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Friday 22 June 2018

Revealed: Details of explosive UCD Students' Union meeting as abortion controversy makes international headlines

Calls for Katie Ascough’s impeachment attracted attention across the water this week, as the SU President defends withdrawing information over access to abortion services in a university magazine

Katie Ascough
Katie Ascough
Catherine Devine

Catherine Devine

Members of an Irish university's Students’ Union which is at the centre of an abortion stance controversy have now slammed their president in an explosive meeting.

The latest comments come after a week which saw the President of the UCD Students' Union hit international headlines as she is facing impeachment.

The second petition for her impeachment, comes after Katie Ascough was criticised for withdrawing information over access to abortion services in a magazine circulated to new students.

Ms Ascough said she took an "executive decision" to redact the abortion information after receiving legal advice that the 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.

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

In the latest twist, Independent.ie has seen the minutes from the SU sabbatical officers' meeting on the day Ms Ascough showed the legal advice she had attained to her colleagues.

The minutes reveal that the sabbatical officers stated no confidence in the president and three out of the four walked out of the meeting.

The meeting took place on September 21, despite Katie Ascough receiving the legal advice weeks previously.

During the meeting, Graduate Officer Niall Torris stated that he had no confidence in the president saying that a "falsity had been given to the electorate" and that "leadership was a question here". 

Mr Torris went on to ask; "Can the student body still trust us?"

The minutes also detail how the other four sabbaticals argued with Ms Ascough about the issue for over two hours.

The Campaigns and Communications Officer Barry Murphy said officers decided to walk out of the meeting after the two-hour argument.

"After over two hours arguing with Katie, officers decided to walk out of the meeting. Reason for this walk out was that all Sabbat’s advice had been given to protect Katie and the union and the role of the president. Katie would not take this on board.

"After this, I then presented informative info to Katie that was legal. Katie refused to take this information on board. Katie decided to redraft the page.

"Katie then requested negotiation around the UCD for choice stand and recruiting of pro-choice class reps."

Mr Murphy added that he had no confidence in the president.

Independent.ie received a copy of the legal advice sought by Ms Ascough. The advice is four pages long.

One sabbatical officer told Independent.ie that there was "information overload" at the meeting and that they were left confused with some of the lengthy terms.

An extract from the legal advice states:

“Having had the opportunity to peruse the intended publication, I have some serious concerns about UCDSU proceeding in the manner envisaged.

"For reasons I will set out hereunder, I have formed the conclusion that distributing the handbook with this text will almost undoubtedly constitute a breach of the Act in one respect, and may well be at risk of being considered a breach of the Act in two other respects, depending on how any case on the points proceed."

The legal advice then concludes that the handbook should be reprinted or cancelled.

The controversy comes as Ireland prepares to hold a referendum on repealing the 8th Amendment next year.

This week, the calls for Ms Ascough’s impeachment attracted attention across the water, with The Guardian headlining a story; 'Calls to impeach Dublin student president over anti-abortion stance'.

"The bid to oust University College Dublin’s Katie Ascough over her strong anti-abortion views comes ahead of what is widely expected to be a rancorous wider campaign in the run-up to next year’s planned abortion reform referendum," The Guardian wrote.

Ms Ascough, a member of 'Students for Life', whose father Tom Ascough sits on the board of the Iona Institute, was elected following a ballot of students last March.

Since, more students have signed the petition for her impeachment than those who voted to elect Ms Ascough in the first place.

In a letter seen by Independent.ie, Ms Ascough said it "is no secret that she is pro-life and many students are not."

She said the calls for impeachment are "without legitimate cause" and described as "alarming" the "bullying tactics" of a group of students to "try and discard a democratically elected SU president."

"It was clear from the outset that some students didn’t want to give me a chance as SU President because of my views on abortion," she said.

The Students Union has already committing to running a Repeal the 8th campaign. It first decided not to remain neutral in 2014 and the stance was voted on again last year.

"I am going to be a president for everyone," Ms Ascough said in her speech after her election was announced, “But I will be a president that represents everyone.”

Students at UCD have called for Ms Ascough’s petition as they feel like she no longer represents them.

Graduate Officer Niall Torris told Independent.ie that students feel "outraged" by Ms Ascough's actions, not because she is pro-life, but because she didn’t stick to her mandate.

"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.

"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 referendum to impeach Ms Ascough will be held on October 24 and 25.

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