Candidates in our yearly SU elections have generally had the remarkable ability to appear apolitical, usefully able to represent all campus views when conditions dictate, even when their political stances have been in line with the status quo. They win over voters with niceness, enthusiasm and buzzy social media campaigns, with evidence of bureaucratic and society experience, and knowledge of SU structures.
The shift from the kind of radical platforms that once defined SU politics has left today’s students without effective leadership when it comes to issues like college cuts, student fees, grants and access to education. SU-led campaigns have been of immense importance in promoting open discussion of mental health issues in recent years, for instance, but their effectiveness is limited when they fail to address the economic barriers that restrict students seeking help, and fail to vigorously challenge the unprecedented funding cuts to the student counselling service that were reported at the beginning of this academic year.
Students have generally not fought back against their cumulative economic disempowerment not because they are apathetic, but because they have been led by a union that in recent years has not believed in protest, that has not believed its members have any chance of winning, nor sometimes believed in the arguments it has had to make in response to cuts and calls to rallies.
This paper, to take a recent example, last month published an opinion article by the SU president that outlined his nine main objections to proposed new student fees, which, if introduced, would set a deeply worrying precedent, he said. It was shared on social media by said president with a caution that he did not write its “hilariously polarising headline”, “Any move to introduce new student charges must be opposed”. Ahead of this week’s referendum on the issue, the SU and the Graduates Students’ Union then held a town hall meeting on student charges at which “all options” would be explored, students were told. The key question, the SU president told this paper, was whether charges should be “opposed out of hand” or whether it would be “more reasonable and realistic to look for “a compromise… [such as] means-testing the charges, or having a per-exam charge rather than a flat irrespective penalty”. The GSU president went as far as to suggest at the meeting that it is important to be practical and avoid burning the bridge between the unions and College.
The emergence of a determined, political rhetoric in this year’s SU elections has been a welcome departure from this limp state of affairs. Presidential candidate Lynn Ruane, a third-year PPES student, offers her peers something that has for so long been lacking in student politics: real political demands and the experience to deliver on them. Unlike many past presidential candidates who have been oblivious to class politics, Ruane’s articulation of her three key policy themes – access, equality and inclusion – is based on an understanding of the systematic disempowerment of students in Irish higher education as it is stripped of state funds and commercialised by business-minded bureaucrats. College’s current five-year strategic plan, as she pointed out in our election video debate last week, “talks about diversity and talks about increasing [the proportion of] non-traditional students” when its current expenditure can barely “sustain the ones that are here.”
But Ruane ultimately stands out from the other candidates in this race through her 15 years of experience in the community sector, experience that will give her the edge in mobilising students and addressing their grievances if elected this week. Her campaign represents a welcome shift from the apolitical, technocratic election platforms we have become accustomed to and it has captivated the imagination of students more than that of any other candidate in recent memory. For some – including the male student asked Ruane at Monday’s Trinity Hall hustings how she would be able to handle the position as well as taking care of her two daughters – her campaign is clearly a threat, carrying as it does the promise to prise open this university, and speak truth to power and privilege.
Ruane’s three opponents each have impressive credentials. and Conor O’Meara, in particular, has carried out a well-organised campaign based on comprehensive policy platforms on issues such at student accommodation. Had it been any other year and any other opponent, his victory would likely have been a comfortable one. This year, though, it would appear that the odds are in Ruane’s favour.