Tuesday, 2 April 2013

USI Congress 2013.

Last week I went to Ballinasloe for USI Congress 2013 as part of the QUBSU delegation. We were all student councillors, elected at the start of the year. We weren't elected separately as delegates for the Congress (there is never as much interest within QUBSU about attending USI in comparison to attending NUS-USI), but rather expressed our interest and as councillors were all allowed to attend. This is the first important thing to remember. We weren't elected. Our mandate came from our election as councillors, months ago, in October.

We were warned that we weren't allowed to 'break mandate' at USI- that is, vote on anything/in favour of anything that contradicted live union policy. This wasn't a decision taken by our student council, it wasn't a decision taken by the wider student body. It was taken by the EMC (composed of the seven sabbatical officers and a few of the staff in the union). It was in direct response to USI Congress 2012- a few delegates 'broke mandate' and voted on things that contradicted union policy. They didn't want this to happen again, so they introduced this rule. This rule isn't in our constitution, it isn't in the USI constitution. It was literally decided behind closed doors, without consulting the student council (who would probably have supported it, but that isn't the point). This is the second important thing to remember.

On the first day of Congress, I hadn't planned to speak- I never tend to plan these sorts of things. But a motion came up in the lapsing policy section of Congress, about continuing USI's pro-choice work. This was the motion:

09/WEL 2

Congress notes
That USI is mandated to lobby the government and other relevant bodies to develop greater access to abortion services for all women within the state (06/WEL 6 Abortion). 

Congress further notes 
That USI’s involvement in this debate in the past (SPUC vs. Grogan) led to the changing of legislation so that information about abortion could be distributed freely in the state. 

Congress recognises 
That in many student unions abroad and indeed in many organisations worldwide the issue of abortion is viewed as an issue of equality and women’s rights .

Congress further recognises 
That the issue is one of concern for Welfare Officers around the country. 

Congress is disappointed 
By the silence of USI on this issue for the past number of years. 

Congress acknowledges
The establishment of the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign which aims to end the hypocrisy of exiling women in crisis pregnancy that choose to have an abortion. The campaign includes various strands, including a litigation strand, a public awareness strand and a national and international advocacy strand.

Congress mandates
The Welfare and Equality Officer to work with the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign to once again make this issue a priority for Irish Women.

Congress further mandates 
The Welfare and Equality Officer to raise awareness of the Safe and Legal (in Ireland) Abortion Rights Campaign to USI members and to support the campaign in any of its actions.

(See http://usi.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/usiCLAR-2013-a7-PRINT.pdf for a copy of the 2013 Congress documentation)

I spoke in favour of continuing to work on the issue- I believe it is one of paramount importance. I then voted in favour- it easily passed (though the 'Congress is disappointed' point was removed, as it is to the credit of USI that they have been at the forefront of campaigning for choice in Ireland over the last while). I was told our union President would be having a word with me later on- I'd 'broken mandate'.

Later on, I met the President (who brought the VP Campaigns with him). I was told that the EMC did not want to stop me participating, they did not want to stop me representing students, but if I broke mandate again by voting in favour of something that contradicted QUBSU live policy, I would no longer be a QUBSU delegate at USI Congress 2013. I was surprised, even though we'd be warned about the prospect of this happening. This is the QUBSU stance:

745.6 This Council repeals policy 3.1 on the Policy File.
This Council recognises that the issue of abortion is a highly divisive issue  and a matter for each individual’s conscience. Being desirous of a unified, inclusive Students’ Union this Council mandates to Students’ Union to adopt a position of neutrality in regards to abortion. This Council encourages students with an interest in issues surrounding abortion to express this through the available student societies and external organisations. This Council mandates the Students’ Union to provide a neutral venue for discussions and debates regarding abortion and to assist societies with an interest in the matter in a fair and equitable manner.
Proposer – Caoimhe McNeill
Seconder – Jessica Kirk 

(As an aside, I find it slightly ironic that they were threatening to throw me out for something that they claim is "a matter of each individual's conscience"...)

On the second day, I voted in favour of this motion:

09/WEL 11

Congress notes 
That there is no legislation controlling crisis pregnancy agencies in Ireland. 

Congress notes with concern 
That as a result a number of rogue crisis pregnancy agencies have started up.

Congress recognizes 
That a rogue crisis pregnancy agency is one where the sole purpose of the agency is to prevent a pregnant woman from having 
an abortion. They misinform and intimidate women to achieve their aim, using methods such as harassment, bullying and been given blatantly false information. [Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA)]

Congress acknowledges 
The work done this year by Choice Ireland in campaigning against rogue crisis pregnancy agencies.

Congress mandates the Welfare Officer. 
To work with Choice Ireland, and other relevant agencies, to protest against these rogue crisis pregnancy agencies.

Congress further mandates the Welfare Officer
To lobby for the introduction of legislation in this area.

I do not believe that this was voting in opposition to a neutral position on abortion, I believe that this was voting in favour of telling the truth to pregnant women- something that, I would hope, people would agree on no matter what their opinion of abortion. Because the motion stipulated to "work with Choice Ireland", our President claimed it was not neutral and that we should abstain. I was told to leave the room once I'd voted in favour, I had my delegate card taken off me and was told I was no longer a QUBSU delegate at USI Congress 2013.

Once our President had told USI that I was no longer part of the QUBSU delegation, there was nothing USI could do- and I understand that, every union is autonomous within USI. He also would not make me an observer (we had a good few delegate/observer places left over- we never fill them). If I was an observer I would not have been able to vote- but I would have been able to enter the room, to listen. Instead, I spent three days in a hotel room, following the #USI13 feed on Twitter. If it hadn't been so far away, or the issue hadn't been so contentious, perhaps they would've tried to send me home- that's the usual protocol when someone is thrown out of a union delegation.

So what now? The support I received from other delegates was incredible, likewise, the support I received from people at home. I did not feel so alone- I knew I had done the right thing. There were two women delegates in our delegation out of eight. Many people find it absolutely ridiculous that the male dominated EMC decided to throw one out for speaking for her right to choose. That said, the week was isolating, lonely, and incredibly difficult. A few of my delegation did go out of their way to check I was alright, invite me over in the evenings, that sort of stuff- and I am very grateful for the support, particularly because it came from people who I have not exactly gotten along with in the past. I really did appreciate the effort that they made. Others ignored me for the remainder of the trip.

There are a number of issues here- firstly, regarding mandate. Were we there on the union's mandate? Or on our individual mandate? I believe the latter, the President believes the former. That is essentially the argument, and one that will be settled at our next meeting of QUBSU student council (if you want to come along, do- it's going to be interesting, to say the least).

However, there are a few other factors to consider- the conflict isn't simply on mandate. Neutrality on the issue of abortion (whilst I believe is a complete cop out, ignoring our duties as student representatives and students' union and putting our heads under the sand on the reality of the situation in Ireland), isn't as simple as just abstaining on every motion regarding abortion. The motion itself stipulates that the council now believes it is a matter of individual conscience and acknowledges the right for individual students to work with external organisations. Take from that what you will.. but I believe it gives individuals the right to express their opinions and vote accordingly at national conferences.

Another issue is that of 'mandates' as a whole. Students' unions sabbatical officers dislike when you criticise them, but hate when you criticise the validity of the structures that enabled them to get to where they are even more. Every time I tried to talk about the mandate issue, I was told by our President that the EMC was elected with a huge mandate, bigger than the council mandate- I agree the turn out was bigger than for the council elections. 4,124 students voted in the 2012 sabbatical elections. 4,124. There are 24,197 students at Queen's. That's a turn out of around 17% (I think- if I'm wrong, correct me! Working out percentages is not my strong point..). 17%... Anyone who thinks that this gives anyone the right to do anything in the name of 'all students', in the name of a 'huge mandate', needs a strong reality check.

There are a number of articles going round the internet about what happened at Congress- and there are some factual errors in them, unsurprisingly (that's not to say I don't appreciate the media coverage- I do!). Take this blog post as my account of what happened, even if it contradicts some of the things mentioned in the various articles.

Lastly, some asked me why I voted the way I did, when the motions would have passed with a comfortable majority regardless of my vote.

I voted because I am a woman, because I am a rational human being who believes in compassion for others. I voted because the laws governing my body in Northern Ireland date back to 1861. I voted because women in Ireland are told to be ashamed of making a decision regarding their reproductive health, because Savita Halappanavar's dying foetus was given more attention than she was. I voted because I know women who have had abortions, because each one of us know women who have had abortions. I voted because my reproductive health is not the business of anyone else. I voted because QUBSU women students need to know that even though their union has abandoned them, there is still support from within the student population. I voted because I am a feminist, because I believe in equality. I voted because the other QUBSU delegates decided to remain silent. I voted because it was the right thing to do. 

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