Dublin student activism at the end of the 1980's


I was a student at Trinity College Dublin in the last four years of the 1980's. The following account is based entirely on my recollections of student activism in those years, unfortunately I don't seem to have archived any of the actual leaflets or papers produced back then. At the time we were always disappointed with the level of struggle, it’s only in hindsight that I realize that period was one of relative militancy in terms of student struggles in Ireland. The 1980's were a period of recession and mass unemployment in Ireland with around a third of school leaver migrating abroad to find work. In 1987 Fianna Fail won the general election under the slogan "Health Cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped." Yet once in power they started to implement the most savage round of cuts so far.

Education was one of the sectors targeted both for cuts and at 3rd level for massive double digit hikes in university fees. At the time the grant was confined to students from very poor urban backgrounds and the sons and daughters of farmers and the self-employed who could hide most of their income from the taxman. There were, as always, a good number of wealthy students whose parents would hardly notice these increases but there was broad layer in between these two groups for whom these increases would mean real pain.

Lessons in control
 Organised resistance from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and most of the local Student Unions tended to follow a naïve lobbying pattern. Mass demonstrations, which would attract thousands of students, would be held early in each academic year but these only had the purpose of establishing the credentials of the USI officers who would then 'negotiate' with government. Students were told that this was the way to proceed; that militant action would only be forthcoming after the government had been shown not to be seriously negotiating. Any early action would be premature and discredit the student's movement. A cynic might suggest these negotiations were good not only for the Students officer ego's but also for the career path into professional politician or journalist many of them wanted to follow.

The method is standard top down horseshit of those who run mass organizations but its particularly disastrous when applied to student struggles. This is because the pace of those struggles is dictated by the short academic year. The collapse of negotiations every spring would happen in the run up to exams so the promised post-collapse protests would never materialise. And then the vast majority would leave the country for the summer in the search for work in Britain, the USA and Germany, work required to fund those students for the following academic year when the pattern of 'negotiate first' would be repeated. The government could hardly be unaware of this pattern but because most students were only in the system for 3-4 years they tended to believe the rhetoric of 'serious protest later, negotiations now,'

The pace of the cuts and fee hikes in this period however required a more solid resistance. And although those who built this did not abandon the Students Unions much of the work happened alongside as well as within the formal union structures. In the second largest college in the country, the University of Dublin, which includes Trinity College in the city centre, many of those doing the organizing identified as anarchists in the broadest sense of the word.

Mass assemblies
 At the time the union in TCD had a functioning mass democratic form of decision making through Assemblies. These were mass meetings that any students could attend, speak and vote at and were at that time the highest decision making body of the union. This meant their decisions could not be over ruled by any other mechanism. This provided radicals with a defined process to bring forward policies, which if passed by the assembled students the union would be required to implement.

The ultra democratic nature of the assembly meant that even the right within the student body was forced to turn up and attempt to argue its case. Controversial assemblies could see considerable preparatory postering and leafleting for days in advance as the different sides attempted to mobilize students to come along and support their proposals. This had an important role in building a sense that individual students actually had a say in an important decision making process. The mass meeting nature of the gathering made radical ideas easy to argue, students felt a power in the numbers present that was lacking at other times.

The Assemblies were not free of bureaucratic maneuvers, most infamously the SU leadership after losing a load of votes on a highly contentious new constitution rediscovered the requirement in the old constitution that votes should be card votes. This discovery allowed them to rule our of order all the decisions of that assembly which like all others that year had been reached by a hand count without those hands being required to be holding student cards.

This was part of a long running set of internal battles between a loose collection of libertarian revolutionary students called 'The Collective' and a progression of Labour Party and Communist Party members / fellow travelers who captured the union presidency on the back of the general struggle in the annual elections. But while these arguments were fought and re-fought constantly within the union in the late 1980's externally both of these factions worked together to argue for militant action within USI and to the wider student body in TCD.

Action off campus
 Militant actions outside the college grounds were organized along two general lines. The first was to argue through the structures of USI for the calling of mass demonstrations and the organization of sudden spectacular actions, principally the physical occupation of the offices of the government parties and the premises of the Education department itself on Molesworth Street.

The occupations, normally involving a couple of dozen activists from a number of colleges, would be secretive by necessity but generally timed to happen in advance of and thus build for the large mass demonstrations. Entry would often be gained in the early morning by the simple ruse of a student in a motorbike helmet gaining entry as a 'courier' and then jamming open the doors while dozens of students activists emerged from nearby laneways to rush the building. Offices would be seized; doors would be barricaded and then after some time the Gardai would arrive.

A standard Gardai tactic throughout this period would be to announce that anyone they arrested would be unable to get the J1 Student working visa to the USA. Such was the level of unemployment in the country and need of students to work abroad that at first this was quite effective in getting a number of formally committed activists to abandon the occupation. Over time though familiarity breeded contempt for that particular threat, and it was likely to be followed by chants of 'You can shove your J1 visa up your arse'.

Next the guards would say that if they had to smash their way into the building they would be charging the students within with criminal damage. And indeed on at least one occasion they used axes to smash their way into occupations that threatened to continue for some time. Most occupations though were intended from the start to be tokenistic stunts to build for the mass demonstrations, although we'd sometimes bring in sleeping bags to keep them guessing as to our real intentions.

For the TCD activists the USI organized occupations had the advantage of bringing them into contact with the more militant activists from other universities. A significant weakness of the libertarian end of the movement was that much of our organization was informal. While this was a problem but not an insurmountable one within any one college it meant there was very little inter college organization except through USI Congress and USI Council or through individual friendships. The occupations at least allowed us to identify and get to know each other, this was useful in particular with building links over time with those with a similar viewpoint in UCD, the country's largest university located in south Dublin just a few kilometers from TCD.

Escalation of demonstrations
 The second strategy coming out of TCD was to try and escalate the mass demonstrations which were intended to be passive 'march and listen to USI speakers events' into something altogether more heated. If the TCD banner could be got at the front of the march we would increase the pace and then literally charge the Dail (parliament building) when it came into sight. Initially this strategy worked well as both the police and the USI leadership were unprepared and it results in extensive scuffles at the gates of the Dail with on one occasion armed personnel emerging as students started to get over the fences and through the gates.

This quickly became less effective as the USI leadership took more care to position stewards and national officers at the head of the march and as the Gardai built bigger and more substantial barricades across the streets that approached the Dail. Mass arrests were also used, on one occasion over a dozen of us were arrested and transported to Pearse street police station. Hundreds of students arrived outside and tried to get into the building, one of them having his arm broken as motorbike police repelled them from the doors.

In the subsequent prosecution the District court judge went nuts and gave us a lecture about how we were anti-democratic subversives trying to bring down the state. Fortunately for us the police had charged us under the catch all Dublin Metropolitan Police act of the 1800's and although this act make just about every form of political protest illegal the passage of time had taken the teeth out of what were probably once large fines. The book was thrown at us but as the maximum fine allowed was about 2 euro 50 cent we were far more put out by being bound over to the peace for six months which would have meant automatic jail time if we were re-arrested for anything in that period. Unfortunately these days the Public Order Act has brought in modern versions of the catch all DMP anti-demonstration legislation and the modern variant has much more bite.

New tactics tried
 The growing USI and Gardai success at controlling the mass demonstrations was responded to in two ways. Firstly and with limited success we used our growing numbers and inter college networks to change our tactics. At the next demonstration as well as focusing at the head of the march we had groups of activists in clumps in the middle of it. This time as we approached the Dail these activists split the march and led sections of it charging through the back streets and laneways that emerged onto Kildare Street inside the Gardai barricades while others led a frontal attack on the barricade itself. On another occasion a large model 'emigration ship' that had been carried the length of the march was set alight and hurled over the barricades onto the Gardai lines, although heavy rain on the day meant that was rather less effective than those who designed it had probably hoped.

More effectively we also started to target Charles Haughey (the Taoiseach / Prime minister) on any official engagement we could find out about outside or inside the college campuses. The groundbreaking ceremony for a new accommodation block in UCD saw many of us head out there and successfully disrupt the ceremony forcing Haughey to flee the campus. The following week scuffles took placed outside the exclusive Shelbourne hotel as Gardai spotted us lying in wait and moved in to neutralize us before the great man could emerge. I got a bloody nose and had my glasses smashed by a cop on that occasion who I suspect recognized me from the week before when I'd been on Haughey's car bonnet as he tired to speed off.

Occupying the art gallery
 Most spectacularly though on the morning of a large USI march we discovered that Haughey was to open a new wing of the national art gallery later that afternoon. Without giving away what was intended the march was leafleted and students asked to attend a mass meeting in Trinity as soon as it ended. Details were revealed at this and in small groups around 200 students headed up to the art gallery and went in. By the time the staff realized something was up there was well over 150 of us in the building, we occupied the entrance lobby and chained all the doors shut.

The Gardai arrived, cut their way through the chains and gave their usual 'this means you won't get a J1 speech'. A few people left but the vast majority stayed put and the guards spent the next forty or so minutes dragging us out one by one and in small groups. They eventually cleared the building and Haughey arrived over an hour late. As soon as his car entered the grounds the police line was charged and people were getting over the railings and through the gates before being tackled to the ground by the additional police within.

The East Chapel occupation
 Within TCD itself apart from calling one-day student 'strikes' to get people onto the demonstrations the other focus was forcing the college authorities to call for the abolition of fees. This was achieved when immediately after an Assembly that provided the mandate for action dozens of us marched out and tried to storm the various administration buildings. As complete secrecy was impossible the college knew something was probably going to happen and got most of the buildings locked down before we arrived. But they missed one, a number of students managed to get into a first floor office in the East Chapel block.

That office had a window with a handily placed drainpipe which meant that although the college locked the doors of the building and put security inside that evening the initial small number was rapidly re-enforced by more of us climbing the drainpipe. The following evening we extended outwards breaking into most of the remaining offices in the building. The college retaliated by blocking off access to the front of the building but we had discovered a skylight leading onto the roof and the following morning students emerged onto the roof on the opposite side of Front Square and made their way around the roof to drop through the skylight.

We spread the occupation to the roof itself and at lunchtime speakers from the rooftop addressed a rally of students in the front square. At this point the college authorities gave up on any real attempt to undermine the occupation and instead waited for us to get bored and leave of our own accord. This wasn't a very bright move, a load of people in their late teens and early 20's in 24 occupation of a building are well capable of keeping themselves entertained. For the following three weeks the occupation became a hive of activity as we held meetings, argued politics and got the captured photocopiers into production to cover the campus in wall posters and newssheets. A mass Teachers Union demonstration passed by the college during the course of the occupation and we were able to greet it with a number of students lining the rooftops with solidarity banners.

After around three weeks the college conceded to the head of the college putting out a public statement calling for the end of the cuts and the freezing of fees leading to their abolition. We actually ended up having a protracted debate in the occupation as to whether we should now leave or escalate our demands. In the course of the debate the SU President announced he would withdraw the support of the union if the occupation continued. In the end the decision was to end it.

The library occupations and links with campus workers
 Another 'occupation' of a different sort prevented the college reducing library hours by shutting the libraries on Friday evenings. In a very simple piece of direct action we simply arranged that every Friday a group of us would enter each library and refuse to leave at the new closing time. This went on week after week with the ironic consequence of ensuring that the students you were least likely to find in a library of a Friday were in the library every Friday.

In these actions there were various but limited links made with the workers involved who for one reason or another shared some common interests on these issues. During the East Chapel occupation, which was in the run up to Christmas the security, had their own arguments with college and were keen on the overtime. So they turned a blind eye to many of the individual actions that made the sustained occupation possible. Likewise the Library staff was against the cut back in hours that early closure represented and our direct action in keeping the libraries open mean of course that they continued to work normal hours.

In so far as such co-operation was formal it was done through the leadership of the Student Unions and the campus unions (chiefly SIPTU). Towards the end of this period the Socialist Society (a broad left alliance ran along anarchist lines) working with a couple of radical campus workers tried to generalize this by calling a joint worker - student public meeting to discuss areas of common interest and potential action. We postered and leafleted campus workers for this, including 6am leafleting to reach the cleaning workers as they arrived for work but the results were modest with only a small handful of workers attending and nothing of substance coming out of the meeting.

Did we win?
 How successful was this struggle? This is hard to be certain of; the government was hardly likely to credit student resistance with any policy changes for feat of encouraging more such action. However the huge double-digit fee hikes of the late 1980's were abandoned and by 1996 the abolition of fees had been conceded. Our argument all along had included that the abolition of fees would improve access to all by removing the fear of the cost of education from those who would probably have qualified for a grant as well as those who would have been just outside the qualification limits. Despite recent propaganda by those who want to introduce fees the abolition of fees in 1996 had a major impact on access to education not only for the children of while collar workers but also those of skilled manual (whose percentage participation doubled) and even the children of semi-skilled and unskilled workers who would mostly have previously been poor enough to qualify for the grant. Their participation increased from 24% to 33%.

Struggles around student 'self-interest' in the forms of fees and education cuts were not the only ones in those years. Many of the student activist's were also involved in the Socialist Society or anti-poverty campaigns outside of college. A very small minority were members of republican groups or trotskyist parties although the later had no involvement in the struggles mentioned above, they concentrated on doing campus meetings under titles like 'Nicaragua - will the Sandinistas create socialism'.

The pro-choice and anti-fascist struggles
 In TCD the struggles that dominated the end of the 1980's were struggles by students for abortion rights and against fascism. In 1989 the Society for the Protection for Unborn Children (SPUC) prosecuted 16 student leaders for providing contact details of British abortion clinics in the Student Guidebooks. As well as prosecuting this selection SPUC attempted to intimidate ordinary students who distributed these guides. For instance two of their lawyers handed me a copy of their injunction in Fresher's week that year while I distributed the guide off the Socialist Society stall.

This strategy backfired as although SPUC won their court case against the student unions and were awarded damages they awoke a pro-choice struggle that had gone quiet after its defeat in the anti-abortion referendum of 1983. This awakening meant that when the X-case broke in 1992 there was a small but organized pro-choice group capable of rapidly mobilising the 15,000 strong demonstration that began the process of ending the religious veto on state policy.

The previous year a provocation by the organized right in TCD also badly backfired when their invitation to David Irving resulted in hundreds of people blockading and then trying to storm the building where the debate was to take place. Again there was co-operation from campus unions, importantly security refused to cover the event leaving it up to a couple of senior academics to try and enforce discipline on the night. At this point in time we had the confidence to simply ignore them.

Irving was smuggled into the building during the afternoon but ended up trapped within it as people tried to force their way in, windows were broken etc. He was trapped there until the early hours of the morning. A major defeat not only for the right on campus but also for the college authorities. Despite the fact that the organizers of the protest were easy to identify the college dared to take no action against us. Right wing journalist Kevin Myers was apoplectic in his Irish Times column the following day, referring to the students as a "howling mob".

An Assembly of the Student Union had mandated the blockade the previous week. Later a small group of the right on campus attempted to organise a celebration of Hitler's birthday. This was discovered and broken up by a group of socialists who were later physically attacked in the city centre that night by suspected fascists. This resulted in a second assembly, which overwhelmingly condemned the attack and pledged the union to the physical and legal defense of its members from such attacks.

Holocaust survivor Franz Frison 12 Dec 1988 letter on Anti-Fascism at TCD
Holocaust survivor Franz Frison 12 Dec 1988 letter to
Irish Times after it denounced the Irving protest

Pulling the teeth of the assembly
 In one of their smarter moves the more liberal and social democratic faction on campus introduced a referenda provision into the SU constitution which could over turn the decision of assemblies. This greatly weakened the mobilizing potential of the assemblies by moving the highest form of decision making from a often raucous mass meeting that could fire people up to the relative isolation of polling stations scattered across campus.

A key weakness of student struggles in Ireland is that apart from the Student Unions there is no ongoing organisation or way of passing lessons learned from one generation to the next so over time in TCD the assembly structures seems to have fallen into complete disuse. There was a second occupation in the early 1990's after I had graduated which I visited once, I believe this lasted for a week or so. But after this there seemed to be a long quiet period up to the CFE struggle of a few years back which was led by UCD activists. In terms of lessons learned the generations involved in both periods of struggle were quite isolated from each other even where we had common points of contact in the anti-war struggle. Part of the motivation for the sequence of articles and interviews that this account of the 1980's has been written for was to try and preserve some of these experiences and relate them to the new generation of student activists who like us back in the 80's face a government targeting education as a way of dealing with a recession.

WORDS: Andrew Flood (follow Andrew on Twitter )

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