By Conor Brummell
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) held their Annual National Congress from the 1- 4 of April in The Breaffy House Hotel in Castlebar, Co. Mayo.
Students’ Unions from all over Ireland attended the congress to debate, discuss and vote on important motions and mandates that will be implemented by Member Organisations in the upcoming year with the support of USI.
Topics discussed at the congress ranged from Climate Change, Direct Provision, Sexual Consent, Brexit and the Border Question, Mental Health, Hate Crime and The Irish Language. Motions were proposed by different Member Organisations or from the Officer Board of USI, and then delegates from different regions were given equal chance to talk in favour or against the motion.
NUI Galway Students’ Union sent 19 delegates to represent the students of their University, who debated on nearly every motion proposed.
NUIG proposed motions on various topics, namely ones on introducing a national Irish Language campaign entitled ‘Úsáid your cúpla focail’ to get more student engagement on the Irish language, getting USI to lobby for legislation to be introduced surrounding Hate Crimes in Ireland and for changes to be made to the law regarding refugees receiving Irish Citizenships in the wake of campaigns such as ‘Save Our Shephard.’
The debates were broken down into different sections including Welfare, Gaeilge and Equality and Citizenship.
A Men’s Mental Health motion was passed after delegates spoke passionately on why men should be given more support when it comes to their mental health. 8 out of 10 suicides in Ireland are male, and GMIT Students’ Union president Aaron Burke proposed the motion, stating that:
“When you hear a helicopter flying overhead in Galway, you know they are searching for someone in the river Corrib.”
USI Vice President for Welfare Damien McClean spoke on the overwhelming reaction to the motion, saying, “It can be extremely isolating for men to speak about their mental health. There are a lot of expectations on men, and none of them are nurturing towards those who are feeling vulnerable.”
“We need to fight stereotypes and create spaces and expectations that allow men to speak openly and honestly about their mental health.”
One other delegate commented on the subject saying, “Speak up, don’t man up.”
Aoife Deasy, USI Leas-Uachtarán don Ghaeilge vehemently argued for the introduction of Gaeltacht grants for student teachers.
After consistently lobbying the minister of education Joe McHugh over the past year, she stated that it is past time to “vote for Bean an Tís, vote for the cheeky shift in the back of the disco hall, vote for the Dreolín and vote for Gaeltacht grants!”
Other motions brought forward at the USI Congress discussed Accessibility Audits to make campuses more inclusive for students with disabilities. NUI Galway’s Disability Rights Officer Muireann O’Sullivan commented on the subject, saying that “you shouldn’t have to rely on a friend to help you navigate college life because assisted access is not access!”
As well as this, discussions surrounding Student Parents and Carers was brought forward with a motion to give them more support whilst in college being passed.
DIT’s SU brought forward a motion to support students who have religious beliefs and rituals. The delegate who brought forward the motion said:
“As a Muslim we must ritually wash our feet – however we do not have the facilities on campus to do this and as a result I must often use a public bathroom.”
“It is embarrassing, and I don’t want to feel like I’m doing myself or my religion wrong – especially when someone comes in and you feel worried about what they’re going to say to their friends about you afterwards.”
He also mentioned food choices on campus and told an anecdote in where he asked for what he thought was chicken at the food counter – what he was handed was actually pork, which Muslims are prohibited to eat. The speaker urged the congress floor to pass the motion on the basis that students with different religions and backgrounds be given more support and respect on campuses when it comes to these religions and rituals.
Finally, USI Congress was not without its controversy. A motion which was brought forward by outgoing USI President Síona Cahill surrounding an Affiliation Fees review split opinion on the Congress floor.
USI receives 70% of their income from Member Organisations affiliation fees, which is €5 per full-time student. This rule has been in place since Congress 2003.
Technological Universities Dublin, who have recently merged together to become the biggest Students’ Union in Ireland, passionately opposed the motion to review affiliation fees as they believed that it would result in an increase to these fees.
As the largest Union in Ireland, one delegate stated they have become “uncomfortable with the amount of fees they have been paying to USI” and that as a large MO they felt “they were not being respected as such.”
TUD felt that affiliation fees should be capped, which smaller unions opposed – Dun Laoghaoire IADT made the point that “smaller unions would not be able to afford a levy if it were introduced. The €5 that stands is democratically affordable to all unions.”
TUD left the Congress floor before voting commenced, protesting the review. The motion was passed after a hard guillotine fell at 10pm and voting had to take place.
USI Congress finished on Thursday 4 of April with Officer Reports for the year. With a whole new officer board being elected for the next year, all motions passed at Congress should be introduced as campaigns in the academic year 2019/2020.