Róisín Jackman of Queen’s University Belfast writes about the controversy surrounding the removal of QUB Students’ Union delegate Aisling Gallagher, The NUS-USI Womens’ Officer, from her delegation for claims that she voted against her Union’s mandate on abortion services twice. Róisín raises questions about the legitimacy of these mandates and questions the democratic structures of the student movement. Business as usual some would say. Read the Trinity News story here.
Contentiously at this year’s Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Congress, a delegate from Queen’s University Belfast Students’ Union was stripped of her delegacy rights and barred from participation at Congress. This was the result of her voting in favour of two motions which the Executive Management Committee (EMC) argued equated to her breaking QUBSU mandate. She initially received a warning having voted in favour of a pro-choice motion and was stripped of her delegacy after voting in favour of a motion instructing the USI Welfare Officer to lobby against agencies giving out misinformation to individuals who may seek abortions.
QUBSU took a pro-choice stance at the end of the last academic year by passing a motion at a meeting of the Union’s Student Council. However at the beginning of this academic year this was repealed and a position of “neutrality” was taken instead. This is at the root of the controversy because it is on the wording of this live policy that the delegate in question was barred from Congress.
However the wording of the policy itself does not indicate that the delegate necessarily went against it. The policy outlines that “this issue of abortion is a highly divisive issue and a matter for each individual’s conscience” and that the Students’ Union adopt a position of neutrality. It then goes on to say that “students with an interest in issues surrounding abortion [should] express this through the available societies and external organisations”. Whilst the Students’ Union holds a neutral position, it recognises the right of activists to campaign and lobby within particular societies and outside of the Union. Which is what has happened with this delegate.
A number of other issues highlight the sheer abuse of power that took place in this action. Although the EMC had briefed delegates in advance of their requirement to vote in line with union policies, this is not dictated by either USI or QUBSU constitution. Therefore a mandate does not actually exist, despite the EMC’s claims that it does. The EMC does not have the authority to mandate any QUBSU delegate, unfortunately due to the fact that USI is a federation and the insistence on individual union’s right to autonomy, steering committee and the broader congress can have no part in individual delegation concerns. Once the delegation leadership decides to demote a delegate, that’s it. So, despite the delegate not actually breaking policy and not breaking a non-existent mandate, she was informed that had the President known that she would vote in favour of pro-choice motions she would never have been allowed to attend in the first place. Which leads to two questions: Is that democracy? And, how the hell was he under the impression she wouldn’t do this?
Allow me to put forward my answer to both questions, it’s a simple no. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to matter to most in student politics. A lot of Students’ Unions simply allow their executive to decide who gets to go to Congress and who doesn’t. This discretionary decision making shouldn’t be allowed and the fact that it is highlights serious issues of corruption. QUBSU is one of the few unions to actually elect their delegates (though there wasn’t enough candidates this year, so they were delegates by default) which means that in saying he wouldn’t have allowed her to run, limits would have been put on eligibility to represent students for our union. Which is entirely undemocratic. What is probably most questionable is the lie that our President didn’t know that the delegate would have voted pro-choice. This is because the delegate in question is Aisling Gallagher, one of the most (if not the most) vocal pro-choice student council members and pro-choice feminist activists at QUB. Not to mention that she is NUS-USI’s Women’s Officer, which is a position which is currently dedicated to lobbying for abortion legislation north and south of the border. When putting her name in the ring as a delegate, Aisling repeatedly said that she would vote pro-choice.
Furthermore there are QUBSU delegates to NUS-USI conference and NUS conference that have made clear their intention to break the imaginary mandate by supporting a woman’s right to choose. So make sure you keep an eye out on whether they get banned from these conferences.
It is pertinent to make the point that regardless of whether or not there was a mandate, Aisling Gallagher should have voted the way she did. That’s because the role of delegates and the role of anyone involved in student politics is to look after the interests and welfare of students. Neutrality motions are the biggest cop-out that you can imagine; these are issues which directly impact on students’ lives and it’s our duty to fight for those issues. Gay adoption is a “highly divisive issue” as well, but that doesn’t mean we should shy away for fighting for gay adoption rights, or equal marriage rights.
Aisling Gallagher recognised this yesterday and decided to face the consequences of her actions. The student movement would be in a healthier condition if people acted like this on a regular basis. However to make that argument, is to accept that such an imaginary mandate actually existed in the first place.
QUBSU president Jason O’Neill can be contacted at this email address firstname.lastname@example.org.