The Union of Students in Ireland yesterday held an impressive protest against proposed cuts to student welfare and increases in fees to attend universities and colleges in Ireland.  The Union brought out some 25,000 students and their supporters onto the streets of Dublin, securing the news agenda for the rest of the day and providing images and copy for this morning’s papers.  For that, Gary Redmond and his Officer Board should be immensely proud.

What happened next is open to some debate; two groups dissatisfied with the standard fare of student protests (and we’ve all been there) broke off from the demonstration and advanced three blocks to the Department of Finance, which would have been surprising if it hadn’t been so widely telegraphed in advance.  There, predictably, they clashed with the Gardaí sentries and made arses of themselves.  They stated they were ‘dissatisfied with the futility of marching from point A to point B and decided to organise a sit-in protest.’

Well, I know what you’re thinking, but let me spell out what I’m thinking.  What could be less futile than marching to the Oireachtas to address TDs and show national student union solidarity?  That’s right; lobbing eggs, bricks and placards at the Gardaí is more futile, and clearly damages not only the student cause, but all the other things hanging on a knife-edge in Ireland.

Knife edge

At a time when the whole country is wondering when to take to the streets in response to the economic meltdown, cuts and job losses, and when politicians and broadcasters are openly questioning why the people haven’t taken to the streets already, the reason for the more timid and easily intimidated not to take part in organised protests becomes very clear; it doesn’t matter how proper, dignified and justified your protest is (and the students’ demands are clearly justified), some people will always hijack the solemnity of your protest and turn a part of it into their own little indulgent storm, in order to get themselves into the pages of the commuter freesheets.  Bravo.  Well done.  The kafiyeh was a nice touch, douche.

The Garda with a broken nose today didn’t propose to increase fees, but was doing a legally mandated job to protect a piece of sensitive government infrastructure, and was injured in the course of duty by people who should be educated enough to know better.

USI should be proud of their action, and should also take some affirmation from knowing that the students were energised by the protest.  On a bus home last night, students who had taken part in the protest were giddy and excited by the whole thing, and spoke in disparaging terms about the sideshow at Finance.  One who hadn’t made it to the protest because her mother reminded her she had lectures and how much her course (at NCI if anyone’s interested) was costing her, seemed genuinely disheartened to have missed it.

Ní neart go cur le chéile.

Declaration of Interest: the author was President of USI from 2004-2005 and serves on USI Steering Committee