National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland

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National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland (NUS-USI)
President Fergal McFerran
Founded 1972
Headquarters Belfast, Northern Ireland
International affiliation European Students' Union

NUS-USI, the student movement in Northern Ireland was formed in 1972 by bilateral agreement between the National Union of Students of the United Kingdom (NUS) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), to address the particular problems of representing students in Northern Ireland.

Students at an affiliated college are members of both national students' unions, and benefit from full representation in each body. The elected leader of the organisation is a full-time representative, elected as a sabbatical from one of the member colleges, and serves as a member of the USI Officer Board and the NUS National Executive Committee. An elected term is one year long (July–June). An officer within the executive of the movement may hold an officer position for a maximum of two terms.

The current President of NUS-USI is Fergal McFerran, who graduated from Queen's University Belfast in July 2015 with a 2.2 in Politics, Philosophy and Economics.

NUS-USI also has a number of part-time student officers filling the following roles:

  • Deputy President
  • Further Education Officer
  • Welfare Officer
  • Community and Volunteering Officer
  • Environmental Awareness Officer
  • Disabled Students Officer
  • Women's Officer
  • LGBT Officer
  • Equality Officer

Historical background[edit]

The following short background to the historical development of the student movement in Northern Ireland attempts to place in context the relationship between local students' unions, the National Union of Students (NUS), the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and the Northern Ireland office NUS-USI.

Following the model of Scottish Universities, a Students' Representative Council (SRC) was formally established at Queen's College Belfast in 1897 in tandem with the opening of a Students' Union Building in what is now the music department on that campus. Student representatives from Queen's University subsequently played important roles in founding the National Union of Students in 1922 and the Irish Students Association, which stimulated the formation of the Union of Students in Ireland in 1959.

With the development of higher education in Northern Ireland, other students’ unions were established as constituent parts of their institutions to complement, by the provision of benefits, services and activities, the more formal aspects of post-school education. This constitutional relationship was formalised in University Charters and Statutes and the instruments and articles of other colleges. Such students’ unions were delegated wide measures of autonomy, promoting democratic accountability and self-government detailed in constitutions approved by their parent institutions.

Registering as a student conferred membership of the recognised students’ union of the parent institution, thus helping to ensure that students' unions were representative of the total student community facilitating an effective communication channel with the college. This principle of automatic membership became enshrined in the statutory arrangements made in 1962 for the payment of students’ union fees by Local Education Authorities in Britain which stated:-

"The Minister has accepted the recommendation of the Standing Advisory Committee on Grants to Students that Student Union Fees should be met as a tuition cost. The Minister hopes that this grant will be handed over to the responsible committee and that the students' union will be, as far as possible, an independent self governing body."

This arrangement was mirrored in Northern Ireland for mandatory student awards and extended to further education in circular 1969/61 "Awards for Further Education".

"The Ministry trusts that local education authorities will agree that the establishment of a recognized students' union should be encouraged in colleges of further education ..."

As the nature and interests of post-school education and the student body began to change, so too did students’ unions. Increasing student activism and a desire for more democratic forms of student involvement in the late 1960s led to a moving away from the model of Student Representative Councils (SRCs) as a system of governance towards the creation of students’ unions and more participatory "general meetings", accessible to all students. Students’ unions also took on a more campaigning role and inspired by the experience of American student organisations, Northern Irish student activists such as Michael Farrell, Eamonn McCann and Bernadette Devlin (now McAliskey) spearheaded campaigns for "civil rights" in Northern Ireland generating what some commentators believe is a negative cultural image of students' unions. This is held by sections of the Unionist Community in Northern Ireland who tended to blame the student movement at the time for starting the troubles/conflict in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, it is argued that the student movement during this period, similar to other organisations across the globe, provided an important space for the development of left wing politics and helped democratise academic institutions.

During this period, students' unions in Northern Ireland separately affiliated to each national union, depending to a large extent on the religious/political disposition of their members. So, for example, Stranmillis College Students’ Union affiliated to NUS whilst St Mary’s was more interested in availing of USI’s services. However, in what was viewed as a commitment to non-sectarianism, a group of colleges in the early 1970s decided to affiliate to both national unions – a development quickly followed by all other students’ unions in the region.

In what has been viewed as a far-reaching and visionary initiative, both the British and Irish student movements agreed to pool their representative functions by jointly organising in Northern Ireland. A protocol agreement, signed on 26 July 1972, committed both national unions to jointly establishing an office in Belfast and the setting of a composite affiliation fee covering membership of both national unions. The agreement also specified that member unions had to affiliate to both national bodies: if a local students’ union disaffiliated from one national union, the other would automatically remove them from membership.

The difficult political climate of the 1970s did not augur well for Anglo-Irish co-operation in any sphere, never mind student politics, and it is clear from the records that it was only in 1974 that the full outworking of the protocol agreement began to have an impact.

As Pat Brady, USI Education Officer in 1973, has stated:-

“My recollection is that, in this period, relationships between the two national organisations (NUS and USI) were extremely bad. Indeed, whatever may have been in the 1972 protocol, there was a serious danger of a more or less sectarian line up of the (Northern Ireland) colleges with one or other of the national unions in the autumn of 1973 .... In any event, there was a summit in Galway in February 1974 between the two national unions. It was at that meeting that the effective cement in the relationship was established. In fact, one of the outcomes of the Galway agreement was that we ran a campaign in the summer of 1974 under the slogan “end sectarianism – build the student movement”. This took the form of a poster campaign and also a series of reasonably large meetings at various colleges in the region.”

This updated version of the 1972 protocol agreement also provided for the appointment a full-time regional officer to help co-ordinate campaign activities in the Northern Ireland region. Ray Cashell was appointed to this role, followed by other staff such as Brendan Heaney in the late 1970's, Gerry Cushnahan in the 1980's and Peter O'Neill in the 1990's.

As well as campaigning against sectarianism, NUS-USI in the 1970's also began to agitate for a wider range of social policy concerns such as increases in student maintenance support and better student housing. Meetings with Government ministers became a regular occurrence in the late 1970's and formal recognition was achieved in the right of Students’ Unions to exist in further education (FE) colleges. An increasing proportion of the NUS-USI Regional Officer's time was spent organising unions in the FE sector as the membership of NUS-USI expanded to include, not only in universities and teacher education colleges but also FE and agricultural institutions.

Student activists during this period provided support to the development of Northern Ireland’s civic society with, for example, support for lesbian and gay liberation campaigns and the growth of the women’s movement. Students were also important in establishing peace and reconciliation groups such as the Corrymeala Community. Yet, stresses and strains were still evident in how the student movement dealt with issues relating to the national/constitutional question with, for example, Stranmillis College Students’ Union disaffiliating in 1980 from NUS (and thus USI) over a policy passed at an NUS Conference expressing support for a campaign by Republican prisoners to improve conditions in the women’s prison in Armagh.

Nevertheless, NUS-USI continued to flourish with the development of a Student Housing Association in 1977 (founded by Ray Cashell), and the promotion of a wider range of services. It also campaigned against sectarianism on campus allowing Students’ Unions to promote initiatives such as the "Peace Jobs Progress" campaign in 1978 (modeled on Trade Union/Workers Party influences) and the Peace People for example.

Another significant feature during this period was the development of Students’ Union commercial Services, stimulated by the National Student Unions. Local unions benefited greatly from services such as the collective purchasing deals co-ordinated by NUS Services Ltd.; USIT Travel founded by USI; Endsleigh Insurance Services Ltd. established by NUS; and the previously mentioned Student Housing Association Co-op (SHAC) created by NUS-USI, which is now part of Oaklee Housing Association.

These commercial developments were mirrored by local unions providing comprehensive recreational and social facilities catering for the needs of numerous sports clubs and societies, for example. In many cases, Students’ Unions were encouraged, by the failure of their parent institutions to establish bars, shops, creches, welfare advice and counselling services. In the higher education sector, funding had developed from an initial "per head" system (an amount for each student based on the tuition fee) to one where Students’ Unions received a "block grant" similar to other departments of colleges. University Students’ Unions in Northern Ireland are now large businesses with highly developed commercial operations and large turnovers. Greater student numbers and the increasingly complex demands of a diverse student body have manifested itself in the development of an entrepreneurial culture on campus and the employment by HE Students’ Unions of a large professional support staff but, as some commentators believe, at the expense of a more active student political engagement.

In 1988, the first full-time Convener/President for NUS-USI was elected (Martin Magee, College of Business Studies, Belfast), and in the 1990s European Union funds were secured to establish a student community relations programs. Despite a Government move to introduce a voluntary membership scheme for Students’ Unions across the UK, NUS-USI successfully campaigned to exempt local unions from this legislation and was successful in winning Department of Education funding to resource its anti-prejudice work. From a staffing complement of one full-time and one part-time post in 1994, NUS-USI grew to employ seven full-time staff and a full-time student convener, accessing over £1.5m in external grants during the next decade.

Together with local Students’ Unions, NUS-USI now provides a comprehensive range of services encompassing for example student discount card schemes; student advice projects; managing diversity and student mental health programs. Recognized by Government and institutions as a major stakeholder in tertiary education provision, NUS-USI continues to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse and demanding membership.

Students’ Unions in Northern Ireland have come a long way since their original establishment as debating and representative fora and are firmly ingrained in the democratic and commercial fabric of post-school education. This overview of their historical development suggests that Students’ Unions have been responsive to the needs of their members and despite the protestations of a vocal minority ideologically opposed to collectivism, continue to enjoy the support of a broad spectrum of student opinion supported by the high level of services and political stability provided by both NUSUK and USI.

NUS-USI celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, a year which cemented the history of the student movement in Northern Ireland.

NUS-USI President[edit]

Current President
Years of office Name College of Origin
2015–2017 Fergal McFerran Queen's University Belfast
Past Presidents and Convenors
2014–2015 Rebecca Hall Queen's University Belfast
2013–2014 Rebecca Hall Queen's University Belfast
2012–2013 Adrianne Peltz South Eastern Regional College (SERC)
2011–2012 Adrianne Peltz South Eastern Regional College (SERC)
2010–2011 Ciarnan Helferty Queen's University Belfast
2009–2010 Ciarnan Helferty Queen's University Belfast
2008–2009 Katie Morgan University of Ulster, Coleraine
2007–2008 Katie Morgan University of Ulster, Coleraine
2006–2007 Colleen Dowdall University of Ulster, Magee
2005–2006 Damien Kavanagh Queen's University Belfast
2004–2005 Damien Kavanagh Queen's University Belfast
2003–2004 Ben Archibald Queen's University Belfast
2002–2003 Ben Archibald Queen's University Belfast
2001–2002 Brian Slevin Queen's University Belfast
2000–2001 Brian Slevin Queen's University Belfast
1999–2000 Shane Whelehan University of Ulster, Belfast
1998–1999 Maurice Dickson North Down and Ards Institute
1997–1998 Nigel O'Connor Queen's University Belfast
1996–1997 Denis Carson Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE)
1995–1996 Denis Carson Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE)
1994–1995 Gerard Green Queen's University Belfast
1993–1994 Gerard Green Queen's University Belfast
1992–1993 Paul McMenamin Queen's University Belfast
1991–1992 Richie Carruthers Belfast Institute of Further and Higher Education (BIFHE) [BIFHE follows the amalgamation of COBS, Rupert Stanley and College of Technology]
1990–1991 Shauneen Armstrong College of Business Studies
1989–1990 Maxine Brady Rupert Stanley CFE
1988–1989 Martin Magee College of Business Studies

External links[edit]