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Repeal, Equality & Social Trolls: Here’s What Went Down At USI Congress 2018

The USI’s (Union of Students Ireland) annual Congress kicked off Tuesday 3 April in Ballinasloe with over 300 student delegates from across the country arriving for the four-day event. Day one marked the launch of the ‘Students for Choice’ campaign, with students also voting on USI policies that are due to expire. Day two saw students voting on newly proposed motions and elected the new USI board for next year.

If you haven’t been following the congress online, here’s what you missed:

Day One:

Delegates were rallied at the start of the day at the launch of the USI’s ‘Students for Choice’ campaign with speeches from various pro-choice activists such as Orla O’Connell from The National Women’s Council of Ireland and Maxine Brady, a former USI President.

The USI’s mandate is pro-choice and they are actively campaigning to get students to utilise their vote to repeal the 8th amendment. Michael Kerrgian, current USI President, told the room that if he was asked five years ago which way he would have voted he would have said it didn’t affect him, but he has now learned how much it affects people. Warning about the ticking time limit before the vote he announced the launch of the campaign and asked that “the students of Ireland stand as one on this issue.”

Next on the agenda was the vote on current USI policies that were due to expire. These included everything from postgraduate issues to mental health, student loans, the SUSI grant and cross-border student mobility. USI Vice president for the Border, Midlands and Western region, Jimmy Mcgovern, spoke early on about disability conferences in Universities. He proposed for training and networking events for students with disabilities to be organised and urged the need to reduce stigmas surrounding disabilities.

The next highly contested debate was about public funding for private schools and whether the USI should continue to campaign against it. Nearly 20 different delegates spoke for or against the funding. After many interruptions and numerous opinions, the motion to carry on the current stance eventually passed after students called to move on.

Support for international students and part-time students was also on the agenda. Haley Myatt, a student from Canada, spoke first on the international students motions and said that international students are not “here to fund universities” and shouldn’t be cast away. She said that more support is needed, especially for the students who pay double or nearly triple fees.

Many queued to have their voice heard on the topic of women’s leadership, but the motion was unfortunately moved along quickly because of time limits- the motion was however voted through. Delegate Sinead Ruane proposed to carry the current motion on LGBT mental health afterwards. Sinead highlighted the importance of focusing on the mental health of members of the LGBT community and said that, “it is really important that our officer boards work with LGBT communities” so that proper policies and procedures are put in place. This motion also passed.

In the evening, hustings were held for the USI board nominees for next year. Candidates utilised their last chance to convince students why they should represent them and gave eloquent speeches to the floor. There are nine positions on the board that are voted on each year and there were 16 candidates in total for the positions. Voting occurred the next day.

Day Two:

Day two saw tired delegates, but still full of fire when debating. Numerous motions had to be 9A’d- a system where a vote is called on whether to move on from the debate without letting all speakers finish.

Day two was dedicated to academic affairs, welfare, union organisation, the Irish language, equality and citizenship. Some notable moments in the discussions on academic affairs included whether to add the arts and humanities to STEM and a passed motion to restore paid placement for pharmacy students.

The STEM argument about whether to turn STEM into STEAM, proposed by LIT SU, took up most of the allocated time for academic affairs, with numerous delegates queuing to debate for each side. LIT’s SU President, Philip Desmond, spoke passionately about the importance of the Arts but the motion was 9A’d and failed to pass.

Union Organisation was next on the agenda and gender equality in the finance committee was the most contentious issue here.  DIT’s SU President Boni Odoemene presented a knowledgeable and thought-provoking argument against the motion while Anna Heverin of UCC gave a passionate speech about cutting out gender bias.

The motion passed.

Later in the day policies for Irish were voted on. Updating terminology was discussed first, the implementation of a USI Irish Language scheme passed into policy next, then St Angela’s College made a proposal about Gaeltacht requirements for student teachers and finally NUI Galway proposed a passed motion on the inclusion of Irish in USI roadshows and spoke about the importance for the USI to strive to include Irish in all USI campaigns.

The evening session covered Equality and Citizenship and offered lively debates with many passionate speeches. NUIG Delegate Cameron Keighron told everyone about his difficulties as a transgender student in university. Cameron told the floor that it took four years for him to change his college records and said that “our colleges are failing our trans and non-binary students”.

Delegate Alex Coughlan, also from NUIG, spoke after Cameron and received a standing ovation from the floor after a well-expressed speech. Alex explained how the chance was never given to them to “explain who I am” in college and that a student card should match a person’s identity. “There were no options for me to exist safely in my classrooms because I couldn’t be myself when my records didn’t match my real self” Alex stated.

“We are queer, we are here and we aren’t going anywhere until our universities recognize us for who we are” Alex concluded to cheers.

A proposal on a universal learning design was motioned toward the end of equality discussions. “We are all so diverse and unique in our own way so why is there only one way of learning?” proposer Clare Austick said. Austick also proposed a motion for university of sanctuary’s to be put into policy later in the evening. Both motions were passed.

Perhaps the most talked about moments of the day were when a call was made to stop social media trolling against delegates during the afternoon and when IT Tallaght’s SU President spoke on repeal at the end of the day. Fake twitter accounts were created by someone at the event that were insulting certain delegates during the afternoon and those in charge needed to step in to warn against any insulting of other delegates and urged people to only express their opinions on the floor.

The evening concluded with a passionate speech from ITT SU President Jason Kavanagh on the topic of the 8th amendment. Kavanagh shared a very personal experience with abortion and discussed the suffering that he and his loved ones went through because of the amendment. He told the standing audience that the 8th amendment “doesn’t affect you until it does” and made the first contribution to the floor swear jar with his conclusion that was greeted with a roaring applause: “The 8th amendment does not belong in our f***** constitution!”

The results of the USI board election were announced in the afternoon. Aoife Deasy was elected Leas-Uachtarán don Gaeilge, Damien McClean will be Vice President for Welfare, Michelle Byrne will be Vice President for Campaigns and Oisin Hassan will be Vice President for Academic Affairs. Current Vice President for the Dublin region, Aisling Cusack, was elected to be next year’s Vice President for Equality and Citizenship.

The next Vice Presidents for the regions of the country will be as follows: VP for the Dublin region- Colm O’Halloran, VP for the Southern region- Lorna Fitzpatrick and VP for the Border, Midlands and Western region- Barry Clohessy. Síona Cahill was elected as next year’s USI President.

Congress continues today from 9am.

Featured image: USI / Twitter

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