Tuesday 22 October 2019

'Anyone who speaks out for pro-life is lambasted... there is no free debate' - UCD student union president facing impeachment over pro-life actions

Katie Ascough
Katie Ascough
Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine

Hundreds of students in University College Dublin (UCD) have called to impeach their student union president, saying that the pro-lifer doesn't represent them and that she hasn't followed her mandate.

Just weeks into her presidential term, UCD Student Union President Katie Ascough, has been criticised after she withdrew information over access to abortion services in a magazine circulated to new students.

Ms Ascough said she took an “executive decision” to redact the information after receiving legal advice that the abortion information was illegal in Ireland, despite the fact the information was previously available in UCD.

The information in the 'Winging It' magazine that was removed included pregnancy help websites, the prices of abortion in other countries and information on abortion pills.

While it is lawful to provide information in Ireland about abortions abroad, it is subject to strict conditions.

Ms Ascough's decision was widely criticised by the student body as the decision to remove the page, which required reprinting the annual guide, is estimated to have cost the union about €8,000.

Independent.ie visited the UCD campus to investigate how students and the UCD Student Union feel about the controversy.

UCD Education Officer Robert Sweeney said that it is good to see students involved in student politics.

"Students have the right to hold their representatives accountable. We're a student democracy and they're entitled to petition if they think the president isn't representing the student body.

"The students voted repeatedly to have a pro-choice campaign on campus and the four of us other sabbaticals on the Student Union are all pro-choice."

UCD has approximately 30,000 students, both in Ireland and internationally.

Graduate Officer Niall Torris told Independent.ie that students feel "outraged" by Ms Ascough's actions.

"The campaign for the petition has been clear about what their grievances are. The €8,000 spent, the executive order to remove the information on abortion that had been provided before.

"Katie's campaign promise that she had researched and that she would be able to delegate any issues relating to choice and repeal and that it could be done. There are a few questions there from the students on whether money is being spent prudently and are core election promises being upheld.

"I think it's good to see students actively holding their student representatives to account for their promises and actions. I think it's encouraging to see UCD students politically involved."

Over 1,000 students signed the petition to impeach Ms Ascough.

"Katie didn't say that she was pro-life in her manifesto. The issue was raised by student journalists and she said she would fully delegate and communicate any issues around the 8th Amendment. Students are outraged by this as they feel she didn't delegate or communicate.

"She said she wouldn't interrupt repeated mandates from the students, who chose to be pro-choice. Her being a pro-life campaigner was absolutely not part of her campaign, but student journalists led her to take this position and promises during the campaign.

"She promised that she would delegate because of her compromising position and the student body took that on good faith.  Whether that promise was made in ignorance or in cynicism isn't really the issue. The problem is that the electorate took that promise in good faith and the electorate see it as a betrayal of faith."

The Welfare Officer Eoghan Mac Domhnaill was unavailable to speak to Independent.ie but posted a Facebook post urging people not to support the petition.

"As angry as I was, and still am, that that information was taken out I’m not going to sit idle while people circle around my friend and my president.

"Katie, in my eyes has, bar this incident been an absolutely phenomenal president.” “I’ll not be signing any impeachment documentation and should a referendum be called I’ll be standing by Katie all the way.”

The petition for impeachment will go to the UCD returning officer on Monday and within two to three weeks, the officer will decide if a referendum will be called.

If a referendum does take place for the impeachment of Katie Ascough at least 10 per cent of students must vote and the majority must be in favour of the motion for impeachment to occur.

A female student, who wished to remain anonymous, said she was unaware of Ms Ascough's beliefs when she voted for the SU president last year.

"She said she would delegate but she didn't. She took executive decisions and didn't follow her mandate. Students have the right to abortion information. She had no right to remove it, especially seeing as we are a pro-choice campus.

"Presidents have gone into office before with different beliefs to the students but it is their job to keep their views aside and represent the students. By taking her own beliefs to make an executive decision is breaking the trust of the student body."

Two male students, who didn't want to be named, told Independent.ie that students are being "too hard" on Ms Ascough.

"I think she is up against a wall. Repeal the 8th is a big thing at the moment. Abortion is a hot topic. Just because she's pro-life and their pro-choice doesn't mean she should be impeached.

"I think anyone who speaks out for pro-life is being lambasted. Anyone who speaks out about pro-life is automatically perceived as wrong. There is so much liberal bias. There is no platform for pro-life. Even at Electric Picnic they had posted for 'Repeal the 8th'. Everything is being politicised."

The first-year student said he's "sick of listening" to the debate and that "it doesn't matter to me anyway because nobody is taking into account what the dad wants".

Another first-year student said he agrees that there is no free speech around the abortion issue at the moment.

"We don't have free speech. It's just whatever opinion is popular at the time and then you're lambasted if yours isn't the same.

"I think people are being too hard on her. She's only three weeks into the year. I think impeachment is only necessary when people are consistently messing up and are doing things for the wrong reasons. I think this is people really wanting the 8th Amendment to be repealed and they're beating her up because she disagrees."

Independent.ie was unable to reach Katie Ascough despite numerous attempts.

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