Students vote NO to Welsh language officer

The referendum to instate a Welsh language sabbatical officer has failed, despite proving the most successful referendum in the Students’ Union’s history.

The landmark vote, held between Monday, 27th April and Friday, 1st May, drew in a record-breaking 2,367 votes; 1138 in favour, 1,229 against and 19 abstentions- more than any other votes cast in a referendum in the Union’s recent history. It was an extremely close margin, with 48 per cent ‘for’ the motion, and 52 per cent opposing it.

VP Education and leader of the ‘No’ campaign, Rhys Jenkins, expressed his joy at the result: ‘Obviously we are pleased with the outcome of the referendum. We are committed to improving the experience for Welsh speaking students and celebrating Welsh culture.

‘We hope the Welsh Language officer and the campaign in general will work with us going forward to make real change happen.’

Following the failure of the referendum, Steffan Bryn wrote in a statement to Gair Rhydd: ‘Today is a sad day for Cardiff students, but we fought the good fight, and ran a fun, positive campaign. We’d like to thank the grassroots campaigners and the people from all backgrounds and nationalities who supported us.’

Back in March, Jenkins wrote an article for the Gair Rhydd in which he criticised the ‘time and money’ that would be invested in a referendum. He wrote: ‘Many previous referendums have failed to reach this binding minimum and I imagine this will be the case once more.’

Any referendum held by the Students’ Union requires a minimum 1,500 votes to meet quorum and there were widespread fears the issue would fail to draw enough voters to make any outcome binding, as has frequently happened in the past. But by Wednesday afternoon the voting quorum had been met.

Members of the "Yes" campaign before the referendum results
Members of the “Yes” campaign before the referendum results

Questions have been raised over whether the large voter turn-out is a reflection of student-wide engagement with the issue of the Welsh language, or whether sabbatical officers’ scaremongering and threats to society and AU committees budgets were the cause for the surge in votes early on in the week.

Meanwhile part-time Welsh Language Campaign Officer, Steffan Bryn, led the ‘Yes’ campaign. Back in December, a motion presented by Steffan Bryn to Student Senate to hold a referendum fell by a single vote. Steffan Bryn then launched a successful petition to win the right to hold the student-wide vote.

The result is a blow to the University’s Welsh-speaking community who spent the last week tirelessly campaigning across campus. Carrying balloons and wearing ‘Ie/Yes’ t-shirts, their campaign appeared strong as they canvassed halls and School buildings, engaging with the student body and encouraging people to vote.

The ‘Yes’ campaign set up social media accounts on Facebook and Twitter, sharing posts and videos of national and international support for the cause. The ‘Ie Caerdydd/Yes Cardiff’ Facebook page quickly gathered supporters, gaining 430+ ‘likes’, unlike the ‘Vote No’ page, which received only 47 – raising more questions over how the ‘No’ campaign were able to secure success.

Unlike the ‘Yes’ camp, the ‘No’ campaign lacked a sense of solidarity, at least publicly, with a small number of individual voices facing a united collective of Welsh speakers and learners with a highly organized and highly passionate campaign. The result has, understandably, dealt a real blow to those who worked tirelessly all week in the hope of securing a win for the referendum.

The defeat of the referendum has come as a surprise, especially considering the national and international support shown for the cause. Bangor and Aberystwyth universities, both of which have a full-time Welsh language officer, leant support to the ‘Yes’ campaign, highlighting the benefits the role has brought to their institutions.

In a message to the ‘Yes’ campaign, Rhys Taylor, President of Bangor Students’ Union, wrote: ‘It’s incredibly important that Cardiff – and others – are able to create a political campaign that demands a better education and society, not only within our education system but across Wales.’

President of Aberystwyth’s Welsh Students’ Union, Miriam Williams, also offered her support by sharing a video urging Cardiff students to vote and described the creation of a full-time Welsh language officer as ‘win-win’ for everyone here at Cardiff University.

Rhys Jenkins, VP Education and leader of the 'NO' campaign
Rhys Jenkins, VP Education and leader of the ‘NO’ campaign


Messages of solidarity were also received from further afield, with video messages shared by supporters of the referendum as far afield as Catalonia and the Basque country, where, similar to Wales, the subject of a home minority language remains an issue of cultural and political debate.

Welsh media outlets also expressed interest in the Union’s politics. On Monday, 27th April – the first day of voting – President of CSU, Elliott Howells, and part-time Welsh Language Officer, Steffan Bryn, spoke to Radio Cymru. Meanwhile other Welsh-language news outlets picked up the story, including Newyddion 9 (News 9) and Golwg360 (360view).

The referendum has sparked a dialogue on the issue of the Welsh language and the provisions, or lack thereof, for Welsh speakers throughout the Union and has also unearthed among the student population a surprising amount of support for cause.

‘After this energised campaign we are more convinced than ever of the need for a full-time officer for the language,’ said Steffan Bryn.