Hundreds of students and school-children took to streets of Belfast and Derry on consecutive days this week during protests organised in opposition to proposed increases which could see university fees rise to £9,000 [€10,800] annually.
They were also opposing the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA), a small means-tested subsistence allowance, paid to secondary school students aged 16-18 from low income families who are in their final two years of education or in training.
The Belfast demo on Thursday [December 9th] coincided with a vote in the British parliament on the Tory party’s proposals to increase university fees. The Tories and their Lib Dem coalition partners won the vote which could see almost two million young people from working class communities and low income families across England, Scotland, Wales and the Six Counties virtually excluded from third level education due to this exorbitant hike on costs. Clearly, the British Tories wish to see university education return to those days of the past when universities were the sole preserve of the rich.
Beginning with a walkout by students from a number of secondary schools in the Belfast area, who met up with a march by FEE QUB which started outside the Queen’s University Lanyon building before making its way to Belfast City Hall. Hundreds students and young people participated in the demonstration, with some estimates putting the numbers involved at up to 2,000.
Members of Comhdháil Phoblachtach, the recently-formed activist group based in Queen’s University, participated in the protest. Among those gathered at the City Hall alongside the students were trade unionists, and socialist and republican activists, including members of éirígí.
The protest, due to its size, spilled onto the roadway in front of the City Hall where representatives from schools, organisations and universities were addressing the crowd. Later, a substantial section of the protest sat down in the street, bringing the city centre to a standstill.
The response of the PSNI to the students was to draft in reinforcements and large numbers of armoured landrovers in order to disperse the protest.
When the students, simply through their numeric strength, peacefully and good-humouredly resisted the PSNI’s efforts, the PSNI reverted to the use of physical force charging into the crowd with batons. At least seven people were arrested and others injured after having been repeatedly struck with batons during the PSNI assault on the demonstration.
On Friday [December 10th], around 300 hundreds of students and schoolchildren took to the streets of Derry. The students set off on a spontaneous march after speeches were delivered by students from three Derry schools and from Magee campus to a very vocal and angry crowd.
The march then moved up the middle of Shipquay Street, around the Diamond, and way back down Shipquay Street again to Guildhall Square, where many of the students forced their way into the Guild Hall itself and for a time they occupied the main council chamber used by Derry city council.
In the aftermath of Thursday’s vote at Westminster, the focus for the students will now shift towards Stormont, where the Six County Executive must soon decide if it will rubber-stamp British education policy.
Already, the signs are not good as the Six County minister for Employment and Learning, Danny Kennedy, rather than attack British government policy, chose to launch a verbal attack on the students for their defence of the right to universal education for all.
Kennedy also went on record on Thursday to state: “I think my instinct is that it is likely there will be an increase to the tuition fees and I have been warning of that for some time.”
At the end of November, he confirmed that Belfast Metropolitan College (BMC) could lay off as many as 168 staff as a result of cut-backs. BMC, with five main campuses, has over 50,000 full and part-time students enrolled, including large numbers involved in adult education courses at over 140 outreach centres in local communities. Across Belfast, it employs over 1,000 staff. The college sparked a row with unions last month when it announced that “over 100” people could lose their jobs. However, unions said it had learned that the figure would be closer to 200 and possibly as many as 400 if part-time workers were included.
Rúnaí ginearálta éirígí Breandán Mac Cionnaith said, “The scale of the task that faces the student movement is daunting but their efforts so far have shown that they have been more than up to this challenge. It is clear that they, unlike the politicians who sit twiddling their thumbs in Stormont, have a very clear understanding of the true impact which the proposed public expenditure cuts will have on communities right across the Six Counties.”
Condemning the PSNI’s assault on the students during Thursday’s protest, Mac Cionnaith added, “The students are to be commended for their refusal to be intimidated by brute force. Its also clear that as opposition increases across the Six Counties to cuts in public expenditure, that PSNI will be used to repress that opposition.
“The Stormont Executive, through its programme for government 2008-2011, previously agreed to cuts in public expenditure amounting to £1.65 billion [€2 billion]. In March this year, another £350 million [€420 million] of further cut-backs was announced, thus bringing the total amount of cuts agreed by Stormont so far to £2 billion [€2.4 billion]. Against that backdrop, the posturing of those parties within the Stormont Executive in response to proposed further cuts being imposed by their British masters is hypocritical in the extreme.
“Indeed, it’s worth highlighting once more that for their all supposed ‘negotiation skills’, during talks with both this and the previous British government, the Stormont parties could not deliver one extra pound for housing, health or education. They did, however, manage to deliver an extra £1 billion [€1.2 billion] for policing, prisons and courts. In that regard, it would appear that the PSNI were only too mindful of their political masters’ priorities when it came to attacking students and school-children whose only crime was daring to stand up for their rights.”
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