How Irish Students Won a Victory for Palestine

Students at Ireland’s Trinity College organized a solidarity encampment this week and successfully negotiated an agreement with the university to divest from Israeli companies. Trinity academic David Landy tells us how it happened.

Trinity College Dublin windows occupied by students waving Palestinian flags on May 4, 2024, in Dublin, Ireland. (Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Students at Trinity College in Dublin, best known in recent years for its starring role in the fiction of Sally Rooney, organized a protest encampment this week in solidarity with the Palestinian people.

In the United States, universities like Columbia and the University of California, Los Angeles responded to similar encampments by calling in the police to violently disperse and arrest the protesters. Trinity, on the other hand, negotiated with the protesters and reached an agreement on divestment from Israeli companies.

It’s a strange feeling — not only did we win, but we took the win. How did this happen?

The students obviously deserve the credit, those supposedly goldfish-memoried flibbertigibbets that bounce from cause to cause. In reality, they’ve been consistently campaigning on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) since at least 2015.

During that time, they’ve been building skills and passing on institutional memories, absorbing setbacks and college sanctions, and winning victories – Student Union (SU) divestment, SU support for BDS, college divestment from weapons companies.

All these victories, I hardly need to add, were dismissed as insufficient and meaningless by people who — there’s no other way of putting it — really don’t like students. The students wisely ignored these people.

The current Trinity SU is a radical campaigning one. It has the skills and action repertoires needed for direct action. More than that, people who stand up for themselves — by campaigning on rents and fees — also tend to stand up for others.

This ensured that they conducted consistent, disruptive actions and education in response to college complicity in Israeli genocide. After what happened in Columbia, a Trinity College encampment and student confrontation with college authorities was pretty inevitable.

Staff also matter — specifically, forms of staff-student solidarity that meant that students weren’t isolated. On one level, students got on well with campus security. On another, the Trinity branch of Academics for Palestine offered full support to the encampment.

Before that, our group mobilized and informed staff with open letters, academic talks, and personal contacts. We wrote to administrative bodies and met with the provost, Linda Doyle, the counterpart of US university presidents like Columbia’s Minouche Shafik. We also organized our own demonstrations — separate from, but always in conjunction with, student groups.

This helped ensure that even staff who disagreed with the disruption caused by the students — we heard complaints about those innocent benches piled up to blockade the Book of Kells — understood that there was good reason for them to protest. There was legitimacy to their actions.

A college community exists, and it matters as well. After the college authorities threatened to levy a huge fine of €214,000 on the students for being disruptive, college alumni organized and demanded that it be lifted. Trinity’s fellows (academics of distinction) met and urged compromise.

The final reason we should mention is the college administration itself. All of the above factors meant that coercion, such as we’ve seen on other campuses, wasn’t really an option for them. But Trinity College was never going to put snipers on roofs. College leadership, to its credit, was concerned about the safety of protesters.

Nor are these leaders ideologically anti-Palestinian — again, the contrast with other campuses is stark. They were honestly horrified by the slaughter in Gaza. They talked with us, and while I admit I didn’t think so at the time, they were listening to us — at least with one ear.

This meant that when business as usual was disrupted, they were open to resuming business by excluding a genocidal state rather than shutting out large sections of the college community and — I like to think — their own consciences on the matter.

Trinity is now taking the same position of leadership on Israeli apartheid as it previously did on South African apartheid. I hope this account is useful for others trying to get their colleges to take the same leadership role.