Friday, 15 February 2013

UCD EggGate.

A look into the series of events that led to three students being reprimanded over attempting to egg Enda Kenny.

On the 29th of November last year University College Dublin hosted the official opening of the college's new Student Centre. A wonderful new student facility paid for by students through a student centre levy of €250 in addition to the registration fee. The event was attended by students involved in student societies and sports clubs as well as staff at the new centre, the university authorities, student union officers and Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

That time of year was the height of the Union of Students in Ireland's pre-budget campaign. Ten days before the Student Centre opening UCD Students' Union took part in a protest outside Eamon Gilmore's constituency office. The UCDSU campaign "Gilmore250" was a vocal campaign aimed at targeting an individual TD in order to sway their budgetary decisions in relation student issues. Campaign T-shirts had #gilmoresagremlin on the back and a characterised image of the Tanaiste's face on the front. Campaigners bombarded the TDs Facebook and Twitter accounts with angry messages and the SU spent their time sending strongly worded emails about university cut backs and fee increases. SU officers gave passionate speeches before lectures about the need for students to protest the grave injustice that is unequal access to education. An SU Council meeting is suspended to protest the presence of two government ministers on campus.

But when Enda Kenny comes onto campus there isn't a peep from the students' union.

Instead the Students' Union President shared a platform with him and sung his praises for gracing Belfield with his presence.

There is always lots of things going on underneath the surface in UCD. In the background there is the every growing issue of a closed down student bar, the annual UCD Ball not having a venue and not to mention a €1.4 million deficit in student union accounts with no one to be held accountable for it. The official opening of the new centre was an extremely important event for UCD and the last thing they would have wanted was a protest or anything that would disrupt the day.

In exchange for not causing a scene the college would re-open the Student Bar as a venue for a select number of nights in the second semester. The SU also agreed not to kick up a fuss over the debt issue.

As recently stated by UCD Registrar Professor Mark Rogers; the failure of the student union to organise a standard protest on the day led to other students taking action into their own hands and ultimately throwing an egg in the direction of the Taoiseach but accidentally hitting Vice President for Students Dr. Martin Butler. Throwing an egg is not something most of us would do, but they did. Throwing eggs at politicians has been done for years and an egg on your suit is nothing compared to being thrown out of your accommodation due to failure to pay rent because the government have fucked up your grant, or it is nothing in comparison to the humiliation of being handed a food package by your student union because you cannot even afford a meal.

The students were removed by the Gardai and their names were taken. Later that night the Students' Union issued a statement condemning the incident. "UCD Students' Union strongly condemns this unjustified and unrepresentative action. The Students' Union believes that today is a day of celebration and pride among students with the opening of these world class sporting and social facilities."
This prompted  one of the students, Suzanne Lee, to write a very brave and emotional open letter to UCDSU. You can see it here:

"Enda Kenny, dear leader of our government, will no doubt raise fees in the budget next week, he will cut my disability benefit (the only reason why I have money this year), he will cut the grant, psych wards are already falling apart from lack of funding, not to mention the fact that the Rape Crisis Centre in Dublin has to ask for donations for counselling. Am I expected to stand by and watch while he opens something I contributed money (money I really didn’t have) to? " 

The students being dragged out. 

For weeks nothing happened. Myself and two other students were brought before a preliminary hearing over a separate issue (we raised the Palestinian flag on the UCD flag pole). This happened exactly one week before the student centre protest and the issue was dealt with before 2012 was out. But the students that threw the eggs only received an email on January 31st (one would guess this was intentional as to avoid an image of clamping down on protests). The email was from UCD Registrar Professor Mark Rogers and it was a letter to the students requesting them to attend a meeting with him to discuss the issue. The email also contained the Duty Manager's report on the incident, this was a detailed, investigative account of the day. It included screen shots and links to the students Facebook pages and different posts and comments they made. This level of knowledge of the students would suggest that someone who knew them had a hand in it. 

Suzanne Lee is relatively well known in UCD. She ran for Students' Union elections in 2011 and is currently Auditor of the UCD Pro-Choice society. It is not entirely out-of-this-world to suggest that someone from the SU had a hand in passing on information on the students.

Thankfully this was the same day as the SU council meeting so we had time to submit an emergency motion requesting that the SU withdraw their condemnation of the students (in light of the fact that they could be facing expulsion) and represent them through hearings and generally support them. This motion was massively defeated with some students abstaining. Some council reps expressed favour of the idea that the students would be kicked out of college but the general line was "what ever the college decides to do is right" and "you should accept the consequences of your actions". Completely ignoring the notion of a union and that these students are members of that union.

The issue of representing students going through university disciplinary procedures is actually an issue of casework for SU officers and as per the SU Constitution it is their duty to represent any students that seeks their support. Casework cannot be dictated by the SU Council but the need for the withdrawal of the condemnation needed a motion.

Following this the students took to seeking support from the college staff. A number of lectures signed a letter of support and wrote to the university and the SU. Any staff member they spoke to were in support of them, they may have not exactly agree with the actions of the students but they felt it would be completely unfair to impose any serious sanctions on the students.

In the run up to the students preliminary hearings various rumours did the rounds. One such rumour, which came from the SU, was that apparently the Vice-President for Students Dr. Martin Butler has not been in work due to being traumatised over the incident. This would mean that he has been out of work since the 29th of November. In his email to all students on February 7th he said "I am currently out of the office and hope to resume my regular competition upon my return" and this is now being used to justify this idea. It is very strange that people would spread such lies. I personally met with Martin Butler, in his office, during the Christmas exams. During the preliminary hearing Mark Rogers told the students that Martin Butler was out of his office for unrelated reasons and that this was not true.

The student union still have not, and will not, change their opinion on the matter. However after widespread media coverage, many letters from lectures and other staff and the threat of a protest on campus the university opted to only impose a suspended fine of €200 on each student. The students also have to send an apology to Martin Butler. They agreed to these conditions. By all accounts Mark Rogers was reasonable and fair during the meeting. The university changed their mind, acted with fairness and recognised the importance of the freedom of protest but the Students' Union did not.

The three students still vow to fight for free and equal access to education without apologies.

Jonny Baxter of The College Tribune explains the whole thing very well:

Ben McCormack, Suzanne Lee and Aidan Rowe
The media all over it. 
A weight off their shoulders.


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