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Illiberal liberalism

Ireland has found new dogma, in its universities

College campuses around the world are renowned as centres of free thinking, individuality, and acceptance of those from all walks of life. And they are; as long as you think the right way that is. In recent years, it has become more and more normalised for people to be silenced because their opinions are seen as unpopular.

In the lead-up to the abortion referendum debates raged across the nation, with students being particularly vocal, perhaps because they had little internal opposition. Although most, if not all, universities have pro-life societies, their Student Unions hold a pro-choice stance. In my experience many students feel demonised by the authoritarian view of the majority and are unable to express their opinions freely for fear of vituperation from other students.

The impeachment of Katie Ascough, the former UCD Student Union president in late October 2017 is a notable example of the backlash some pro-life students face. Ascough made the decision to remove information concerning access to abortion from the SU’s magazine ‘winging it’, claiming she was acting on legal advice due to the strict laws surrounding the publication of such material and information. The decision led to the reprinting of the student magazine at an estimated cost of 8,000, a figure which her antagonists claimed was far higher than any potential fine that would have been incurred from the printing of the original material. Ascough was further criticised for making a decision that was not in line with her Student Union’s pro-choice mandate, which had been formally voted in by the student body the previous November.

The grounds on which Ascough were impeached were somewhat questionable, however. She did, after all, act in accordance with the law, and technically did not actively withhold the information as it was readily available from other sources. What she did do was express a hugely unpopular opinion which was met with immediate ridicule and condemnation from fellow members of the Student Union and the student body. Posters and pamphlets were spread around campus with pictures of the original copy of ‘winging it’ containing the pricing information of obtaining an abortion and information on where to obtain abortion pills online, accompanied by pictures of President Katie Ascough’s campaign manifesto. Would the reaction have been the same if she had come out with a pro-choice guide? Perhaps not.

My own experience as a student in DCU has had similar if less extreme overtones. It is almost automatically assumed that you are pro-choice; it is what is expected of you from other students.

Certainly, the Student Union encouraged students via social media, not only to vote Yes in the referendum but to take part in pro-choice events which were happening throughout the year and particularly coming up to the referendum itself. DCU’s Student Union is not an outlier here, as almost every student union in the country supported the pro-choice movement. I was not the only student who saw a problem with this lack of representation for pro-life students. An organisation called Students for Fair Representation, led by a small band of DCU students, petitioned for the DCU Student Union to take a neutral stance on the abortion debate, stating in a Facebook post: “College is a time when we make up our minds on important social and political issues – like the abortion issue. But why does our Students’ Union – our voice – only pick one side of such a controversial issue to represent us and invest our welfare money in?”.

From my experience, the conversations being had on campus were dominated by pro-choice opinions and this was easy to see from social media. I can’t even begin to count how many of my friends on Facebook put the Yes filter on their profile pictures. It is perfectly natural for members of the Student Union to support a movement they feel strongly about, after all, they are only human. But I feel it is also important to feel supported by the Union which claims to represent the interests of all students. It is imperative, if you have been elected, to represent those who have elected you rather than your own politics. Membership of a student union is not optional. They should be slow to take stances that even political parties, membership of which is very clearly optional, see as issues of conscience. Liberalism has several guises but the one that is subversive of those who are perceived as less liberal is unattractive, especially where the zeal of the Liberals seems to be in inverse relation to the complexity of the issue.

The tainted legacy of the long-intolerant Catholic Church may be that it has left us a society of intolerant liberals, most dramatically our young people.

Dearbhla Gormley