difficulties with the rollout of the Trinity Education Project. It should go without saying that it is vital the Union devote significant time and energy to these problems. But that does not represent an excuse to ignore the Union’s own internal strife. Far from it; it is more important than ever to have a body capable of adequately representing student concerns on these issues, and which has the money and organisational capacity to take action.

It seems likely to me that deep structural change and soul-searching will be needed to address this persistent issue. I don’t immediately have the answer, and I doubt any individual person does. But the first step is to at least acknowledge that there is something wrong, something not being done, some way in which the Union hasn’t lived up to its responsibility to students before now. Only then can we begin to have any sort of conversation about how to fix it. I dearly hope this year’s candidates will do that.

A Manifesto for Migration Activism

Ireland’s unjustifiable mistreatment of refugees and immigrants is the next frontier for social justice.

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on November 26th 2018.

Photo by Ciarán Sunderland for Trinity News

Ireland has a xenophobia problem. I think there’s something in the national conscience that makes us think we’re above that, partially or entirely. Perhaps because we’re an ex-colony that experienced oppression at the hands of an empire ourselves. Perhaps because our country was, until recently, relatively sheltered and homogeneous. Perhaps it’s just the standard ignorance of a western European nation that imagines itself to be tolerant, even in the face of all evidence. Whatever it is, it’s wrong.

The most famous example is direct provision. It was initially designed, when implemented in 2000, to be an “interim” system meant to house people for no more than six months while their asylum application was considered. The concept in itself is not the issue – asylum seekers need to be and should be housed by the state. But people spend an average of two years in the system and in that time are frequently and routinely treated horrifically. They are given an allowance that amounts to less than €1200 annually per adult, they consistently report extremely poor quality of food and accommodation, and there are numerous examples of bizarre and seemingly random restrictions on what residents are allowed to do in the centres (their de facto homes), such as bans on use of electronic devices at night.

Only this year were asylum seekers allowed to work while their applications are under review, and even then the process remains Byzantine. Among other things, permission to work only lasts 6 months, employment dozens of sectors is off limits, and any slight hiccup in any of the numerous administrative processes of the asylum application will cause the work permit to be revoked – and vice versa.

Treating anyone in state care this way would be unconscionable, but to do it to asylum seekers – people who’ve literally fled to Ireland because they fear persecution and violence – is nothing short of criminal. None of these are unfixable or even particularly complicated problems, they remain in place because successive governments don’t want to change them. They don’t care.

That’s just the beginning of the problem, however. The twin cases of Eric Xue and Shepherd Machaya last month hint at something more systemic. Both have been living in Ireland for nine years, the former since he was actually born here, the latter after fleeing torture in Zimbabwe. The logic behind forcibly removing an Irish boy to a country he has never lived in and to which he has effectively no actual connection escapes me. Similarly, an asylum seeker on his second third level degree (an incredible achievement, given those in direct provision are not entitled to free fees), who’s lived in this country for a third of his life has as much right to stay here as anyone. And yet both should, by law, have been removed.

They were lucky enough to have their cases become high profile and attract public support, but this is very much the exception. Deportation orders are routine, with approximately a thousand made each year. Indeed just a week before those two, an Offaly teenager who’d lived in Ireland since he was two narrowly avoided being sent to Nigeria – again, only because he had support from his community.

This is not the cultural persona of “a hundred thousand welcomes” that Ireland would like to imagine for itself. This is something between callousness and active hatred for those not lucky enough to have Irish parents. When considered in the context of Ireland’s centuries of history as a nation of emigrants, it’s also almost laughably hypocritical.

One arrives at that conclusion without even going into detail about, say, the pitifully small number of refugees Ireland agreed to host in 2015 (1 for every 1200 Irish people, of whom less than a third had been resettled by mid 2017), or the record-high numbers of racist incidents being reported in recent years. All this considered, several things are clear:

First, the 27th amendment needs to be repealed as soon as possible. If nothing else, a recent poll indicates 70%+ of the population want it gone, and that should be reason enough. On top of that, it is both ridiculous and disgusting that someone born in Ireland and having lived their whole life in Ireland should have no inherent right to stay in the country. Eric Xue should be the last person we have to save from exile to a place they may literally never have been to. Opponents of such a move argue birthright citizenship incentivises people to come to Ireland exclusively to give birth. Personally, I think this view comes from a xenophobic assumption that migrants must be in some way underhanded or opportunistic. Either way though, if a person is desperate enough to secure a better life for their child that they will cross borders (sometimes illegally, at great personal risk) while heavily pregnant, then we, as a ludicrously well-off country, have no excuse not to give their child that life.

Second, the direct provision system as we know it must be ended. It is an egregious stain on our national conscience and has been for 18 years now. Responsible citizens should be aggressively lobbying their representatives to take a stand, and heavily punishing those who refuse, come the next election.

Third, in the meantime, we should be aggressively resisting efforts to enforce unjust deportation orders. Anyone with a clear right to live here and/or who is being sent to a place where they face significant danger should be protected from removal by any reasonable means. Successful public campaigns as we saw in October are ideal, but direct action to stop deportations aboard aircraft is absolutely justified too. The leaflet reportedly handed out in Trinity some weeks ago with information on taking such direct action was a wonderful piece of activism. It caused a significant stir among some commentators online – they were horrified that people would endorse “illegal” forms of protest – but this is, I think, the point. When the law fails to protect the vulnerable, it is the right but more importantly the duty of citizens to act outside that law. It should shock and appal people that such things are necessary.

As a country, we’ve made genuinely incredible progress in the last few decades – the marriage referendum, Repeal, our wholehearted embrace of the EU – but there’s still so much to be done. I say that not to diminish the importance of past activism and social change, but to make clear that it’s time to turn that same energy towards things like migration and homelessness, as many people already have.

Successive referenda have shown us the resilience and the selflessness Irish activists are capable of in the face of injustice. It’s time to use those again.

Shifting the Conversation on Housing

This post was originally published in Trinity News on September 25th 2018.TakeBackTheCitySitDown12Sep2018c_large

Much of the public and media reaction to the recent occupation of city centre properties, and the subsequent law enforcement response, has been deeply and thoroughly disappointing. Commentators are too fixated on whether the protest was “legitimate”. There is inordinate scrutiny of the activists as individuals, which occasionally descends into total harassment Whether naturally or by design, this has shifted the discussion away from the actual issue at hand.

This is a time when we should be doing deep soul-searching about how a housing crisis which ruins thousands of lives daily was allowed to develop. Instead we have government ministers taking to our television screens to demand people be nicer to Gardaí, specifically those who use batons and pepper spray against peaceful protesters.

Obviously no one deserves to face threats of violence, no matter who they are or what they do for a living. But Minister Flanagan’s proposal to ban filming of Gardaí is a clear  and disgusting affront to democracy, and he deserves to be politically torn apart for it. Officers routinely disguising their identities for purposes other than counterterrorism operations is similarly dangerous. Increased scrutiny of police forces performing their duties results in less violence, not more.

Criticism of the legitimacy of protest and direct action is similarly beside the point. It’s ridiculous to demand that protests be quiet, entirely within any and all legal boundaries and totally non-disruptive. Protest is meant to disrupt; that’s the means by which it calls immediate attention to urgent issues. Otherwise it’s not a protest, it’s just a discussion. People resort to protest when they’re being ignored.

Rosa Parks, Gandhi – all social movements ever have been criticised using the exact same script. It’s an age-old tactic to discredit social movements of all kinds, and it’s despicable. Indeed, the ostracisation of Colin Kaepernick by the American right shows us that even the gentlest of demonstrations will face huge backlash. You can’t win, and it’s designed to be that way.

It’s not like the activists actually caused any real damage to anyone, either. Protests are meant to be disruptive, but as protests go this one was well-targeted and respectful. The organisers peacefully occupied a vacant, dilapidated property owned by one of the wealthiest landlords in the country in order to demand action on a devastating national crisis. For their trouble, they were forcibly removed by private security guards, whose conduct on the day violated no less than three separate laws, if we’re concerned about law breaking. These were backed up by masked Gardaí, who used force against both the protesters and against observing members of the public, several of whom were hospitalised. To engage in such a protest in the first place, and to vow continued and emboldened action after such a disproportionate and violent response, is an act of civic heroism and patriotism.

So yes, I think the point has been missed. While I can’t speak to the motivations of media figures, this is absolutely no accident on the part of the government – it’s blatant misdirection. Because when it becomes a national discussion about an individual protest or an individual activist group, and not the deep and systemic issues that made people angry enough to protest, they’re off the hook. There’s less scrutiny of the complete and utter failure of successive governments to fulfil their duty to the most vulnerable people in the country, if people are distracted by the minutiae of one incident. While I obviously have no proof, I suspect that Flanagan’s inflammatory comments were calculated in this way. They came, consciously or unconsciously, less from a place of actually wanting to implement any proposal and more jumping on the opportunity to talk about anything other than his party’s deeply rooted classism.

And yes, it is classism. The housing crisis wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t just a product of economic circumstance that no one could have foreseen or helped. This was at best horrific negligence and at worst a deliberate policy of social vandalism. We know numerous ways to ease housing crises, and Fine Gael (and to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) have chosen to use their positions of power to implement basically none of them, for reasons known only to themselves.

At no point since 2011 has construction of social housing in this country been even a quarter of what it was in 2009. The practice of providing government-run “cost rental” housing, common across Europe for decades, has been done exactly zero times in Ireland to date. The government and local authorities have time and time again chosen to sit on their hands and allow dozens of new hotels to be built and properties to be rented short-term, such as on AirBnB (effectively unregulated), in the midst of record-breaking demand for housing and skyrocketing rents. There has been absolutely nothing done to regulate the practice of leaving vacant large swathes of properties by developers or to incentivise turning said properties into accommodation, nor has there been meaningful effort to return vacant state-owned land to the housing supply.

Indeed huge amounts of NAMA properties have been sold into private hands, and the tax structure of the sales actually encouraged buyers to do nothing with their purchases except wait for them to appreciate. Even the new Land Development Agency, the government has just announced will use an abysmal 30% of its land for affordable housing and 10% for social housing. The rest will be sold no-strings-attached to private developers to use as they wish. Evidence thus far suggests they usually wish to either leave the land vacant to acquire value, build hotels, or develop “luxury student accommodation”.

So every media outlet, talking head, and political figure who tried to make this an argument about peaceful protest should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. There is something deeply and systemically broken in this country, and the people we elected to fix such things are either deliberately or through sheer stupidity doing nothing about it.

People are being evicted from rental accommodation they’ve lived in for years, students are paying €800 a month to live in literal cupboards, and the number of families without homes has increased by a factor of five in the last four years alone. But sure, tell me more about how the protesters were “trespassing”.