On Wednesday, February 21st, the University of Limerick Students’ Union voted to campaign for the repeal of the 8th Amendment.
The union’s official paper, An Focal, reported that a total of 256 UL students turned out to vote on whether their union would campaign to repeal the 8th Amendment in the forthcoming referendum, or remain neutral.
A majority of 171 to 71 voted to support the repeal of the 8th, thus paving the way for the legalisation of abortion in Ireland.
This represents yet another example of the illiberal trend sweeping Irish college campuses, which is making it more and more difficult for pro-life students to be part of the unions supposedly set up to promote their well-being.
This vote – whilst decisively carried by the winning side – only involved a tiny number of UL’s student body, which comprises 13,500 students.
Overall, voter turnout was at 1.89%. A paltry 1.26% of UL’s students have now determined what stance the ULSU will be taking, in a contentious national referendum which many of the other 98.74% have deeply-held convictions about.
If other students wanted to oppose the proposal to campaign for abortion, you might reply, then surely they should have attended the meeting.
But many UL students would not have been available to participate in such a meeting on a weekday evening.
Many would be working in part-time or full-time employment, in order to try to support themselves and pay the costs of their education. Some would have been studying, or finishing assignments. Others would have had family or personal commitments to attend to.
These factors apply to national elections too, and this is why governments make efforts to accommodate potential voters.
This is why when the abortion referendum is held in Ireland, polling places will be provided throughout the land, and will remain open from early in the day to late in the evening.
This was not the case in the ULSU vote. It is now possible that a student referendum could take place in UL on this issue, should a petition of at least 200 students be drawn up in favour of holding one.
Though unlikely to reverse the Pro-Repeal policy which now exists, such a referendum would at least allow all students to have their say on whether their union should devote time and resources towards the ending of unborn lives.
UL graduates will not be too surprised at what has happened here.
In the past, pro-choice forces in UL have taken other steps to ensure that the pro-life argument would be as difficult to make on campus as possible.
In 2014, the UL Life Society became the first student group ever to be rejected by UL’s Clubs & Societies council. Official recognition of the newly established group – aimed at facilitating discussions of the issue of abortion from a pro-life standpoint – was denied.
Whatever one’s perspective on abortion, it is a high-profile issue, about which you think there would an effort to educate young learners. One would think that a university which has at its motto the Irish words for ‘Wisdom for Action’ would at least want to allow dialogue and foster debate.
This has not been the case.
Now, there is only one side which is right, and only position which can be held. Every individual with dissenting views, however, must still be part of an organisation whose role it is to promote the legalization of abortion, and they must pay whatever membership fees exist to allow this to occur.
This is not a UL problem only. Similar moves towards using student unions as vehicles for pro-choice activism – regardless of the sentiments of those who pay membership fees – have been taking place throughout Ireland.
More and more students are now trying to leave their unions, due to how they have moved away from their core purpose and into the area of abortion activism.
In December, The Irish Independent reported that Dublin City University students had launched petitions questioning their SU’s pro-Repeal position, and seeking the right to opt-out of union membership as a result.
“[A] major problem that arises when a Students’ Union takes a stance on highly divisive topics such as abortion is that it serves to establish the “correct” stance for entire student body to sign up to,” a representative of DCU Students for Fair Representation said at the time.
Petitions have also recently been launched in Trinity, where the single-minded focus on promotion of Repeal – and the lack of action in many other areas – by the TCDSU President Kevin Keane has been the subject of much criticism.
In UCD, the Freedom of Choice Coalition collected over 500 signatures as part of its campaign to call a referendum allowing UCD students to disassociate from the UCDSU, given its failure “to represent all students fairly.”
Another such group has been formed in NUI Galway, also, and similar calls for disassociation have been made in NUI Maynooth, also.
Legal cases have even been launched over compulsory membership in recent times, with abortion often being the spark which ignited them. In 2015, the Irish Students for Freedom of Association was formed by a recent law graduate who aimed to abolish compulsory union membership, by citing Ireland’s constitutional right to freedom of association.
With the tactic of using students’ unions to promote Repeal becoming endemic, it is likely that more and more students will become alienated from their unions.
The fact that figures within the ULSU know this will inevitably occur was implicit in the statements of two of the ULSU sabbatical officers at the time of Wednesday’s vote.
“Personally, I would have preferred if we remained neutral,” ULSU President Jack Shelly said. “I think taking a stance on this issue will isolate a certain amount of students no matter what stance we take.”
The Welfare Officer Roberta Harrington agreed, and voted to remain neutral. “Naturally I fear that students who wish to remain neutral or students who are pro-life will no longer see the SU as a safe haven and the support we can give to them will be bypassed,” she said.
This is not a theoretical point. One of the young women who has recently spoken out publicly about how she coped with a crisis pregnancy is Limerick’s Mary Kenny. Mary was in UL when she became pregnant, and considered an abortion before going on to give birth to her little girl, Hollie.
Would a current UL student like Mary – in similar circumstances and unsure of what she should do – now feel more or less confident that she would receive impartial advice if she went to the SU, as students in various kinds of difficulty often do?
In the new reality which is rapidly coming into being, she might well receive a clear answer, and quickly. But it might not be the right answer for her, let alone the baby involved.
What will the practical consequences of the vote in UL be? What will ULSU’s campaigning for Repeal entail?
This is not yet clear. Other students unions have set aside budgets for Repeal activism. The UCDSU’s Repeal budget was said to be three times greater than for any other campaign, according to the president who pro-choicers successfully impeached last year.
One would wonder where such budgets come from, and which areas of student support receive less because of the prominence of Repeal in student unions’ lists of priorities. Campaigns about the need for affordable accommodation for students? Mental health support work? Who knows.
However, one thing is clear. Every cent which goes in to the Repeal campaign is coming from UL’s pro-life and pro-neutrality students, and every tweet and post sent out by the ULSU will be on their behalf.
All throughout Ireland, student unions which were originally set up to represent the views of students and help them along their educational journeys are now intent on promoting causes which are antithetical to the core beliefs of thousands of young Irish people.
They can have no complaints about the growing numbers of students who are doing everything in their power to break away from their unions.
The Eighth Amendment may well survive this referendum, but the student union of old will not.