Following on from the national discourse that occurred before, during and after the passage of the ‘Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (now Bill) 2013’, the issue of reproductive rights was debated on many college campuses across the country.
Indeed our own students’ union, DCU SU helped lead the charge in holding a general student vote for the union to take a position on the issue. Under provisions within the SU Constitution the vote was a multi-option ballot held under PRSTV. This gave scope for people to vote for positions such as a pro-life stance or pro-choice stance or pro x-case or anti x-case and a final option to take no stance. In the end the students of DCU SU adopted a fully pro-choice stance.
It is an absolute right of a union and it should be seen as duty for a students’ union to take a stance on an issue that interests and or affects their members.
However in a number of other unions who held ballots on the issue this right is being undermined. There has been a view forming from a number of pro-life voices that if their union takes a pro-choice position that they can no longer conscientiously continue as members and therefore would resign their membership of the union.
This is dangerous for a number of reasons. If students, before going into a ballot, argue that they will leave the union if the position they want is not adopted then it is an inherent threat to the electorates’ right to take a position on such issues.
It is surprising that fate accompli attitude has only arisen in recent years. Students’ Unions in Ireland have been active on the issue of abortion and reproductive rights since the introduction of the Eight Amendment to the Irish Constitution in 1983. I was told once by pro-choice advocate TD Clare Daly who is a former SU President of DCU that meetings could see upwards of a thousand students turn out to discuss and debate the issue. The only tangible difference that has occurred in recent years on the abortion issue is that national opinion has shifted from one that is pro-life or moderate pro-life to one that is pro-choice or moderate pro-choice.
Recently in UCD SU this issue was potentially on the birch of reaching the High Court when their Executive initially denied a student, Samuel O’ Connor, his constitutional right to disaffiliate from the union following UCD SU’s adoption of a ‘pro-choice’ position. Thankfully the UCD SU Executive saw sense and avoided a costly and pointless legal battle and allowed O’Connor and other fellow pro-life students to disaffiliate. However such an attitude to the democratic process has a debilitating effect.
In any given vote whether it be a referendum or a simple vote at a meeting there is a principle of trust involved that the outcome of the vote will be respected by all parties involved. It’s an inherent principle that the judgement of the electorate will be respected. The judgement of the electorate can be disagreed with but their authority to make that decision shouldn’t be.
Those who take such a ‘scorched earth’ attitude towards student democracy should not be heeded. It is understandable that those within the pro-life movement would feel uneasy about the union adopting a position that they would have a conscientious exception towards. However, in a democratic structure if your stance on an issue is not adopted by the electorate then the onus is on you to spend time trying to convince the electorate otherwise and then test the issue at the ballot. One should not turn ones back on the electorate and give the effective ‘two fingers’ to them. It is unbecoming not only to the electorate but to civilised debate and the democratic spirit itself.
Sean Cassidy is the outgoing Opinions Editor of The College View and is an activist within the DCU Students’ Union and DCU Societies.