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The Student Movement That Forced Ireland’s Trinity College To Divest

Above photo: Niall Carson/PA Images.

As news of crackdowns on U.S. campus protests spread, students in Ireland drew inspiration.

And planned a strategic path to victory.

Right after Dublin native Ben turned 16, he spent his summer vacations working at event companies that organized concerts and comedy shows. Little did he know that three years later, that experience would help him organize — with nearly a hundred of his peers — a major protest of Trinity College Dublin’s ties with Israel.

After five nights in tents on the grassy patch in front of the highly-visited Book of Kells Museum, Trinity acceded to the protesters’ demands and went down in history as one of the first universities to agree to divest from Israeli companies. “I always wanted to partake in effecting change, and this was an opportunity,” the philosophy and politics student said five days after the encampment ended.

Trinity’s divestment announcement stated that business ties with Israeli companies would not be renewed, with the final contract expiring in March 2025. The fact that it is a total — albeit phased — divestment, speaks to the protest strategy plotted out by students.

Since Israel’s assault on Gaza began in October, Trinity’s boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS, started organizing weekly protest marches with the students union, which was also in the midst of protesting a fee hike for masters programs. When news of the encampments at New York’s Columbia University spread to Dublin, Trinity’s students were ready to do something similar.

“Information obtained through a Freedom of Information request revealed Trinity’s ties to companies in Israel,” 23-year-old student union president László Molnárfi said during an online gathering to celebrate the divestment victory on May 9. “We held several meetings to discuss this; we created a document on rules of encampment based on the guidelines that had been laid out by the Columbia students. We also drafted a document of our demands for divestment.”

Molnárfi noted that even though direct action seemed daunting at first, it was something the university couldn’t ignore. “It changes how the university interacts with the students, because it impacts their reputation and finances — and that is what institutions really care about. Trinity’s decision to divest will also impact the Irish government. There are moments in history when what seems small actually has a large impact historically, and this is one of those moments.”

A strategic blockade and encampment

The financial impact Molnárfi and other students knew the university couldn’t ignore was the loss of tourist dollars. So, on April 30, they blockaded the entrance to the Book of Kells Museum, which houses a 1,200-year-old Celtic Gospel book and a library built in the 1700s. The students union was swiftly hit with a $232,585 fine for the loss of tourist revenue, with Trinity’s provost — according to Molnárfi — telling them the university lost over $10,000 every hour the museum was blockaded.

Despite the harsh penalty — and the fact that it was exams week — Trinity students continued their protest, fueled on by the news trickling in from universities in the United States. Political Science student Elisa Zito, who was among the organizers of the direct action, said that a series of meetings from April 29 onwards garnered enough traction to proceed with an encampment. The date was decided for the morning of Saturday, May 4.

“We sent out a document to nearly 500 members, and because it is tough to control such a large crowd, news about the impending camp reached the university’s security. This is why we decided to instead camp from Friday evening, for fear of preventive retribution,” Zito said, adding that it was a tradeoff between getting as many people to camp and controlling the news spread. A well-coordinated infrastructure team secured tents for all. Meanwhile, benches bearing the names of Trinity’s historic alumni were placed as a barricade outside the museum.

The next morning, the university doors were shut. An announcement stated that they would reopen to the public on Monday. Students began expecting an eviction, or worse: that the Gardaí (Ireland’s police) would be called in to arrest them. A security team working in three shifts, each composed of three students, was tasked with making rounds of the campus, keeping their ears and eyes open to any threatening information.

Donations for food and other supplies began to pour in on Saturday and, by Sunday, a functioning system was established. Morning meetings at the camp were for logistics, and Ben would get busy compiling a list of needed food or hygiene items, which was shared in a group and on their Instagram page. Students or staff would bring those items to the gate, and Ben would go to collect them. Meals were cooked in the postgraduate student housing.

During the meetings prior to the encampment, students underwent drills, in the event of arrests. According to Ben, they created a three-tier risk assessment: Those identifying as “green” would risk arrest, “yellow” was for those ready to form human barricades and “red” meant not wanting to risk arrest whatsoever. These were not strict markers, as a student could switch their code anytime based on their comfort level. The students were also advised to wear face masks to protect their identity, and to protect themselves from any punishment from the university. There were rules of no photography without consent and no posting photos on social media if anyone was visible. As a result, most students wore a surgical face mask, or a keffiyeh. Ben wore a bandana, and is still not going by his real name. “I need to stay anonymous because there is a real threat from far-right groups. I am not scared per se, but I am simply being cautious,” he said, adding that while his family were supportive of the cause, they had reservations of such direct action.

The students also had the support of the staff. According to Assistant Professor of Clinical Speech and Language Studies Caroline Jagoe, the Trinity chapter of Academia for Palestine, or AfP, was involved in several activities aimed at addressing the university’s silence on Gaza. “We wrote letters, met with the provost, conducted teach-ins and held events,” she said. “Some of us were involved in parallel initiatives; in my case, with Irish Healthcare Workers for Palestine. We saw our role as supporting the students in their direct action: offering material support, teach-ins as requested and within a schedule designed by the student organizers, and general solidarity through a presence at the encampment as much as possible, by bringing in items that were needed, and working from one of the picnic tables in the encampment area.”

Evening meetings at the camp were democratic spaces for discussions, where the terms of negotiations with the university would be discussed and voted on. Ben said there was an air of uncertainty. “Will we be evicted? Will we be arrested? Will they negotiate and agree to our terms? It was only after the first meeting with the university management on Monday that we felt a sense of relief, when they said that this would be treated as an internal matter and the Gardaí would not be called in. While we were glad that Trinity recognized ICJ’s ruling on the genocide of Palestinians, we were not too happy with the wording of the divestment statement from the university. We wanted to ensure that it was not just an empty document of words.”

Political Science Lecturer Eman Abboud — a Palestinian herself — felt it was important that staff be present during the encampment to oversee the safety of students. “It was overwhelming how many of our colleagues from across Ireland were also reaching out. We provided a Palestinian dinner night and a pizza night too, to keep the morale high among the students,” she said, adding that there were nearly 30 staff members in and out during the five days, including non-teaching staff.

By Wednesday, the divestment agreement had been finalized and the students ended the encampment that evening. “It was an out-of-body experience, with elation. It is a great victory, but it is only the first step towards putting the wheels in motion for similar changes in different universities across Ireland,” Ben explained while in the midst of running between various charities to donate the surplus food and hygiene items.

While the divestment agreement made clear that business ties with Israeli companies would not be renewed, the terms to end academic ties with Israeli educational institutions remains tricky. The mutually agreed upon decision has been to create a taskforce that includes two students from Trinity BDS, two students from the student union and one academic from AfP.

A new model for how universities should engage with students

The quick success of the students’ direct action was unexpected in light of the forceful retaliation seen at universities in the U.S. So what made this encampment — and Trinity’s decision to divest — so different?

“The students were not starting out from ground zero. They displayed good leadership, and know-how to be disruptive, with blocking access to the Book of Kells, which impacts the revenue of the university,” said Assistant Professor of Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation Brendan Ciaran Browne, author of “Transitional (in)Justice and Enforcing The Peace on Palestine.” Browne also said that the university management must be commended for engaging sensibly with the students: “The demands were attainable in line with BDS. Given the violence meted out towards students in universities in the U.S. and in some parts of the EU, the result at Trinity has been a good example. The university was level-headed and careful; they knew that quashing the students’ movement and encampment wouldn’t go down well with the Irish population.”

With her expertise in non-conflict responses to ethnic grievances and ethnopolitical exclusions, Abboud saw that this collective action had all that is necessary to be successful: “It was targeted, it was strategic, and it brought the college community together. When you are armed with knowledge and want to be on the right side of history, then the battle is easy. The remainder is about getting the administration on your side.”

Jagoe echoed a similar sentiment, noting that “When business as usual was disrupted by radical action, the university made a choice to engage constructively and not aggressively.” A native of South Africa, Jagoe knows about radical action all too well: She was nine-years-old when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. “As a child, I was aware that South Africa was under sanctions. I was aware that the apartheid government was doing despicable things and that the world disapproved. But I was also a white South African child, sheltered and privileged. At the age of 15, my English teacher took us to listen to a couple of days of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, which were taking place in the town hall near our school. This was when I began to be changed by what I heard of the human and community impact of apartheid and systematic human rights violations.”

Jagoe often wondered if she would have been brave enough to march against apartheid if she had been alive in 1976. “My involvement in protests about Gaza requires very little bravery. But this time I have a voice to join in the solidarity movement and stand with Palestinian people, and with my healthcare colleagues in Gaza. Nelson Mandela reminded us that our own freedom is always bound up with that of others, and he spoke specifically of Palestinian liberation.”

In the 16 years that she has been living in Ireland, Jagoe has noticed some caution around supporting Palestine, for fear of impact on career progression, or job security if on precarious contracts. Some of her colleagues have been supportive in a quieter manner. When asked about the mood within his department since October 2023 and with the encampment by the students, Browne joked: “I plead the Fifth.”

Acknowledging her privilege of being a permanent employee, Jagoe felt it was her responsibility to speak up against injustices. “I have always been proud to work at Trinity. But if our investments allow for one chain in a fence designed to prevent free movement, one slab in a wall of the blockade of Gaza, then that is one chain or one slab too many. If our investments enable one more child to be killed, one more person to be injured, one more healthcare worker to be tortured or killed, how can we go on to teach about rights, equality or protection of healthcare services? It is too easy to see investments or purchases from suppliers as abstract, but there is a reality on the ground for every euro we spend or invest, and for every engagement that legitimizes a regime intent on undermining the rights and dignities of other human beings.”

Abboud — who has family and property in Palestine — has found solace in being part of the AfP. As a Palestinian living in Ireland for the past eight years, she was disappointed with her employer stating that it would stay neutral during a genocide against her own people. “It meant that I could be put in a situation where I would have to justify the humanity of Palestinians. I felt ashamed to be working there. It didn’t sit right with me, and that’s what motivated me into action: I would be speaking up and supporting their right to exist if it was any other country.”

Being inspired by the students and colleagues across Ireland who are part of AfP, Abboud felt there was a unified motivation to make Trinity a better place, and hold it accountable to the standard it set for itself. “We kept drawing upon the mission statement and goals of the university, because the mission of the college is aligned with BDS — it’s what they rightfully did to Russia. While I might not agree with how Trinity handled it at every step of the way, I am now proud of the fact that Trinity is presenting a new model for how universities should engage with students: by allowing them to have their right to collective action. When a movement is this big it’s certainly worth listening to.”

Ireland’s solidarity with Palestine is not new: Browne said that it was the first country in the EU to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was established in 1964. “The solidarity has largely been through grassroots activists, stemming from our own colonial past and violence. However, we cannot just see it as a post-colonial response, because Ireland is still very divided. Ireland’s peace process is lauded internationally, but it is not seen in the context of everyday realities.”

Boycott as a concept and a tool of direct action also has its roots in colonized Ireland, when an English land agent named Charles Cunningham Boycott — working on behalf of a landowner in County Mayo in northwest Ireland — extorted massive rents from tenants, those unable to pay were met with violence. A movement began in 1880 whereby Boycott’s employees stopped working and began to isolate him, resulting in a powerful political concept that we now understand as boycott. Exactly a century later, in 1984, 21-year-old cashier Mary Manning refused to handle a South African grapefruit at the Dunnes Store in Dublin — not far from Trinity — leading the path for Irish anti-apartheid activism.

The Irish government has announced that it will recognize the State of Palestine on May 21. While Abboud feels this move is too little too late, Browne is more cynical: “The Irish government is good with words but quite slow in providing tangible solidarity and support. The current Taoiseach Simon Harris said he is “repulsed” by the actions of the Israeli government, but his government is not closely looking at its trade arrangement with Israel.”

Nevertheless, the actions of the students of Trinity have caused ripples across academia on the Atlantic island, as a few other universities have since set up encampments on their campuses. Meanwhile, the students union at Trinity is still battling the $232,585 fine imposed on them, having so far refused to pay it or engage in negotiations. According to Molnárfi, “We should not be afraid to use our power as students. The Freedom of Information requests showed that the university was neutral on the genocide. We shared that information and were able to mobilize the obvious anger, and used it as an opportunity to organize direct action.”

Ben, meanwhile, walks through the university campus differently now: “There is a shift in the way I view our campus. It is no longer just a university and a monolith, but it is an active space where we affected change and made history.”

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