Tensions between left wing activist groups and members of the Glasgow University Union (GUU) have risen following a number of high-profile clashes on campus.
The incidents, which have included accusations ranging from vandalism to physical assault, featured a number of high-profile personnel and have led to the involvement of both Strathclyde Fire and Rescue and Strathclyde Police.
Animosity between the two sets of organisations is thought to have stemmed from an incident on March 1, in which members of the GUU Board of Management claimed to have been assaulted by members of the ‘Vote Foley’ campaign team after attempting to pull down their SRC Election posters.
Proponents of James Foley’s electoral bid, which had centred around student political activism and increasing SRC links with national unions, blamed the incident on GUU members and denied that physical assault had taken place, labeling the GUU part of the ‘right wing establishment’ committed to sabotaging their campaign.
Former GUU President Colin Woods, who was presiding over the Union when the incident took place, confirmed that Board Members were involved but slammed the Vote Foley campaign team for apparent displays of violence.
He said: “At roughly 3am on Wednesday morning a number of GUU Board Members did remove some James Foley placards from University Avenue. GUU in no way condones the behaviour of those GUU Board members involved in the incident and they will be subjected to individual discipline as a result of their behaviour.”
Criticising the Vote Foley team, Woods continued: “The behaviour of the members of Mr. Foleys team was absolutely deplorable. The use of violence in any campaign is at best thuggish and menacing, and at worse cause for police involvement; on this occasion the police were not called as the individuals involved did not wish to put negative attention on what should be an important and positive election.”
Chris Walsh, a member of the team and eyewitness to the event, said: “We kind of expected some drunk people coming out of the unions to pull down a few placards; but to come across an organised group of GUU Board Members specifically targeting our campaign materials after a drunken night out was infuriating. Hardly union impartiality.
“It’s clear that the right wing establishment are willing to use any dirty tactics to prevent the election of a real, progressive candidate.”
Confrontations came to a head on the evening of March 7 when the Hetherington Research Club (HRC) was accessed by a group of GUU members, again including several of its Board of Management, who activated emergency fire alarms within the building and, it is claimed, stole banners belonging to the HRC.
The conflict between the two sets of organisations peaked when emergency services were called to the HRC at 03:30am, after several members of the GUU party set off the building’s pre-installed fire alarms, where were armed to automatically alert emergency services. Two fire engines were dispatched to the HRC, and Strathclyde Police were called.
Chris Sibbald, incoming GUU President following the organisation’s recent elections, visited the HRC the following morning for a meeting with occupants in an effort to stem the build-up of negativity and boost relations between the two groups.
It later emerged that a selection of members from the GUU party entering the HRC had stripped naked during the incident, and a banner originally displayed in front of the club was taken and hung from a balcony at the top of the GUU. Demonstrators attempting to retrieve the banner accused member of the GUU of pouring drinks on them, although its President, Chris Sibbald, asserted that a drink had instead fallen from a balcony accidentally.
A statement released by the GUU following the altercation condemned those who set off the fire alarm, but stressed that it was the actions of individuals not supported by the GUU itself.
It said: “Last night, various members of Glasgow University Union took it upon themselves to streak up University Avenue and enter the occupied Hetherington Research Building. Those members of the Board of Management not implicated in the event condemn the incident fully and would like to issue a formal and public apology to all those who were offended.
“Furthermore, and more seriously, a fire alarm was set-off in the middle of the night. This is completely unacceptable and the members responsible will be taken to a full disciplinary hearing.
“This is an action that does not represent Glasgow University Union; it was an action committed by individuals. However, those individuals are aware that they hold a position of representation and responsibility at Glasgow University Union and they must, therefore, openly apologise.
“Glasgow University Union assures its members that it is taking this matter very seriously.”
A statement issued by the Hetherington following the incident welcomed the GUU President’s approach.
It said: “We appreciate the President’s open and formal statement of apology, and are glad that the events are being taken seriously.”
The SRC, who took neither side in the argument, claimed that they were immature and distracted from genuine concerns on campus.
Frasher Sutherland, SRC Vice President for Student Support, said: “We are disappointed that once again the actions of a few individuals acting in an irresponsible way has undermined what should be the main focus of students at the university – that being the threat to learning and support for students through cuts levied by the university SMG.
“Setting off a fire alarm in any premises is at least juvenile and at worst highly dangerous. It is disappointing to see people who are elsewhere in positions of responsibility act in a stupid and inappropriate way to those to those taking part in the HRC occupation.”