Anyone who was under the impression that a return to an in-person USI Congress would mean a return to proper discourse and debate, rather than rigid Zoom exchanges, was in for a disappointment last week. Instead of being a vibrant hub to exchange ideas and learn from other unions, the first physical Congress since 2019 proved that USI isn’t working very hard to counter accusations that it’s an insular breeding ground for future politicians.
Excessively long discussions on motions where there was clearly near-unanimity was the most farcical aspect of the week. Several times, procedural motions to move to a vote were shot down to “let everyone speak” – in other words, to let anyone who’s prepared a speech to repeat the already well-received arguments put forth by their peers. This often came across as self indulgent, and does little to counter the criticism that USI and its member organisations exist primarily to allow aspiring politicians to practise their public speaking skills.
Moreover, the perception that USI is a massive echo chamber was painfully realised. If delegates dared to present opposing views on any contentious topic, those listening shifted in their seats, whispered unkindly or indiscreetly sniggered from the floor. Anyone with voting rights at Congress is entitled to speak: some delegates might not like it when someone pipes up to defend Dublin, for example, but shunning and laughing at those with contrarian views is a bad look for any aspiring leader, in the student movement or otherwise.
Looking back at motions passed last year, it’s obvious that Congress is not the vehicle for change that USI wants it to be. The vast majority of motions passed concern lobbying or campaigning for something, but if president-elect Beth O’Reilly “would not particularly want to shake hands with Simon Harris”, it’s hard to imagine that lobbying being very effective.
USI needs to reconsider the Congress structure. Badly structured debates on motions and policies due to expire is not the way to effect change, but they took up the vast majority of the week. Instead, motions should have clear action points and debates should be more concerned with steps that can be taken to resolve a problem. It shouldn’t be treated as an opportunity for delegates to wax lyrical about issues without offering any constructive solutions.