The battle over the right to provide information on abortion that started in ‘89 would remain a burning issue in the early 90s and beyond. Taking the case to the European Court of Justice, the leaders of local unions and of USI remained hopeful in their bid to overturn the original court ruling.
Speaking on behalf of USI at the time, Alastair Rutherdale stated: “Many of our members feel that even if the law is against us, we should continue to provide the in- formation”. This statement was representative of the organisation as a whole, with congress having recently passed a motion stating that “in the event of an un- planned pregnancy, a woman should have the right to choose the option they believe most appropriate – including the option of abortion”.
The prominence of the SPUC case did not deflect USI from its other important work. The lack of college places at the time was also a problem which was being challenged, with outgoing USI President Karen Quinlivan commenting: “The options for those who are denied access to a decent education are frequently limited to the dole queue or the emigration boat.” As well as this, USI was also engaged with the problem of the increasing ten- sions in Northern Ireland. Joining with students from Northern colleges, marches were held to call for the cessation of violence with incumbent USI President Maxine Brady stating that they were “[telling] the gunmen that enough is enough. The students are the future leaders and decision-makers, [we] are not a political point- scoring football for politicians”.
1994 was to bring about one of the largest student protests to date, with 15,000 young people from all over Ireland marching through the streets of Dublin. A combination of fee increases, an unfair grant system, overcrowding and a general lack of attention to the plight of student hardships culminated in the mass protest. President of USI, Helen O’Sullivan, along with her cohorts in USI and several other organisations, would lead the amassed students from Parnell Square to Dáil Éireann, shutting down traffic and getting their voices heard in a statement that could not go unnoticed. Within a year, then Minister for Education Niamh Bhreathnach, would introduce her plan for the abolition of third level tuition fees.
With the victory regarding fees under its belt, the union would roll out more protests in the coming year regarding delays with grants and over pricing of accommodation. With the general condition of the economy improving, measures had to be taken to prevent the changing inflation rate from leaping ahead of students’ abilities to pay new prices. USI President Colm Keaveney would say: “It is simply not right, just or equitable that if you cannot survive on the student grant that your chances of being able to complete your third-level education is at risk.”
The coming years would see students from several of the Regional Technical Colleges (RTCs), including Cork and Tralee, staging protests to seek a change in status to an Institute of Technology, as had occurred with Waterford’s RTC. These requirements would be reviewed by Minister Bhreathnach forming an expert group to look into the situation, which would eventually see the upgrades occurring.
In 1997, USI would finally prove victorious in a decade-old battle dating back to the beginning of the union, to secure a seat on the HEA. Minister Mícheál Martin would appoint then President Colman Byrne to sit with the other six members of the board which overseas university education. Speaking on the triumph, Colman Byrne stated: “To get a seat on the HEA is a significant recognition of the need for student representation on all education bodies. It is also a major recognition of USI as the sole representative body for students on a national level.”
Despite these great victories for the union, the coming decade would present obstacles which would endanger the very workings of the organisation.