- 10 Sep 18
In an exclusive, in-depth interview, newly elected USI President Síona Cahill talks about her plans for the year ahead, her early political education, the dynamics of campaigning during the Repeal the 8th and Marriage Equality referenda, and her experience of speaking in front of a Planned Parenthood conference in America.
Getting elected to any public office isn’t just about previous victories. That said, if you had a Venn Diagram with circles like “created a national slogan for the marriage equality referendum (successfully)”, “campaigned for Repealing the 8th in deeply rural County Longford (successfully)”, and “represented Ireland with a speech highlighting the country’s journey towards progressive values in front of 2,000 people in America” – you could confidently circle them all and put Síona Cahill’s name in the middle.
A formidable and tireless campaigner, Síona has held various roles within student politics for almost five years. It was that experience, along with her high-profile work during the Repeal referendum, which made her such a natural successor to the outgoing USI President, Michael Kerrigan.
It is an interesting time to be at the helm. Some key colleges remain unaffiliated with USI, while issues such as consent classes and no-platforming continue to prove divisive each year. Not that these issues will phase Síona. She is open to all questions and answers frankly, mostly without hesitation. Well, except when asked something simple like, “What do you do in your free time?” – a question which is met with a look that suggests that she doesn’t know what free time is. Publicly funded education, Síona’s early association with Fianna Fáil, and the challenges in Northern Ireland are all on the agenda in this interview, while Síona also provides fascinating insight into growing up gay in rural Ireland…
Peter McGoran: Why did you want to be the USI President?
Síona Cahill: I ran for election first as Vice President for Welfare and Equality of Maynooth’s Students Union and it exposed me to all of the problems that students were facing. I got elected in 2014, then I came in in 2015 – the year of the Marriage Equality referendum – so I suppose I cut my teeth in campaigning and advocacy. I ran for re-election as Vice President for Welfare the next year, and then I ran for the national position for Equality and Citizenship. It was never in my trajectory to run for President – but it became clear that I could get shit done, and also that people trusted me to do a job.
Were you political in school or when you were younger?
Yeah, I mean, my dad is a Fianna Fáil county councillor. It was almost impossible not to be around politics growing up. A lot of people would see that maybe as a curse – but I think that I was lucky, because it exposed me to a lot of reps and a lot of elected officials. It also exposed me to problems with the system and issues that families were having on a local level. When I was in college I was involved in Ógra [youth wing of Fianna Fáil – Ed], but I was always a bit or even a lot left of centre in terms of what I was shiteing on about – which at the time was gender quotas and the lack of women in Fianna Fáil.
You moved away from the party then.
When I was coming towards the end of my time in Maynooth, I’d figured out that I was better placed when I was in the Students Union, and I wasn’t involved in any kind of political party. At the same time, I somehow managed to be somebody that could comfortably engage with the likes of Solidarity or People Before Profit, as much as I could with Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour. I learned how to do that with the Marriage Equality referendum. I was on a campus that had a seminary, so I had to learn the art of diplomacy very quickly.
Would you pin your colours to a political party in the future?
Everybody loves to ask me that question, in particular because I’ve got politics in my family. To be honest, I don’t think so. I love what I do, and I don’t think that I should ever say that I would never run for election in a national sense or in a constituency sense, because I’m a very proud Longford woman. I joke about it often, about putting Longford on the map, but actually, in a serious sense, Longford has the lowest rate of students progressing to third level in the country. So we can joke about rural areas, but at the end of the day, these areas are struggling. People in big cities nearly laugh at the idea of a post office closing, but when you think about the effect that that might have on elderly communities in a rural area – it becomes hugely significant. There are so many things that need good representation.
Is gender an issue?
All the parties have a women problem. All the parties have a diversity problem, particularly the Fianna Fáils and Fine Gaels of the world. However, I was talking recently at the Alternative Voices Conference in UCD about my activism, and my reflection is that it is hard to get people interested in representational politics, compared to a single issue – like Repeal or Marriage Equality. With both of those issues, there was an end goal. But representational politics are important, because if we hadn’t got the right people in the room for the Oireachtas committee in the first place, we wouldn’t have gotten these referenda.
Might you choose a political party that you don’t necessarily agree with on everything – but where work could be done from the inside?
Certainly that’s the way I would have felt when I was in college. Moving a lot of people around on issues like Marriage Equality or gender quotas and being that kind of niggly voice – I think that’s really beneficial, but I’m not sure exactly what I would do going forward.
Are there politicians you admire?
You’ve got the likes of Simon Harris – who is absolutely imperfect – but what I admire is where there’s a collaborative approach, where you meet with as many groups as possible. For instance, he’s completely fallen down when it comes to access to PrEP, but his work around Repeal was really good – and it certainly wouldn’t be my natural position to praise a Fine Gael politician. Then you’ve got so many incredible people on the left – like Clare Daly – who were absolutely on their own when it came to reproductive rights five or ten years ago. We are applauding all these people who’ve gone on those journeys and changed, but we’re not recognising the people who stood up before them and actually said: “This is a problem, and we need to do something about it,” and were admonished for it.
For the uninitiated, what does the USI do?
The Union of Students in Ireland is the main representative body, nationally, for third level students. There are 374,000 members across the island, which includes Northern Ireland. As a national representative body, we do advocacy work primarily on student issues, as well as communicating with students and also supporting Student Unions. So we are a membership organisation that has unions all across the island, and we take from them what we should be working on, what are the issues on a local level that need to be dealt with.
There’s also campaigning on social issues.
We do a lot of that for things like Marriage Equality, Repeal, PrEP, decriminalisation of drugs. Then we also work on identifying well-being and welfare-related campaigns, like sexual health and mental health. That’s something we’ve been consistent with year after year.
You’ve worked in student politics for several years now. What have the big successes been?
When I was Welfare Officer in Maynooth, I got involved in the national campaign for Marriage Equality. That’s where I came up with the #MakeGrátheLaw slogan which ended up on the site of the SIPTU building. And that became our national campaign. On a more day-to-day level, our officers cover everything from: what do I do during a student bereavement? Or how do I go about getting a gender neutral bathroom on my campus? Or what’s the best way of tackling the issue of lack of counselling services? You can’t do these things in a silo. That’s why having a national body helps. Recognising the power of when you walk into a room with 374,000 people behind you, that can be used to get the most for students. Our brief now runs from Welfare and Equality all the way to the Irish language, to our new Vice President for Post Graduate Affairs.
Is the need for publicly funded education still top of the agenda for USI?
Yes. In any given year, you try and prioritise a few campaigns. Publicly funded education, for me, isn’t about letting universities and ITs off the hook and just giving them money for capital grants to build more buildings, it’s about the access that students have to third level. If we don’t invest in our third level institutions much more significantly than we’re doing now, we’re preventing people from getting access to third level. So publicly funded education is very much still a priority.
And then there’s accommodation!
The student accommodation crisis is really urgent. It is right in the middle of the housing and homelessness crisis in Ireland. Homes are being repossessed, families are not able to cope. Going down Thomas Street, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s purpose-built student accommodation springing up everywhere – that’s how it feels – but it’s not meeting the need. We called this out five years ago, if not before, and said there’s not going to be enough. We’re promoting things like digs for students, which isn’t a solution but at least helps alleviate the situation.
You have the issues of vastly inflated prices and students not being able to afford them.
The government is very much relying on the private sector at the moment. And it’s not that you can’t have that, but there’s no balance right now. ITs, for instance, have essentially no borrowing power off the State’s balancing sheet, and because of that they’ve not been building any purpose-built student accommodation on campus. At least with that kind of student accommodation, you’ve some input from a governing authority, or a student somewhere, to say: “This high, and no further.” But what we have with privately built student accommodation, is that it’s not treated like a normal tenancy, and it’s not subject to rent caps. You have instances like in NUIG, and apartments in DCU where, effectively overnight, student accommodation went up 27%. Students were being asked for deposits for the next year during their exam time – which was highly manipulative. In terms of the broader problem, we’re looking for rent caps of around 4% to be put on purpose-built student accommodation. If we recognise there is a private sector there, then we need to establish that they can’t be fluctuating prices whenever they feel like it.
Different universities have disassociated themselves from the USI. What’s your take on that?
We have two institutions, UL and UCD, who are currently not members. That’s down to a number of reasons, most of which are historical. And I think that if the opportunity arose for USI to actually pitch what we do, on each of those campuses, and explain the value of working together on different issues, there are opportunities there to have new conversations with new teams in Student Unions. My priority is for the members that I represent currently, but you’re always looking to see how that can be improved. I only know so much of the student history with USI but I can certainly say that we get stuff done. You look at the whole loan debate two-and-a-half years ago. That was absolutely on the table – Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were mad into it – and it felt like almost everything was against us. Then the student movement made this politically toxic for politicians. We said we cannot have loans because it’s going to be a barrier for education, like in the UK, Australia and America. We got something done on that.
The Repeal referendum was obviously a huge success…
I have never been involved in anything quite like student politics, at a national level, when there is a referendum. While we were trying to do a thousand other things, relating to higher education funding and so on, we then found ourselves effectively leading a Repeal campaign in the middle of the year. If young people didn’t see this as their issue, then we were very likely going to lose. So there was a weight on us and very much a feeling that it was up to us to get it over the line. None of us wanted to let the team down. We committed to it night, noon and morning. We were in campuses all around the country, talking to people, training people, canvassing and just having conversations. We were going around the country, and when the opportunity to have a conversation arose, particularly with young guys – you could see the change, you could see the engagement.
How difficult is it to connect with students?
I am on campus a lot. I see and hear the issues people are facing all of the time. I’m on campuses physically meeting with student union reps and students. Recently I’ve been meeting with a lot of students who have been having accommodation problems and finding what could be improved. The struggle to remain relevant is sometimes a concern, but I love what I do and because of that I spend a lot of time making sure that I know what’s going on and how people are feeling. It’s not just unions that I’ll be in contact with. Students themselves would be messaging me, tweeting at me and telling me things that are happening.
You’ve spoken about the issue of consent.
Consent is not just a one year issue that you tick the box with. We’ve failed young people before they get to third level with the lack of comprehensive sex education. By the time they get to third level we’re seeing the realities of a lack of basic understanding, not only about someone’s sexuality, gender or sex, but about consent and the idea of respect in relationships, and what people should expect or shouldn’t expect from a sexual encounter. So when it comes to consent, USI is working with local student unions on implementing spaces at orientation and, beyond that, trying to promote more tangible ways to engage with more people. In a practical sense, third level institutions aren’t really engaging with it to the extent that they really need to be. They’re afraid of reputational damage instead of tackling the issue and providing meaningful spaces and policies on campus that would actually assist. People are afraid of talking about criminal actions.
When you say “reputational damage”, what do you mean?
Institutions don’t want necessarily to gather data on how many students have been affected by this on their campus, because they wouldn’t want it to look like their campus is worse than somewhere else [reputationally] for sexual assaults. The reality is that this is happening everywhere and if we could all just work from that, we will be able to do something about it. At third level, we need to be doing much more. There needs to be a co-ordinated approach to how we talk about this.
Consent classes are just one part of a potential overhaul of the sex education system. Have you seen that they work?
It is very difficult to say tangibly that, because someone received this sex-ed class or that consent class, that they’ll now go into life as a better person. But certainly talking about it and naming it – that has increased the numbers of students talking about this issue, naming it when it happens to them, flagging it to the institutions and going to sexual health centres. That kind of stuff is tangible. One of the key concerns around sexual assaults is the low reporting rate, and if that can be increased because of the increase in awareness, then I think we are doing a good thing.
What’s your position on the issue of no platforming in colleges?
Debating societies and others come from the perspective of freedom of speech on campus, and I do think that needs to be protected, but I am not entirely sure that I support giving a platform to voices that are absolutely racist, absolutely homophobic, transphobic, sexist etc. There’s a difference between providing an alternative view for debate and discussion, and providing a platform to somebody who will effectively incite racial or homophobic hatred or actions in a community. That’s not education. That’s something you can Google. You don’t nee to provide a platform for it. That’s a different conversation to freedom of speech and providing alternative voices.
A few years ago, you spoke on national radio about being gay. How did that go?
I spoke on the Eoghan McDermott Show about growing up gay in Longford and being “the only lesbian in the village” or at least I thought until I met my girlfriend, who lives ten minutes away from me, during the Repeal campaign! I came out when I was 20 years of age and my time at university provided me with a space to think about who I was. That was a journey. I suppose it wasn’t hard to talk about it on radio because it was really important to me that we have more LGBT voices who are prominent, because when I was growing up I didn’t have them. The reason I like talking about it to the media is because I didn’t see those gay women in prominent positions growing up. And while you have people like Katherine Zappone becoming a minister now, it’s still really important that, as much as we can, we name our identities. Because you never know the impact that might have on a young person, especially if they are struggling to come out, especially in rural Ireland.
Was it an issue with your family?
A big concern for my parents was that when I came out it would become a barrier to me, that it would become something that prevented me from “doing well”. I was absolutely determined for that not to be the case. When I came out, I worked on Marriage Equality and pretty much went from zero to 100! Because of that, I saw all the issues that impacted the community. Part of that is learning to be an ally to every letter in LGBTQ+. Access to PrEP is something that is really important. We need to strengthen our rights for the trans and non-binary community.
What’s the experience of being a gay person in a rural area?
As a young person growing up in rural County Longford, it wasn’t that people weren’t accepting – they didn’t know. But it’s isolating. With something like this, you need to find your people. And it’s hard to find your people if your people are in urban areas – and the reason they’ve left is because they’re scared of remaining at home. The overriding concern is that you’re abnormal, that there’s something wrong with you. And you have to fight that internally before you can ever even talk about it. That’s still a battle for so many young people in Ireland, particularly in rural communities. That’s why I always endeavour to attend as many Prides as I can across the summer. There’s the colour, there’s the festival aspect, then there’s the protest aspect – but overriding all of that, Pride is about that community spirit and that feeling of acceptance that many people don’t have in their own homes.
Have students approached you about being gay?
While I was in Maynooth, there were so many instances where students came to me during the year of marriage equality, sharing stories about how their parents reacted negatively to the debate, without knowing their own child was gay. There were others not let home: people told that if they followed this 'lifestyle' they weren’t going to have their registration fees covered. People who still are effectively estranged from their parents. I was very lucky, in that my parents were incredibly supportive.
What does being a feminist mean to you?
Feminism’s not just about the equal representation. It’s about a wider cultural and societal challenge, and treating people equally. We’re not doing that right now. Equal rights for others doesn't mean less rights for you as an individual. And we’re struggling to get that message across. For me, its about ensuring that more women are running for election, getting involved in politics and student societies. I do get criticism for something like training women for election or supporting initiatives like the ‘Women Lead’ programme. I say, “Look, society is completely imbalanced, and to address that balance, sometimes you need to provide support and extra training.” I absolutely stand over that. Same with gender quotas. We need to have them. If we don’t have them, it’d be another 50 years before there’s equal representation at a political level.
You spoke at a conference on Planned Parenthood in America.
I addressed 2,000 people, all of the youth delegates – 80% of whom were under 30 – and they were looking for guidance and inspiration. They wanted to hear what happened over here. I was introduced as one of the leading activists of the Repeal campaign and I spent my twelve minutes explaining why that wasn’t the case. I was asked to go over because I’m on the board of the Irish Family Planning Association; but also because I was Chair of Students For Choice. I was asked to give a sense of what it was like to live in a State that had extremely restrictive laws. I wanted to make it very clear that it was things like the personal stories of people coming out about their pregnancies, and radical action from students for decades, that were crucial to this campaign.
Planned Parenthood are particularly beleaguered by the current US administration…
Despite the energy in the room, despite the positivity – we all had to take our badges off walking out of the COBO Centre in Detroit and agree not to share where we were on social media. That was because of the fear of physical violence against activists for reproductive rights in the States. With what’s happening in wider politics in America, and with individual instances like Iowa – where they just brought their access to abortion down to six weeks when most women don’t even know they’re pregnant – you see what massive challenges America has on its hands. So any experience I could share from Ireland felt important.
Have you had to deal with anti-abortion trolls?
If you’re getting shite online, you’re probably saying something right! I’ll put it like this, ‘burnout’ and ‘self-care’ are two words that are thrown around activist circles the whole time, but you know, I felt it. It was a very tough campaign. Online yeah, you get a fair bit of abuse. What is really frustrating sometimes is that, no matter how many ‘yeses’ you got in a day, you’d remember that one person who was aggressive to you or who followed you out of an estate shouting abuse at you. It didn’t always feel like we were in the majority. But looking back now, one of the things I’m most proud of is that I coordinated the ‘Longford For Yes’ campaign, and this little county in the middle of Ireland voted Yes – after not voting Yes for Marriage Equality. Women who’d been silenced for years wouldn’t be silenced at the ballot box.
Can you talk about the work that NUS-USI does in Northern Ireland?
The big thing at the minute is establishing a student voice within the Brexit debate. There’s massive concern there about what a border would do in terms of access for people on both sides of the border, for people in third level education, or people doing FE or apprenticeships. NUS-USI are also lobbying at the minute for Equal Marriage Rights and changing the restrictive laws on abortion. Northern Ireland is important in the work that we do. A lot of the time, people seem to forget about the place. It’s USI’s job to support people, post-Repeal; to make sure that NI citizens can have access to GP care here if necessary. And sure feck it… If it’s illegal, well… A lot of people didn’t know that it was Northern Irish citizens who often took legal risks by being the postal addresses for pills coming into the Republic. They were taking risks for us. For decades. Now we need to provide the same solidarity with them.
- Film And TV
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