Ed Maltby spoke to Paul Murphy, a left student activist in Dublin in the group Free Education for Everyone.
EM: Describe the general political situation in Ireland at the moment.
PM: We’re fighting a defensive battle, not yet an offensive one. The government’s attacks on Higher Education are part of a broader agenda to decrease the role of the state, and to cut or privatise large parts of the public sector. The same offensive includes the privatisation of Aer Lingus and the attempted privatisation of the Dublin public transport service.
The government is attempting to reintroduce tuition fees, capped at a level fairly similar to what fees are now in the UK. These fees were abolished in the 1990s, but the government has been trying to bring them back for some years. It last tried in 2002-3, but divisions within the coalition government coupled with a lively student campaign meant that bill fell. But now the government is very serious about getting this bill through.
Because of the recession they are trying to shift the cost of higher education onto the shoulders of students. The economic crisis has made the whole political situation much sharper. The government has already succeeded in raising registration fees for students.
EM: What has been the official student movement response to the government’s attacks?
PM: USI [the major student union in Ireland, organised along the same lines as the NUS] has organised a series of relatively well-attended regional demonstrations. This term we’ve had demos with 10,000 in Dublin, 3,000 in Galway and 5,000 in Cork. The strategy is that these regional demos are going to culminate with a big national one in Dublin in early February 2009.
But the USI leaders don’t have any real plan for what should happen after the big final demo. Their whole conception of how to stage a political fight is wrong. They’ve seen these demonstrations as media stunts which are designed to back up their negotiations and lobbying. They’re not serious about direct action or creating a bottom-up, grassroots-led movement. They pay lip-service to the idea of a democratic campaign, but really they’re all about these top-down stage-managed set-piece demonstrations.
EM: Describe the political character.
PM: USI is smaller than the NUS, so it’s less autonomous of local students’ unions than the NUS is. It relies on them more, and often it is local student unions who take the initiative in things like this. It doesn’t provide leadership in the way NUS does. On the other hand, thanks to the legacy of the 2002-3 student movement, USI and local student unions are quite political and active. Elections for union positions are contested on an explicitly political basis. Although the leadership of USI is a bit soft, it’s not wedded to one governmental party, or as dominated by out-and-out careerism as the NUS is.
EM: Is there a grassroots, leftwing tendency in the students’ movement?
PM: FEE [Free Education for Everyone] is a broad grassroots left tendency that has recently been set up. It was set up in University College Dublin. A section of the student union, the “Campaigns Group”, broke from the union and set itself up as an independent campaigning body, following a series of mass meetings organised by socialist activists. It decided to constitute itself as the FEE campaign and has spread from Dublin to Cork, Galway and Limerick.
There are activists from the Socialist Party, the Workers’ Solidarity Movement [platformist anarchists], Sinn Fein and Labour Youth in FEE. The SWP are also active in the Galway section of FEE — but it’s not a left-lash-up. It’s a broad campaign in which independent activists and left groups operate, but our activities draw in a lot of ordinary students who are just really worked up about the fees issue and recognise that a more militant campaign is required.
EM: What does FEE do? What is your strategy, and how do you work?
PM: We have weekly open meetings on campus, where we report back on the campaign and decide how we're going to take it forward.
In what we write, we try to strike a balance between delivering the necessary criticisms of the students’ unions, and not being seen as anti-union. We're not trying to set ourselves up as an alternative Student Union, but we see ourselves as pushing them to act, and taking up the slack ourselves where the official structures don’t work.
We do a lot of direct action on campus. For example, in Dublin, under the slogan “if they block our access, we’ll block theirs”, students have prevented four separate visits by government ministers to the campuses. Only one of them made it in — Brian Lenihan, the Finance Minister, and he had to come in laid down in the back of a security van, then make a run for the service entrance! And last week in Galway, 60 people came to occupy the office of a Fianna Fáil MEP: there have been a series of actions like that.
We want the student movement to take up these militant tactics. It’s important to make it clear to students that the government is serious about these attacks, and we will have to create a serious political crisis to force them to back down. Through actions like these, we want to give people a sense of what could be done to bring about a crisis like that.
To really win, after February, we’d need to lead student and school student strikes, major occupations, that kind of thing. That sort of movement won't come about automatically, but it's expected that the climate will change when the government formally announces the bill; and we’ll be working to take the momentum of the recent campaign, and ratchet it up in the new year.
EM: What sort of links are there between the students’ movement and the workers’ movement?
PM: The official students’ movement has been very reticent about approaching other trade unions for support. In FEE we have been arguing for student-worker unity. We’ll be leading students onto next week’s teachers' demonstration, which is being organised by the teaching union INTO — there are about 50,000 people expected. The last budget by this government was savage, and workers are fighting back against cuts across the public sector. The task now is to link these fights up, and for activists in FEE that’ll be our challenge in the campaign against fees.