The role of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) president is arguably one that gives the office-holder the most leeway in terms of deciding what they want to do with the role. Less constrained by the more specific duties associated with positions like education and welfare officer, whoever wins the student vote for president plays a significant role in setting the tone of how the union functions for its students.
This, perhaps, is why so many were left disheartened by its council’s rejection of rent strikes last October. Given that Laura Beston, the current president, came into the role with a longstanding reputation as a campus activist, it was surprising that she abstained from supporting a grassroots group proposing radical action on student accommodation.
The episode stirred a wider debate regarding the place of TCDSU in student activism, and this year’s presidential candidates – Ryan Carey, Eoin Hand and Harry Williams – have divergent opinions on how the president should handle larger matters like these.
Williams, a third-year world religions and theology student, is particularly frank when it comes to the union’s position on wider political debates: “They take motions on things going on in the world – they took one on no-deal Brexit, which, frankly, the SU can do nothing about. And that kind of thing just alienates students.”
TCDSU, in Williams’s view, has “become this sort of political entity and takes sort of political views”. The candidate, a former project leader with social entrepreneurship society Enactus, worries that “a lot of students just go: ‘This isn’t for me – I’m not getting anything out of this.’” His plan for next year? “To change that.”
However, Williams’s attitude represents just one position in the debate on the extent to which the union should engage with issues beyond Trinity and its students. Carey, the only candidate with significant experience in the union, points to Beston’s introduction of a weekly support network for grassroots activists as an example of how the union can bridge the gap between student activism and national campaigns.
If Williams is absolute on the futility of political campaigning, Carey stretches nearly as far in the other direction. He argues that many campaigns “are rooted in the issues that students are facing”, and argues that “the campaigns the union works on are stuff like student fees and the housing crisis, and I think that these are issues that affect every student in college”.
Meanwhile, Hand – the director of Trinity acapella group Trinitones – comes down somewhere in the middle: for him, climate change is an issue of vital importance that requires immediate union action. He touches extensively on the climate crisis and talks up steps taken in University College Cork (UCC): “There’s movement forward [in Trinity], but, at the same time, UCC’s statistics say that they are saving 20 million sheets of paper a year. If you go onto their website it calculates everything they’ve done for a year.
Recycling has gone up by 90 per cent, they’ve reduced their carbon footprint by 36 per cent and reduced their disposable cups by 100,000 per year. Those are unbelievable numbers and Trinity just isn’t doing that.”
Are environmental issues his priority, then? “Yeah – creating a holistic Trinity that cares for the environment and all students and uses the students’ union to push environment and student enjoyment in college.”
But if Hand sees a role for the union in tackling problems in the macro, he tacks close to Williams when it comes to the most oft-repeated talking point in union politics: engagement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given their lack of a TCDSU past, both agree that students feel disenfranchised from the union. And both pledge to face it head on.
Williams suggests that “a lot of people say it’s quite daunting going into House Six” and plans to “focus [the union] back on the students, stop it from being this kind of ‘outsider’ thing”. He hopes to “make students realise what a great thing it can be and really just help them in their day-to-day lives”.
“If someone has a problem they should be able to come to the SU”, he concludes.
Hand says he’s noticed “a startling disconnect between students and the students’ union”. The Trinitones director observes that “apart from the people who are involved in societies, the majority of students just come in everyday, go to lectures, eat their lunch and go home”. His aim then, is to ensure that these students are “catered for as well” and feel equally welcome in House Six.
Carey, who has the largest presence in the union of the three candidates, doesn’t bring up the issue of the organisation coming across as intimidating. When quizzed on whether “hack” culture exists in TCDSU or not, Carey maintains that long-time active participants are crucial to the union’s functioning: “They have levels of expertise on things like the union constitution and college policies. If we had a complete turnover of class reps, part-time officers and sabbats every year, a lot of that expertise is lost.”
Carey also asserts that he “didn’t come across any friction in trying to run for stuff” when he got involved in the union halfway through his time at college. He was introduced to student politics and activism when he was locked in the Dining Hall for 48 hours during the Take Back Trinity campaign. This experience encouraged him to run for class representative and, following this, to become faculty convener for the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, before taking on his current role as the union’s gender equality officer.
“Seeing the power of the student movement”, he says, “got me really involved in local issues and casework – like how to fix things for individual students”. Carey believes that the work he has done with TCDSU thus far will prove invaluable should he be successful in his campaign: “I think my experience has equipped me really well.”
Though he says he had a “late start” in becoming involved in the union, Carey is a long-time member when compared to his opponents. Though Williams is involved in Enactus and Dublin University Hockey Club, he does not have “any background in the SU” – something that he sees as an advantage. “I think someone should vote for me because the SU needs to change. It fundamentally needs to change”, he says.
Both Hand and Williams intend to prioritise small, day-to-day issues over larger-scale projects. Williams mentions his personal frustration with not being able to find a stapler when printing off an essay in college, while Hand bemoans “college-borne situations that really shouldn’t be there in the first place”, such as lecturers neglecting Blackboard or Turnitin.
While the position of TCDSU president is broad enough to give each candidate room to articulate their individual vision for the union, both the large and the small concerns of students will ultimately dictate whose will come to fruition. With the campaign period starting in the aftermath of the general election, you wonder if wider-scale issues might linger in students’ minds.