I first wrote this article in the form of an open letter to Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU). I was passionate, angry and probably too harsh. It is easy to pigeonhole people into definitively good or bad camps these days, and I pushed TCDSU firmly into the latter. And yet, although I have since realised that I need to actively fight my generation’s instinct to ignore nuance, I don’t think my claim was completely unfounded.
There is a culture within TCDSU – I think many would agree – of performative activism, and there is a strong pipeline from union officer to politician, journalist and the person in power. To a degree, it makes sense – in college, they want to make the students’ lives better and, after graduating, they want to achieve this nationwide. But it seems that entering politics after a heavy involvement in TCDSU is no longer a reasonable coincidence but a planned evolution. It is simply what is done. When we start to view student politics as preparation for “real” politics, we forget why the former exists. We forget why it is so vital to have passionate, competent representatives.
I might be idealistic, but I think we can do better
A students’ union is not simply a training ground for future Taoisigh or chat show hosts. It is crucial in its own right, and with policies being implemented such as raising fees for international students, prioritising tourists and chronically underfunding mental health services, TCDSU is more important than ever. I understand that universities are not just places for learning – they are partially state-funded businesses that need to make money. But TCDSU has been complicit in these developments, and it is time its members stood up to policies that put students in jeopardy.
Unions in general have served a very powerful purpose in our own nation’s history, too. Just look at Big Jim and the Irish Transport General Workers’ Union. Dublin in particular lost one of its organs when the unions lost their power. We need to remember the culture of unions in Ireland that we were once so proud of. When did we stop believing that we could make things better?
Student unions are undoubtedly less radical than they used to be. I have a slight, perhaps paranoid, suspicion that TCDSU would be prepared to take more extreme action if they knew their careers would be unaffected. Despite knowing they could win a huge amount of student support if they, for example, organised strikes to protest student fees or proposed free student housing to those most in need, they instead make vague criticisms about the lack of pride flags and throw students an infographic about housing, calling it a job well done. I might be idealistic, but I think we can do better.
It seems that entering politics after a heavy involvement in TCDSU is no longer a reasonable coincidence but a planned evolution
We are hurtling towards a new academic year with brand new members in the TCDSU. I ask, humbly, that they commit to bettering the student community rather than focusing on career progression. There does seem to be cause for optimism for the year as current TCDSU President Gabi Fullam focused her electoral campaign on structural reform, tangible policy and a proactive union and has thus far worked to be proactive and put TCDSU out there.
I am well aware that running a students’ union is more complex than the simple radicalism I advocate. I also have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place, as with most politicians. So I implore this new union to give a genuine, concerted effort to improve students’ lives. You might not end the year best friends with Simon Harris or the Provost, but you will gain the respect of your peers. After all, actions speak louder than words, and I, for one, look forward to seeing the actions they take.