UCC Sinn Féin announced today that they would be collecting signatures from students with the aim of changing the Students’ Union’s stance on the question of Irish unity. Presently UCC Students’ Union does not have a formal position on reunification, and has not ran any campaigns on this issue in many years. The petition, put forward by Sinn Féin’s Martin Hurson Cumman (more commonly known outside of the group as UCC Sinn Féin Society, or UCC SF), is written as follows:
“The below listed call in the University College Cork Student Union to hold a referendum to decide the Students Union’s position on the issue of a United Ireland in the 6 counties and the Republic of Ireland”
Speaking to the Express, Kate Kelly, Cathaoirleach (Chairperson) of UCC Sinn Féin and member of Sinn Fein Republican Youth National Executive, said that the idea of holding a referendum on Irish unity has been proposed by and planned by many different committees of UCC SF throughout the years, “but in the wake of the Brexit vote, and the 6 counties voting to remain in the EU we feel that now is the time for us as students to clarify where we stand on a united Ireland. That’s why we decided to gather the signatures.” ‘The Brexit vote’ mentioned here refers to the fact that a majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to remain within the EU, despite the UK as a whole voting to leave.
It is likely that the Referendum will be held at the same time as the Students’ Union elections, which are currently scheduled for March 6th & 7th. While no official decision has been made, the costs of running a separate referendum would be significant, a sentiment which was echoed by UCC Students’ Union President Eolann Sheehan, “It would make sense to have it at the same time as the elections because, economically speaking, we wouldn’t have to pay for staff to man the polling booths, but until the signatures have been received I can’t really make a definite decision.” The section of the SU Constitution that defines the role and rules of SU referendums states that “there must be at least five teaching days and no more than fifteen between the notice of a Referendum and the day upon which it takes place,” but this is not clear on if it is 5-15 days from when the petition is handed in the referendum is held, or 5-15 days from when a referendum is announced. If the former is correct, then the referendum could be held in the middle of R&G Week. Ultimately, UCCSU President Eolann Sheehan has the ability to interpret the constitution as he sees it when confusing situations like this arise.
While the petition was collected by UCC Sinn Féin, Chairperson Kate Kelly was quick to elaborate that this isn’t a Party-specific issue, saying that “while this was initiated by UCC Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin Republican youth we want to emphasis that this is for all students to take part in.” These sentiments were echoed by UCC Ógra Fianna Fáil Chairperson Daire O’Herlihy, and Secretary Seán-Diarmuid Kelliher, with Mr.Kelliher saying that “our [UCC Ógra] view is that we want it be completely non-partisan, we need to have a bit of say in the run of the campaign and not just be dominated by Sinn Féin. It should be a general Republican voice, not just a Sinn Féin voice.”
The Students’ Union has not yet taken a formal stance on the issue, and will discuss the idea at a meeting of the SU Executive. While the Students’ Union has generally opted to stay unbiased during recent referendum campaigns, it does have the option to officially campaign for/against a particular side, and individual officers may take time off work to campaign. As they have yet to decide what stance they are taking, SU President Eolann Sheehan declined to comment when it came to the outcome or result of the vote, but both UCC Sinn Féin and Ógra Fianna Fáil Chairpersons felt that it’s likely that the vote will be carried.
It is also likely that the same restrictions on external campaigners will be in place for the referendum, though no decision has been made at the time of writing. Restrictions in the past have limited campaigning on campus referendums to current students, alumni and 8 other people who are neither current or former students. This is generally seen a measure that ensures that studies & lectures are minimally disrupted, and that opinions can’t be swayed by external groups with more funds than individual students or campaigns.
“I think that’ll be down to the electoral commission, but I can say if we do have as many candidates as we’re looking at now it may be the case whereby… for security reasons, having too many bodies on campus, we may have to, but again we have to wait and see the date, and then see who’s running for the SU elections, and judge it off that. So we’re not flooding the field, and to be fair as well, if we are gonna run it at the same time as the SU elections, to be fair to the candidates, that their teams aren’t taken over by it.”
A common complaint levied at the SU or student political groups when referendums like this are held is that social policy or political causes like this are, as one might believe, unrelated to students. This has not been the feeling on the ground, according to Ms.Kelly, who noted that “the student response has been very positive so far, students seem to be really engaging with the idea of a ‘United Ireland’ and can see it [happening] in their lifetime.” When asked about whether he felt it was the place of the Students’ Union to campaign on Irish unity, or whether it may be beyond their remit, Mr.Sheehan said he thinks that “it’s the Students’ Union’s place to represent students, and if we are mandated to represent students outside, let’s say, ‘the student field’, then I do think it’s our place, I think we have to do what the students ask of us, and there’s no truer way of the students asking us than through a referendum.”
The petition required 500 signatures of current UCC students, and within 5 hours over 1000 signatures had reportedly been collected. It is not known at the time of writing if the petition has officially been handed in, but we will update you when we can.
Update, 03/02/2017 13:52: We can confirm that the signatures were handed in to the Students’ Union yesterday evening.