Comment: Trinity protesters identified Ireland's past of same structures as Palestinian struggle

Maybe an old world is dying, like Antonio Gramsci told us, like Ursula von der Leyen is telling us, like those for whom Ireland’s neutrality is an anachronism, unfit to withstand the threat of a barbarous non-west, are telling us. To agree with Gramsci, as well as von der Leyen et al, it’s a time of monsters, one where the birth of a new world will require a struggle. Some will say great men and great women, the significant and influential in parliaments and boardrooms, will decide the result of that struggle on our behalf. Others think this struggle will instead be just that: a coming together of opposing groups, the powerful and powerless, with the outcome to be determined by this clash of interests. This is it. It’s all the marbles

Last Friday students at Trinity College Dublin set up tents, establishing an encampment, on the university’s lawn. They used park benches, memorials to citizens of an old world, to barricade the entrance to the Book of Kells, something the same students have done intermittently over the last year – which, if you’re to take Trinity at its word, has already cost the university €214,285 in lost revenue. They did so to protest Trinity’s complicity in Israel’s genocide in Gaza, manifest primarily in the university’s investments in Israeli companies, with some blacklisted by the UN and linked to illegal settlements in the West Bank. 

And what a setting for the protest: Trinity College, in part founded to consolidate Protestant supremacism and perpetuate the British class system in colonial Ireland, which now houses the Book of Kells, given to it by a man for whom it was never his to give, Henry Jones, an Anglican bishop central to the execution of Oliver Plunkett. (Jones the kinda guy establishment historians now consider complicated).

The book’s significance to Trinity isn’t because of its history, but rather the profit the university can extract from it. The university herds American tourists through its library for a look at €20 a go to make up the shortfall in government funding to educate its students, who, in a country with supposedly free education, have been subjected to repeated fee increases. This turn to tourism, to commodify history and geography, whether through inclination or necessity, is common in former (and remaining) colonies.  

Neither crass nor crude

The week after the students began their protest, medical teams discovered a third mass grave of 49 bodies inside Gaza’s al-Shifa Hospital. Gaza’s government media office says this brings the total of these graves in hospitals to seven. Israel has killed at least 34,000 Palestians in its campaign since October, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. It’s now threatening an invasion of Rafah, an area of Gaza even the US has asked Israel to stay away from, with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians trapped inside. 

It’s neither crass nor crude – nor belittling of the Palestinian struggle – to identify that Ireland’s colonial past, as well as the vestiges of this past, are of the same structures as Israel’s ongoing genocide in Gaza. They’re connected.  

In the summer of 1968 college students in Paris’s Nanterre University held a sit-in to protest both university funding decisions and class division in French society. The sit-in grew into what’s called the May 68 demonstrations – shutdowns, strikes, occupations and marches across the city. Author Annie Ernaux had begun a career as a teacher when the demonstrations began. 

“We who had never really come to terms with working and did not really want the things we bought, saw ourselves in the students, only a few years younger, who threw cobblestones at the riot police,” she wrote in The Years. These demonstrations were about everything for Ernaux. “On our behalf, they hurled years of censure and repression back at the State, the violent suppression of the demonstrations against the war in Algeria, the racist attacks… the unmarked black Citroën DS's of the police. They avenged us for our fettered adolescence, the respectful hush of lecture halls, the shame we felt at sneaking boys into our residence rooms. Our allegiance to the blazing nights of Paris was rooted in our crushed desires, the degradations of submission. We regretted we had not seen all this before, but felt lucky it was happening at the start of our careers,” she wrote. 

Similarly rapper Meek Mill in late January tweeted, “I see war in Gaza like dead babies daily. I’m from Philly. My family and friends live amongst a lot of murder. I also grew up around that. I been in and out of prison my whole 20s; most my cellmates was killers; my dad was killed at five.” He was criticised for it (but he was right). 

Just as there were those who didn’t approve of Meek’s sentiments, there were those who didn’t like Trinity students’ identification with Palestine. Men and women who traded principles for some level of comfort – les cochons as the protagonist in Jacques Brel’s Les Bourgeois (who ended up a cochon himself in the song’s denouement) called them – or who at least disengaged from moral judgement to get along were disgusted. 

Having endured tedious debates where, we were told: the word intifada should be forbidden; the chanting of, “From the river…” is in poor taste; that boycott campaigns shouldn’t be countenanced, we were now implored to consider Trinity’s right to profit from an historical artefact and the plight of the university’s park benches. A letter to the Irish Times accused the protesters of a refusal to “engage in reasoned and nuanced debate using analytical skills”. Mr “As a Taxpayer” (of course) wrote, “ I would like my money back, please.” Those in these paroxysms are yet to see an anti-genocide protest of which they approve. 

Implicit in these condemnations was the suggestion the students didn’t understand the choices they were making – will a big four accountancy firm look kindly upon their future applications – and didn’t understand the fight they were in against the university. But they did. Philosopher Alain Badiou, writing about the Paris Commune, said, “A politics appears when a declaration is at one and the same time a decision as to the consequences, and, thus, when a decision is active in the form of a previously unknown collective discipline”. The protesters understood this and they got an early win this week. 

'Last week, College tried to destroy the union'

When Trinity first announced its plans to divest of its stock in UN-blacklisted Israeli companies, a significant but still partial victory for the students, RTÉ had a question: “Would this be enough to end the encampment that began on Friday evening?” The state broadcaster applauded the college. “The Trinity statement represented a clear shift, and its language was conciliatory.” The story was headlined “Trinity College's statement fails to end camp protest.” But why would it? Nelson Mandela, liberals’ platonic ideal of the man of peace, told the IRA to maintain their guns till they got what they wanted. “My position is that you don't hand over your weapons until you get what you want,” he said

The students didn’t hand over their weapons. Today their college acceded to their demands, with Trinity News reporting, “Trinity has agreed to work towards total divestment from Israeli institutions.” The paper called it “an unprecedented victory for Trinity Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions”. And, though the university still needs to divest, it is. The protesters, fully aware of the stakes, had entered a fight. They fought. “Last week,” said students’ union president-elect Jenny Maguire, “College tried to destroy the union.” The university failed. 

Annie Ernaux wrote that after she’d marched in anti-Pinochet demonstrations in late 1973, she and her contemporaries, weary of being offered an uninspiring choice in a presidential election the following spring, a choice the establishment sold as a “great event”, had “ceased to believe there would ever be another May ‘68”. 

But there was.

Eoghan McNeill

Eoghan McNeill