Ever come across a student representative promising something when still a candidate and doing the opposite when elected? Well I have been involved in students’ politics for some years now and I have rarely come across a similar case. The most recent story I have read about took place in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). It shocked me, the least to say.
It all started in the TCDSU election’s hustings in mid-February when Kevin Keane, running for the position of SU President at the time, was asked by an audience member if he would support the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)-Dublin’s push for College to take on a “full academic boycott” of Israel. Keane responded that he would do so “without a shadow of a doubt.” Keane has also signed the SJP’s petition calling for an academic and economic boycott campaign in TCD. As a result of this pledge, he was endorsed by SJP-Dublin, which enjoys a wide support on campus.
A screenshot from a conversation between a pro-boycott supporter and the President-elect’s TCDSU election campaign page, showed him stating:
“I think an academic and import boycott is something the union should definitely look at supporting.”
But imagine the shock, disappointment and outrage of student activists when, at the Student’ Union Council’s debates to pass a motion calling for a student-led solidarity campaign with Palestine, and for affiliation with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, Keane, freshly elected, flipped positions and spoke against the motion, despite the fact that, as a candidate, he promised to support it.
The motion was proposed on Tuesday April 4th by Conor Reddy, a third year Genetics student, Science Class convenor and a member of SJP-Dublin. In a conversation with Reddy he told me “the motion was something that we (SJP) collectively felt could round off a decent first year of action”. They were hopeful initially as the Student Union was at the very heart of the 1980’s college boycott of South Africa. They thought they could hammer something similar home and had been tremendously encouraged by all the signatures they got from students.
Ciaran O’Rourke, a founding member of SJP-Dublin, spoke alongside Reddy in the Council’s session to support the BDS motion. In a chat with O’Rourke, he commented, “No university should be complicit in apartheid or any other crime against humanity – to do business with Israel, including in an academic context, is to deny the rights and demands of the people of Palestine, and to betray basic principles of solidarity and respect for human rights that any university worthy of the name should uphold.”
The Council meeting saw many speakers on the pro-boycott side expressed personal experiences of living in Palestine and the abuses they had faced from Israeli occupation forces.
Following the motion’s defeat, the TCDSU President-elect’s decision to oppose it, despite stating support for the campaign during his election campaign, was met with students’ criticism. Comments by Trinity students ranged from anger to frustration at his actions: “the trust has been broken” Muireann McGlynn said. “What I’d like is a President whom I could trust not to lie to people he’s supposed to represent,” she added.
McGlynn, Senior Freshman Sociology & Social Policy Student, commented on the move, “As a student and activist on campus, I was really disappointed to see Keane so quickly break a promise to students and campaigners who relied on him. It struck me as disingenuous to apparently support a campaign throughout an election period and then immediately go back on your word. I no longer trust Keane to fulfill any of his campaign promises and believe that his actions have severely undermined the trust of students whom he is supposed to represent.
Eóin Ó Murchú, a fourth year Medicine student, noted, “You can’t use the struggle of Palestinian people as a political prop which you can drop when it suits you. The dream of a socialist borderless Palestine is a kindred spirit to a 32 county socialist republic in Ireland.”
Reddy added, “I personally think that this is an instance of tremendous hypocrisy and that it demonstrates a lack of honesty in the self-professed leaders within student unions. 2000 people signed the petition. 1500 or so voted for [him]. 29 emails apparently register… grievance at the motion. If the call for BDS is not a legitimate one given 2000 signatures, his presidency is positively shambolic.”
Israeli Embassy Pressure
Other students supplied me with what they believed is an external pressure on the TCDSU to oppose the motion. The Israeli Embassy, in an email sent to the current TCD SU President McNulty from deputy ambassador of Israel Orli Weitzman, advised the current officer to oppose the motion as it “serves to deepen the rifts”. Weitzman added: “the BDS campaign is very controversial and has been criticized in many parts of the world.”
Students believed this email has placed a great pressure on the elected students’ representatives not only to vote against the motion but also to encourage other Council members to take it down.
On the Israeli Embassy interference, Ó Murchú noted, “The Israeli embassy’s worrying involvement in student politics is not surprising but it is sobering. Just as the revelations by Al Jazeera were in the UK last year. The mask used by the Israeli occupation is slipping and the global BDS campaign is making a dent.”
Petition’ Delivery Rejected & Students’ Organizer Fined
I came across SJP-Dublin a couple of months ago during a tour talk in few Irish universities, including TCD where I met with SJP-Dublin, a committed campaigning group, calling to cut TCD research partners in Israel. TCD academic links with Israeli institutions include the weapons manufacturer Elbit Security Systems, and the Israeli Security and Counter-Terrorism Academy. Today, Trinity’s strongest links are with the Weizmann Institute of Science and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which has built part of its campus on illegally occupied land in East Jerusalem. On the list is also Ariel University, located in an Israeli settlement, illegal under international law.
To show their oppositions to these academic links, SJP-Dublin has gathered over 2,000 signatures to a petition which was scheduled to be delivered on February 24th to the College Provost. A day earlier, a talk organised by the Society for International Affairs (SoFIA), to be given by the Israeli ambassador Ze’ev Boker, was cancelled following a peaceful protest by 30 Trinity students of SJP and others. O’Rourke noted the protest took place because the SJP group were “calling for human rights for Palestine and for Palestinians” and also took issue with Boker “stating that the military siege of Gaza does not exist.” The UN along with other international organisations has stated on several different occasions that the contrary is the case, Israel is tightening its military siege on Gaza.
The peaceful action of the SJP-Dublin was met rather unpleasantly. It was followed by a college disciplinary committee issuing a fine of €150 to one of the student organisers of the action, for the charge of “frustrating the purpose of holding a previously authorised college event”.
Following the peaceful protest, the College cancelled the scheduled event of petition delivering, with the group being told in an email from the Director of Public Affairs and Communications that the Provost “is not in a position to accept the petition… [the] handover was no longer possible once the protest had happened and sent such disturbing messages to the world about Trinity’s relationships with free speech.” In response, Ciaran O’Rourke commented “…To say the least, such an institutional response is unbecoming of TCD’s legacy as a beacon of anti-apartheid principles, and has sinister implications for the freedom of student activists on campus in general.”
In response to the SJP-Dublin protest, the cancellation of the petition handover, the Israeli embassy pressure, and the motion in the Students’ Council, a statement by SJP-Dublin re-affirmed their continuous support for the legitimate rights and demands of the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS). The group said it is heartened to be able to acknowledge the many students who spoke in support of the boycott motion, giving passionate and inspiring accounts to oppose Israeli apartheid. It also re-affirmed their commitment to continue their support for freedom, equality and justice in Palestine, and extended their hand of solidarity to the Palestinian people, “whose dignity remains our continuing inspiration.”
A Note of Hope
News of the petition, the shunned deliverance, the penalty and this slap in the face by the SU president-elect, has even made the TCD activists stronger on campus and has impacted the momentum for TCD academic boycott campaign that is going from strength to strength.
In closing remarks, O’Rourke said, “So long as civil society groups in Palestine call for our support in pressuring Israel to follow international law TCD and other universities should actively demonstrate that support by boycotting Israeli institutions.” Reddy noted, “A sizable number of students were incensed at Kevin’s U-turn, even those who were unsure on BDS… We’ll keep going and building just as we’ve been doing. We’re confident that if a referendum were put to all students in TCD that we’d win it and this may be something we’ll look at after campaigning more next semester!”
SJP-Dublin’s full statement.