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UCD students hold a demonstration on campus in support of a ceasefire in Palestine and Israel. Martha Ní Riada (X)

'A worrying trend': UCD's SU President on right to protest Israel in Irish and US universities

As Ní Riada was grabbed and forced out during Nancy Pelosi’s speech, she could be heard shouting, “What about Palestinian women?”.

THE PRESIDENT OF the UCD Students Union Martha Ní Riada spoke to The Journal about the pro-Palestine protests and solidarity from students on the Belfield campus and across the Atlantic in the United States. She also talked about being kicked out of an event honouring US politician Nancy Pelosi this week.

Ní Riada describes the recent developments on college campuses in the United States, where hundreds of students have been arrested while protest encampments have been broken up by police, as “really worrying”. 

She sees these crackdowns on protests supporting Palestine and calling for a ceasefire as a form of hypocrisy on the part of the colleges. The key demand from the students is for their colleges to divest from Israeli companies. 

“Universities are constantly talking about academic freedom and protecting freedom of speech, but if the speech is something that they disagree with, there’s no protection of it.”

“I think it’s it’s a worrying trend. I think it’s a similar thing to when I was thrown out of the Pelosi event because I was speaking a view that was unpopular with the administration but supported by the students, but that doesn’t really matter.”

She says that it was “heartwarming” at the same time to see students making their voices heard on the issue, but that academic freedom remains a concern. 

“I think universities are in a dangerous place at the moment, where if this can be accepted, then academic freedom means absolutely nothing.”

Kicked out

“There’s never really a good time to be awarding Nancy Pelosi, but this is definitely not the time to be giving her honorary doctorates and leadership awards,” she says.

On Monday evening, Pelosi, Democratic former speaker of the US House of Representatives, was presented with an honorary doctorate at UCD.  

The UCD Students Union and UCD BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) were protesting outside the conferring event as people arrived.

BDS is a political movement that pushes for those actions to be taken against Israel in response to its occupation of Palestinian land, as well as its two-tier legal system that human rights NGOs have called apartheid. 

Ní Riada, as SU President and a member of university’s governing authority, was invited to attend. 

“Just when Nancy Pelosi started to speak, I’d stood up and said that Pelosi is a zionist and a war criminal,” she says. 

“I had a few more lines that I wanted to say, expressing students’ position and that we denounce this doctorate and this isn’t representative of what the students wish.

“We don’t want people like this to be celebrated. But then I only got a sentence in and two guards came and forcibly removed me with excessive force.” 

As Ní Riada was grabbed and forced out of the room, she could be heard shouting, “What about Palestinian women?”.  

The video shows men in suits removing her from the room. Ní Riada says they were wearing Garda pins. She was not arrested.  

Ní Riada then joined the protesters outside the building, where for the rest of the event the students continued chanting, “which could be heard very loud and clear in the room”.

After the conferring ceremony, there was a gala dinner where Pelosi was being given an award, which the students also protested.

“Again for the same reasoning, we don’t want a warmonger being awarded,” Ní Riada explains. 

On the use of the term war criminal, Ní Riada says that while it is a general accusation against the former House Speaker, US support for Israel in its ongoing war on Gaza is of particular relevance. 

“The US is an Imperial country. It’s very difficult to not be a more war monger and to be speaker of the house,”  she said. 

“But in particular, what we were protesting, and what I was referring to, is her actions over Palestine.”

Ní Riada pointed to comments Pelosi made in 2021 about US support for Israel, when she said, “For many of us, it’s in our DNA”. 

While the Biden administration has not changed its policy of supporting Israel’s war, Pelosi has recently joined fellow senior Democrat Chuck Schumer in calling for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign. 

Asked if the university’s management had been in touch about the incident, Ní Riada said there had been none and that she would be making a formal complaint.

UCD was asked for comment but did not respond.  

Pelosi was again met with protests against her presence at a university on Thursday evening, while taking part in a debate at the Oxford Union. 

Building a movement 

This wasn’t the first pro-Palestine event at UCD since the conflict began in October. 

There have been a number of protests and speeches on campus and Ní Riada says a group of students briefly occupied the Tierney building, which houses much of the administrative offices at UCD. 

“So we’ve kind of been building a movement and the UCD BDS group was also formed in November. So this was all kind of co-planned between the Students Union and the UCD BDS group,” says Ní Riada. 

“Back in October, we asked for the university president to call for a ceasefire and we also asked for them to outline the links they had with Israeli institutions.

“At that time, the president said that they had no links with Israeli institutions. But then later The University Observer, which is one of the student papers on campus, they researched it and found that they actually had links to 12 institutions.

“So then they retracted that statement, and we updated our calls then for them to call for a ceasefire and also to cut ties with Israeli institutions.”

The president of UCD, Orla Feely, sent an email to all staff and students in November outlining her position, writing:

“Were it to be our practice to take an institutional position on geopolitical matters, we would be inhibiting the freedom of members of our community to express their individual positions and suppressing our ability to sustain and respect a diversity of views.” 

This was because “she doesn’t want to take sides essentially”, according to Ní Riada. 

“However, we argued a ceasefire isn’t ceasefire is a ceasefire, it’s not taking sides. It’s kind of the bare minimum.”

Comparisons were immediately drawn by students with the position UCD took on the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

When the war in Ukraine began, students were informed that the university would be making a €5,000 donation to the Red Cross to help Ukrainians, as well as hosting coffee mornings to raise more funds. 

The university’s statement read: “UCD deplores and condemns the actions of Russia in invading and attacking Ukraine. This act of military aggression is a violation of international law and is completely unjustified.” 

The students acknowledge that Feely was not president in 2022 but still see it as a contradictory position on the part of the college as a whole. 

“I personally don’t think that makes a difference,” says Ní Riada. She pointed out that funds are still being raised at UCD events for people suffering in Ukraine but that no such events have been organised to support people in Palestine. 

“There’s been no fundraising or recognition of any sort from the University in regards to Palestine or Israel” apart from Feely’s email, she says. 

“We’ve done some fundraisers for different things, but there’s nothing from the university side.”

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