History of USI

The Beginning of the Irish Student Movement

Our country has long held the title of ‘the land of saints and scholars’, a tribute to its legacy as a bastion of religious thought and to its enduring status as a place where academia thrives. It is not without difficulty that this moniker has been held, with both elements having come under threat countless times, requiring much defence.

Over the years, there had been many attempts to organise this body of willing would-be activists into a cohesive force, such organisations as the Irish Students Association would be formed and dissolved, but it was not until the 19th of June 1959 that colleges from the country would meet in Dublin for the inaugural meeting of the Union of Students in Ireland. Gathered in the Graduates Memorial building in Trinity College, delegates from University College Dublin, Queen’s University, University College Cork, London’s National Union of Students, the Scottish Union of Students, the Dublin branch of the European Youth Campaign and Trinity itself began to discuss what would become the first USI constitution.

Also present were observers from Bolton Street College of Technology and Stranmillis Training College, both of which would later become members.

The Union formed around the principles of defending student rights in Ireland, as well as furthering the ability of Irish students to both travel and be represented abroad.

Early work in the union saw President John Hamilton Russell and Vice President Noel Igoe travelling to a number of international conferences, particularly that of the International Union of Students, cementing the union’s place as the main representative body for Irish students. The ties with the international movement would prove to bring USI into the spotlight, as a delegation of students from Prague to Ireland would prove to be the first instance of residents from behind the Iron Curtain being permitted visas to our country.

This involvement with international affairs would prove to be troublesome for the fledgling union, as allegations of communism would soon emerge. Standing in opposition to both his local union and the national union, President Tierney of UCD referred to USI as ‘a terribly dangerous organisation’ in his correspondence with the Taoiseach’s office.

Allegations of this sort were to be one of the reasons for the government to deny USI’s request for official recognition for quite some time. Despite this, the union continued its work, and by 1962 it was heavily involved in finding employment abroad for students who were facing crisis in the economic climate of the time.

1966 saw the entry of St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth into the organisation, pushing the number of students represented by the organisation towards 20,000. With such large numbers behind it, USI began to press the issues of grants and scholarships, though the government would delay giving formal response. Speaking on the issue, then President Gordon Colleary would state: “ [We] may test the sincerity of the government… the union, the colleges and the students are ready to respond.” In the following months fees would rise in colleges such as Bolton Street and the union would be true to its word with protests and walkouts to mark their dissatisfaction.

While waiting for the government’s long promised report on higher education, matters on the international stage would once again come to affect USI. Following the barring of Polish students from entering the country, the union released the statement that “USI condemns the arbitrary exclusion by the relevant authorities of students and other people of goodwill who wish the visit Ireland”. While this statement and subsequent demands for the lifting of this ban would further provoke accusations of communism within the organisation, it would also prove USI’s dedication to the protection of the rights and equal status of students in Ireland and beyond.

On the occurrence of its 11th Annual Congress in 1969, USI would make a crucial decision in augmenting its policy so it would become more closely involved with national affairs. Having previously stood on a singular platform, motions passed at this congress would see the union seek to improve its involvement with other trade unions, who had supported it previously, so that it may prove to be an even greater united force to fight for change.

As the decade which saw such change within the organisation drew to a close, the first member of staff was to be appointed to allow for better management of the union’s increasing workload. With a movement away from its earlier prime concerns such as travel, USI readied itself for expansion as an organisation and greater involvement with the issue of civil rights, especially in light of the growing conflict in the North.


The beginning of the decade brought USI a small, but significant, sign of acceptance from the government. Following a dispute between the union and another organisation which sought to undermine it, the government began to realise the importance of the work that the union was doing. In this light it gave a grant of £5,000 “to finance the administration of the union… to provide stability to enable it to continue its activities”, as described in the February 23rd 1979 edition of the Irish Times.

In the spirit of the reinvigorated campaign on this issue of civil rights, the union’s president, Richard O’Toole, called for support of issues effecting the West, stat- ing: “USI recognises the absence of real opportunity for the young people of Connacht as stemming from the failure to initiate radical social and economic programmes with a view to solving the present unsatisfactory trends in immigration and depopulation.” This com- passion with these issues affecting those students based in the West would become an enduring and re- occurring theme for USI over the years.

On a more national issue, a new proposal for a rise in fees by 25% would see the union undertake an innovative form of protest to en- liven its tactics in fighting its ongoing battle. A telephone campaign was organised as a day of action against the Department of Education, avoiding strife with the Gardaí and proving the union’s ability to deal a serious obstruction to those who would impose further hard- ship on its members.

Following on the theme of finding new ways to have its voice heard, in November 1970, USI was to call for the amendment of the Higher Education Authority Bill, to allow for the presence of a student representative on the authority. In a press statement, Richard O’Toole pointed out that “USI believes that the functions of the HEA cannot be fully realised if it merely duplicates the existing authoritarian structures of many of our institutions of higher education” and that, in order for the new authority to be effective, it would have to promote true democracy in terms of representation. Though it would be many years before the proposed seat was won, the fight was maintained for students to have their say on an equal level.

A special conference held in February of 1972 sought to pay special attention to the North. Formulated in such a way that no formal motions would be created or voted on, the conference wished to explore the feelings of students throughout the country and to agree on practical policies. Through discussion with the National Union of Students in Britain, a bilateral arrangement would be agreed in 1974 to allow Northern affiliate colleges to have status on both NUS and USI.

This year also saw the beginning of a new campaign by USI for the approval of a referendum to allow for voting at age 18. The approval of this referendum would strengthen USI’s position, as more of its members would be allowed to actively engage in the democratic process, and therefore, the voice of students would be ever louder in the government’s ear. Boosted by its victory in this matter, the union strengthened its efforts to involve more students in the movement, creating new administrative posts and committees within the USI, an effort which then president Pat Rabbitte described as allowing for the improvement of communication between USI’s leadership and the student body at large.

Further accusations would be levelled against Minister for Education Padraig Faulkner in his failings to tackle the division between how students in universities and technical colleges were treated. This resulted in the eventual occupation of facilities at Bolton Street College of Technology due to the Minister’s failure to release a paper describing how deteriorating conditions in technical colleges would be dealt with.

The mid 70s saw USI tackling some of the major taboo issues in Irish society, which were affecting students and society at large. A student conference in 1973 resulted in the union siding with those who wished to put pressure on governments in the North and South to change the law regarding homo- sexuality. This would afford greater protection to many of those in Ire- land who were emigrating to avoid persecution. Further controversial debate would take place two years later during the union’s annual congress where it was agreed that the issue of the legalisation of abortion was to be made a discus- sion point at an upcoming conference on the status of women.

As the decade drew to a close, the union would tackle its detractors and those that alleged communist activity by passing motions condemning human rights abuses in the Soviet Union. Further motions were also passed to condemn fascist movements and organisations in order to fight against any at- tempts that they might make to affect students.

These years would also see USI reinvigorating its campaign to make college education available for all and not just the privileged few. As the Department of Education announced plans to restrict postgraduate grants to those who achieved a first class honours degree, the union spoke out against the injustice of an arbitrary difference that could be caused by a single percentage point. The maintenance of an acceptable

standard of living for students was, as always, a top priority, and 1978 brought new calls for rental rates for student accommodation to be lowered and brought in line with national standards. A protest to exemplify their point was held in November of ‘79 when students took up residence in tents on O’Connell Street, highlighting the threat of near homelessness that they faced if rents did not become manage- able.

A turbulent decade on both the national and international scenes saw USI diversify both the nature and means of its campaigns. Innovative thought, greater communication and a plan for the future would characterise the organisation as it looked towards the 1980s.


The early years of this decade brought a great deal of change to the organisation. USIT, which was previously owned entirely by USI, was now to be under joint ownership by the union and the staff of USIT. USI would move offices to North Great George’s Street in order to avoid spiralling rents and the impacts of conflict taking place amongst the Irish left at the time.

1982 saw an attempt by the British government to reduce the number of students in colleges, slashing grants to colleges in order to ‘encourage’ them to reduce places in their courses. At the same time the government in Ireland once again was threatening a fees rise, an increase of almost £500, which could ultimately have the same effect as the British initiative. In response, USI was to organise more mass demonstrations, as well as increase the publication of campaign materials in order to engage more students.

Tensions would continue to rise between students in individual colleges and their administrations, with many groups taking to occupation as a form of protest. In 1984, a breakout of protests was to deeply alarm the government and receive its condemnation. Supported by USI, students in the National College of Art and Design staged an occupation of their Administration Block which was to go on for several days.

Meanwhile, Trinity students occupied a section of the Department of Social Welfare office in protest against the lack of student supports provided by the department. Speaking at the time, USI president Giollaiosa Ó’Lideadha stated: “Students are no longer prepared to tolerate exorbitant fee increases and inadequate grants. Many eligible young people are being forced out of higher education on to the scrap heap of mass youth unemployment.” This spate of student sit-ins and occupations would continue, with several clashes occur- ing, including forced removal of students by Gardaí from institutions such as the Department of Education.

After being in existence for 28 years, 1985 saw the appointment of USI’s first female president, Patricia Hegarty. Noting the history of the union as male dominated, the new president would comment that “more women are becoming involved in USI because they identify more with the union – and that’s come about partly through the election of a full time Women’s Rights Officer”. With a stronger focus on the necessity of equality within the union and in society generally, Hegarty would continue with her union to fight and campaign upon the same lines as previously, to allow for the provision of education without crippling students with unnecessary debt.

During the warm up to the 1986 general election, USI was swift to remind the government of the voting power of its 50,000 members with a variety of marches being

held throughout the country. Hoping for a promise by political par- ties for the freezing of fees, USI deputy president Sean Ó’hArgáin stated: “We want that commitment openly and publicly made.” He hoped that it would become an election issue.

Cutbacks would continue in the college sector, with a 3% drop in the budgets for Regional Technical Colleges a particular issue. However the protests would continue with a new call by USI for Minister of Education Mary O’Rourke to set up a representative body for an education review. Rallies and campaigns would point out the need for wider consultation, clear terms of reference and the addressing of the true problems within third level education.

Along with the issue of education reform was the need for serious social reform within colleges, with 1988 seeing an invigorated campaign for greater acceptance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender students. Speaking on the issue, Fidelma Joyce, USI Women’s Rights Officer, stated: “While gains have been made we still have a long way to go and I feel that in some ways the gay rights movement hasn’t gone outside Dublin.” USI would push forward for the setting up of more gay societies within colleges, an effort which would form a concrete beginning of the union’s strong record in terms of the LGBT movement .

1989 would prove to be a red letter year in the history of USI, as it would prove the dedication and courage of the union’s members. The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) brought a case against UCD and Trinity student unions in order to prevent them from providing information regarding abortion to hundreds of women who were requesting it every year. The unions were defiant against SPUC and even though the Supreme Court would rule against them on the 28th of July, these students representatives

would stay true to their course and continue to provide the information, which was of interest to the welfare of those they were meant to serve. Francois Pitton, then President of UCD’s Students Union, stated: “SPUC has declared a moral ‘Jihad’ and have now been given the backing of the courts, but they are just burying their heads in the sand. It won’t stop women going away to have abortions.” This would prove to be only the beginning of the students’ fight as the court cases would continue into the 90s with USI on centre stage.


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.


The initial period of the decade was welcomed with numerous fortunes for USI, as it saw its highest membership ever. The very first Student 10K Walk in aid of Children of Chernobyl took place with great success. Nurses would see the abolition of the fees for their degrees, and over 18,000 students would protest to demand a better grant and the abolition of the capitation fee.

As well as this, there were the first student representations on the National Adult Learning Council (NALC), on the new Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC) and the National Qualification Authority of Ireland (NQAI).

However, the new millennium would soon bring about several new challenges for USI, as well as some devastating events which would rock the union’s foundations. In 2001, the union was discussing financial options with travel company USIT, which USI was a major shareholder in, with an exchange of stock which could net the union a sizable sum. This would ensure its future operations for quite some time.

However, the events of September 11th, 2001, and the subsequent shock to travel operations across the globe would cripple USIT and the finances of USI.

After surviving this rough period, the union resolved to get back on track, fighting for the future of its members. The fight for better conditions for students would focus on calls to crack down on rogue landlords and make reasonable accommodation more affordable.

As well as this, the union would respond to the possibility of the reintroduction of fees by rolling out protests which would characterise the fight for the coming years. It also warned against the problem that the fear of debt among students was causing.

The coming years would prove the union’s worth to the students of Ireland. Fighting off several disaffiliation campaigns, USI galvanised itself around its central mission of fighting for the rights of students to be able to access education and have a good quality of life. The LGBT movement would come to the fore with campaigns focused on the burning issue of civil marriage. As well as this, USI’s Equality Campaign would reorganise itself to become stronger than ever, allowing the most marginalised of students greater recognition and support.

The central issue for the past few years has been to fight off the reintroduction of fees, with local and national protests taking place almost every year. While the oft-threatened re-introduction of full fees hasn’t come to pass, the slowly increasing Student Contribution Charge and the impact of austerity measures on student supports, including the grant and mental health services, are issues of major concern. As students bear the brunt of these regressive decisions, USI’s work becomes all the more essential.