Irish student union delegate ousted over abortion row

Oxford Students' Union censors Pro-Life material 28 March 2013

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has been criticised heavily after one of its delegates, the NUS-USI Women’s Officer Aisling Gallagher, was removed from her position yesterday due to her decision to vote against the stance that her university, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), holds on abortion.

Miss Gallagher, who is a second-year politics and philosophy student at QUB, was banned from exercising her voting rights as a delegate and from being present at future meetings of the national students’ union after casting her vote.

Her vote was in support of USI’s initiative to tackle the rise of rogue crisis pregnancy agencies in Ireland. The vote went against QUB’s policy of remaining neutral on abortion rights. The QUB Women’s Officer had her delegate status removed following her vote and she has been cautioned against re-entering the congress meetings.

Jason O’Neill, the QUBSU president, released a statement today, saying: “The actions of the individual in question will be considered by the Students’ Union Council on 18 April 2013.”

Speaking to The Cambridge Student, Miss Gallagher said of her experience with the USI: “In comparison to the other unions, we are put to shame in terms of organisation. QUB have shamed themselves and everyone is talking about it – when someone mentions QUB, someone mentions this. have to justify themselves when we go back to council and that’s when the real debate will happen.

“As of right now, I’ve been thrown out of conference and I’m not even allowed on conference floor – they could make me an observer, but they won’t. That can’t be due to anything but personal spite, because observers can’t vote. There’s no harm in me being an observer – it would just mean I can go into the room.”

Miss Gallagher proceeded to condemn QUB’s current policy of forcing its representatives to vote in line with its own beliefs: “The fact that they’re trying to pretend that I have to vote in line is ridiculous. They don’t know their own constitution or how their democratic structures work. The QUBSU Executive Management Committee decided themselves that this would be the rule – not the student council, not the wider student body.”

QUB students’ union President Jason O’Neill, however, told the student newspaper of Trinity College Dublin: “The policy at Queen’s University is to regard live policy as mandate. Delegates were pointed to the pro-choice motions before Congress and warned that they had to vote as democratic representatives of the student body. There have been precedents in the past where students have had to vote according to mandate. Delegates were told that they could abstain on motions. We have nothing against someone speaking their mind.”

This controversy echoes problems that have beset the student unions of other universities in the past often due to the sensitive nature of individual abortion cases. In January last year, students at UCL passed a motion that required Catholic chaplaincies at the university to invite pro-abortion speakers to pro-life discussions.

Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU), was also embroiled in an abortion rights scandal in 2005, after the University’s Pro-Life Society attempted to take legal action against CUSU due to the belief that they were affiliated with the Abortion Rights campaign group. This led to tensions between the CUSU president at the time, Wes Streeting, and the leader of the Pro-Life Society, Patrick Leahy. Mr. Leahy criticised that CUSU have “not been accountable in the slightest” for the apparent affiliation of the CUSU Women’s Union.

The CUSU Women’s Union is currently affiliated with Abortion Rights UK however, declaring its belief that “all women have the right to free and accessible abortion”, and that “the decision to have an abortion is never an easy one. Many women are also faced with this difficult decision during their time as students, and are in need of the support and information provided by CUSU Women’s and Welfare.”

The QUBSU and USI were due to pass an emergency motion on the following day to finalise their decision to bar her from future debates, but the deadline was missed and the motion was not discussed.

Emily Handley

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