Thursday, May 30, 2024

Trinity students claim victory with agreement to divest

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Protesting students at Trinity College Dublin are claiming victory after the university agreed to divest from Israeli companies listed by the United Nations for their links to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Trinity has also agreed to the establishment of a special working group to consider its future involvement with Israeli companies, academic institutions and student exchanges. It will include representatives from Trinity Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) and the Students’ Union.

The students will also be allowed to submit a proposal for the renaming of the Berkeley Library which was denamed a few months ago because of the former Irish Bishop’s connection to slavery in the US. The college has agreed to specifically reopen submissions for this purpose.

On Saturday, protestors unofficially rebranded the library the “Refaat Alareer Library”, in honour of the Palestinian poet who died in November 2023.

The college has also reserved places for eight scholars – six postgraduates and two undergraduates – from Palestine in collaboration with the Palestinian non-profit We Are Not Numbers (WANN). Their fees have been waived and accommodation will be provided through a Sanctuary Fund.

“We are committed to doing more and indicated this to the Palestinian authorities via the ambassador earlier this year,” said a spokesperson.

Book of Kells visits blocked

The students agreed to end their five-day encampment on the Fellows’ Garden which began last Friday. The protest led to the shutdown of the campus and blocked access to an exhibition of the renowned Book of Kells which is a lucrative money spinner for the university.

The students have been fined €214,000 (US$230, 670) for earlier protests over a number of issues, including Gaza, increased course fees and accommodation costs. The leaders were told to pay the fine before the end of the month, or else individuals risked being disqualified from exams, losing access to their accommodation, or even being expelled from the university.

The college said that it supported students’ right to protest “within the rules of the university”, but that interference with visitors’ access to see the Book of Kells, a world-famous 8th century illustrated Christian manuscript, which is kept at Trinity and is a major attraction for tourists, “had a negative financial impact as visitors could not enter the exhibition area. Trinity has an obligation to protect the Book of Kells which is a national treasure”, it said.

Those taking part in the encampment are also demanding that this fine be waived. They have been supported in this by the leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, Ivana Bacik, herself a former Trinity student union leader. The union says it will not pay the fine and its President László Molnárfi said they will discuss the matter with the university authorities in the next few days.

While the university authorities are pleased that the protest has ended there has been very trenchant criticism from a prominent former Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, a strong defender of Israel, who accused them of capitulation to the students.

Huge public support

While others may also have reservations about Trinity’s approach there is no doubting the huge public support for the Palestinian cause in Ireland which political leaders have voiced strongly in recent weeks. Along with Spain, Ireland was one of a number of EU countries to call for early recognition of the state of Palestine.

The unfolding events in Trinity are being watched on other campuses across the country. Students in University College Dublin and University College Cork are also threatening to step up action to ensure their universities join the academic boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

The president of the UCD students’ union Martha Ní Riadasaid her university’s insistence on not committing to a position on self-proclaimed “geopolitical matters” placed it firmly on the wrong side of history.

“The genocide against the Palestinian people has clearly revealed the hypocrisy of Irish third-level institutions and the deeply rooted institutional racism.

“Universities are hailed as cornerstones for freedom of expression; however, academic freedom has been used as a shield by university administrations to wash them of any moral responsibility, and student voices of dissent have been curtailed through the use of fines, sanctions and law enforcement,” she claimed.

Last month, UCD awarded Nancy Pelosi, the former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, an honorary doctorate of laws.

“Students and faculty saw this as a slap in the face to the victims of the Gaza genocide,” said Ní Riada who stood up at the ceremony and shouted “Nancy Pelosi is a Zionist and a war criminal.

“I was forcefully removed from the event by four security guards, and as I was dragged from the room, my shouts of ‘What about the Palestinian women?’ could continue to be heard,” she wrote in yesterday’s Irish Independent.

She said that the student-led movement in UCD continues to gain momentum. Students are demanding consistency and accountability from the university, calling for a permanent ceasefire and the severing of academic ties with Israeli institutions.

If protests erupt on other campuses, the lead set by Trinity is likely to be followed. There the authorities were anxious to avoid the type of confrontations that have roiled US universities where police have forcibly evicted demonstrators at several institutions.

The talks with the Trinity students were led by Senior Dean Professor Eoin O’Sullivan who thanked them for their engagement. Speaking on behalf of the university he said: “We fully understand the driving force behind the encampment on our campus and we are in solidarity with the students in our horror at what is happening in Gaza.

“We abhor and condemn all violence and war, including the atrocities of October 7th, the taking of hostages and the continuing ferocious and disproportionate onslaught in Gaza.”

O’Sullivan said: “The humanitarian crisis in Gaza and the dehumanisation of its people is obscene. We support the International Court of Justice’s position that ‘Israel must take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip’.

“A real and lasting solution that respects the human rights of everyone needs to be found.”

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