“Since the day I was elected, before I’d been put in office, some students were already calling for my impeachment.”
UCD Students’ Union President Katie Ascough has appealed to UCD students to vote no in an upcoming impeachment referendum later this month.
The petition was circulated after Ascough’s decision to remove information on abortion from the Winging It magazine, which is distributed to new students in UCD.
The information removed from the magazine included details on obtaining information safely, how to purchase abortion pills online and price lists for abortion clinics outside of Ireland.
Ascough, who is taking annual leave from UCD Students’ Union until the referendum concludes, has penned an open letter to UCD students urging them to vote no in the referendum later this month.
In the letter, Ascough claims that she took the decision to reprint the Winging It handbooks on the advice of the Student Union’s long-standing lawyer, an ex-president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and an advocate for the repeal of the eighth amendment.
Ascough also claimed that had she not taken the decision to do so, everyone involved in the decision to publish the information and/or involved in the distribution of the handbooks ("up to two dozen people") faced personal criminal convictions and individual fines of up to €4,000.
At the start of the letter, Ascough claims that, because of her pro-life status, some students were calling for her impeachment before she had even been put in office.
The following is an open letter to you on why I believe you should Vote No to Impeachment on October 25th & 26th.
On March 9th, 2017, after a long and exciting campaign, I was honoured to be elected President of UCD Students’ Union.
It is no secret that I am pro-life and many students are not. Since the day I was elected, before I’d been put in office, some students were already calling for my impeachment.
However, I did not run for election on a pro-life platform. I ran on a manifesto of student welfare, reducing fees, microwaves, bridging the gap between students and their union, and lots more.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the hard work over the summer to live up to my campaign promises, and I wouldn’t change the last four months as President of UCD Students’ Union for anything.
The main reason that a group of students are calling for my impeachment is because of my decision to not break the law and illegally distribute abortion information. The Union was producing a handbook that acted as a college guide for incoming students. I was aware that the handbook contained abortion information, but was not informed by the editors of the book that it was illegal to distribute this information. I originally delegated the sign off for the handbook to the Campaigns & Communications Officer. After the books were printed and delivered, a staff member pointed out various issues including potential illegality of some of the content. I then sought legal advice regarding the abortion information from the Union’s long-standing lawyer who is an ex-president of USI and advocate for repeal of the Eighth amendment. He advised that it would be prudent to avoid proceeding with the current handbook either by having it redesigned or cancelled. I also asked the Board of Directors for advice, and they agreed with the decision to follow legal advice. As CEO of the company, I decided to follow the advice of the Union’s lawyer with the Union Board’s agreement.
The cost of reprinting the handbooks was approx. €7,000. My suggestion to the Sabbatical Officers was that we publish the amended book online, and not incur this cost, but they were certain they wanted it reprinted.
Also important to note is the extent of the risks associated with illegally distributing the abortion information. Each person involved in the decision to publish the information and/or involved in distributing the books would have been at risk of up to €4,000 in fines each, a personal criminal conviction, and, if prosecuted, the Union could also incur thousands in legal fees. Those at risk could have included the Board of Directors (six volunteering professionals), up to six or more staff members, five sabbatical officers, and the volunteers who helped us hand out the books. Therefore, the maximum possible fine to the Union was tens of thousands of euro, as well as the risk of personal criminal convictions for up to two dozen people. As CEO of the company, this was not something I was able to stand over, and so I decided to follow the legal advice offered by the Union’s lawyer.
Another point to note is what changed in the book. The main legal issue with the abortion information was that it was being handed out in an unsolicited manner (that is, no one being handed the book was actively seeking out the abortion information). Therefore, the change made to the book was to take out the abortion information that had legal implications, and replace it with the contact details for agencies where the same abortion information could be sought in a solicited, legal way. Essentially, the page went from showing the abortion information, to directing people to the places to get the same abortion information. That was the alteration that was needed to stay within the law and not put up to two dozen people at risk of thousands in fines and permanent personal criminal convictions.
While it is unfortunate that the handbook has received much one-sided, negative press, UCDSU has achieved many things in the last few months. So far as UCDSU President, I have worked hard in tackling the student accommodation issue and the cost of college. We have also hosted successful events like Fresh Fest and Freshers’ Ball, and it was a privilege to help present the President's Welcomes to first year students.
On student accommodation, we had two main campaigns: we partnered with Daft.ie and TCD Students’ Union which was projected to put up to 6,000 new beds on the market, and we filmed an undercover Snapchat story called House Hunterz. We received unprecedented media attention for these campaigns, to the point that for several days myself and our C&C Officer were jumping from one radio station to the next. We got to speak on media platforms like Spin103.8, FM104, Today FM, Newstalk, TV3, RTÉ, and more about the dire situation for students trying to find an affordable place to live. After calling out the Minister for Housing and the Minister for Higher Education on the airwaves, we were able to secure private meetings with each and secure funding for our housing project. This was a huge achievement for our Union, something that we had never accomplished before.
Regarding the cost of college, I took part in a discussion on the Last Word with Matt Cooper about the cost of third level education, highlighting the struggle of balancing fees, cost of accommodation, and taking on part-time jobs, all the while trying to study and pass exams. I spoke on several radio stations about the self-defeating cycle of students taking on more and more hours with part-time jobs, being crunched for study time, sometimes failing exams, and then having to pay €230 for each resit or repeat, which means needing even more money to keep going. I have personally seen friends leave college after being trapped in this self-defeating cycle. As President of UCDSU I have been and will continue to fight for your right to afford college. From the cost of resits and repeats, to the student contribution fee, to unjust fines – I will continue to stand strong against these costs on your behalf.
Fresh Fest was a new festival we introduced for first year students. Usually for Orientation Week the Union has one tent which everyone is whisked through and comes out with a bag of mediocre food and a load of flyers. This year, along my campaign theme of Unlocking the SU, I proposed to the team that we open up the floor plan for Orientation, and instead of having one tent had several tents, lots of food, live music, games, and even an amusement ride called the Wall of Screams. The team was extremely receptive to this idea and with hard work, especially from our Events Manager, this idea was successful. As a Students’ Union, it was extremely encouraging to see hundreds of students enjoying their first week of college at our first ever Fresh Fest.
It was an honour to speak at the President’s Welcomes, aka that ceremony thingy where you get your scarf. It was a privilege to help introduce thousands of first year students to UCD, and let them know about how and why their Students’ Union represents them.
Freshers’ Ball was another major credit to the Union and especially our Events Manager. We had acts like The Academic, DJ Flip, and Route 94 come play in UCD. I really enjoyed promoting and enthusiastically selling tickets for this event and getting to talk to hundreds of students in the process.
I have five microwaves sitting in my office and phase one of the microwave plan is to have them in Science, Newman, under the Library, and in the Old Student Centre. I’ve also had several discussions with UCD Hospitality Services Manager about better food on campus, and plan to continue those conversations.
Regarding consent I’ve been active at the national and UCD ESHTE meetings which is an initiative to eliminate sexual harassment in third level institutions. Our Welfare Officer and C&C Officer have done stellar work in getting to show the Tea Consent video to all incoming first year students, and we are organising a focus group to develop this plan for next year.
Thanks to UCD Estate Services, the UCD Walk Safe Service is on its way to becoming a freephone service, and there continues to be an increase in outdoor lighting on campus.
Concerning mental health I took part in a focus group to review UCD’s mental health supports, met with Niteline President about restarting their late-night freephone service, and have supported other initiatives on looking after mental health. Zumba has become a student-accessible class in UCD’s gym, and I have plans to develop that, and other sports, further.
I plan to continue my efforts in lobbying the government to invest more heavily in higher education and eliminate the possibility of a loan scheme. We are also lobbying UCD concerning the extortionately high €230 cost of resit and repeat exams.
I would like to develop an end of year survey so that we can comprehensively assess the Students’ Union’s impact on students’ lives. With this feedback, we can open ourselves up to critique and can encourage improvements for next year.
I am looking forward to putting in place the plan for Hang Out Thursdays, which I have written out on a whiteboard in my office. These events will be about getting together to hear your ideas for change, bringing your SU out to you at your convenience, and providing a sneaky lunch where we can.
In the midst of much achievement, a group of students has called for my impeachment because I chose to not break the law. They have claimed I spent €8,000 to hide abortion information, when in fact I have followed the Union’s legal advice to protect the Union and individuals from the risk of tens of thousands of euro and personal criminal convictions. While I respect any concerns students may have and I look forward to answering questions during my campaign, I must state that the call for my impeachment is without legitimate cause, and in calling an impeachment referendum they are using your time, your Union’s time (which you pay for), and thousands of euro (which you also pay for) in calling for the impeachment referendum and, if successful, the ensuing by-elections to elect a new President.
Another alarming matter is the bullying tactics of a group of students to try and discard a democratically elected SU president. Some members of the Impeach UCDSU President campaign posted pro-impeachment tweets and Facebook posts on the day of my election back in March, before I had the chance to make even one presidential action or decision. 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.
In the interest of fairness, of democracy, and an effective SU, please tackle bullying and use your vote to build a fairer, freer, and more democratic UCD. We don’t have to agree on the issue of abortion, but we should be able to respect each other and not endorse unfair accusations.
I would be honoured to continue my hard work for UCD students and build on the achievements we have made at UCDSU so far.