It all comes down to how you get started. Joe Duffy got involved for very simple reasons. The future USI president and RTÉ broadcaster was motivated to become involved in SU politics by a desire to dismantle the barriers to education that he saw. A letter he wrote to the Irish Times in 1978 as a second year social work student demonstrates this attitude.
“The opening of a new gate on Nassau Street does not hide, nor indeed alleviate, the fact that there is not one student in Trinity from the community directly behind it; the Westland Row, City Quay parish,” writes an incensed Duffy in response to an Irish Times story on the opening of the gate described it as opening “new windows on the world”. Indeed during his time as president he was involved in the setting up of the Union’s Community Week, an event which invited children from the area into the college premises. Duffy’s desire to get young people into the campus went so far that he attempted to get permission to have a circus tent on pitched up on College Park, complete with clowns, trapeze artists and animals.
Many other differences in student union politics can be seen from the 1980s until now. Duffy was surprised when I told him that tickets aren’t really a thing anymore in Trinity. Duffy himself was elected president of the students’ union as part of a ticket which included future Labour Party minister Alex White as deputy president and Liam Hayes as education officer. Once elected, maintaining communications with the student body presented challenges not present in today’s world of Facebook and emails. The Students’ Union utilised a printing press located in House Six which they would use to make up leaflets to hand to students coming through Front Gate in the morning and distribute around lecture theatres.
Along with that, Duffy holds a great fondness for his memories of conducting speeches and debates with other students on the Dining Hall steps, which took place regularly in addition to usual SU council meetings. One of Duffy’s largest agitations resulted in a High Court injunction being issued against him and the rest of the SU officers. Angered over price hikes to the cost of college meals, the upholding of free commons and the subsidising of academics’ meals, the SU led a boycott of the college catering facilities. Instead, they set up their own restaurant and bar in the old Junior Common Room, at that point housed in the central location of Regent House above Front Arch. When the injunction to attend the High Court was ignored, the leaders of the boycott and occupation were arrested, though not prosecuted. Duffy regards this as being a “comprehensive victory” for the SU, as College eventually introduced new menus and a catering committee involving students.
Shortly after Joe Duffy’s presidency of TCDSU ended and his time as president of the USI began, a new president was elected who also went on to an RTÉ broadcasting career. Aine Lawlor says she got involved in the SU by “pure happenstance”, though she was active in some publications beforehand. but switched to SU politics when she found herself more adapt at making her points through speeches and talks rather than the written word. She says it was enjoyable to be a female SU president, but that it was also “a rollercoaster” and a challenge. The difficulties she faced in that position were her “first encounters with sexism and developing the resilience you need to get past that and the rest of life’s obstacles”.
Lawlor counts “standing up to the USI over disaffiliation” as her proudest moment, alongside sorting out the Union finances and generally being able to help students. Lawlor has since come back to speak in College about women’s role in leadership, her experiences with breast cancer and women’s role in political life. A lesson Lawlor took from her time leading the SU is that “the text of leadership is not the conflicts you start but the conflicts you resolve”, a more reconciliatory tone than some presidents have adopted. Lawlor remembers her stint as president fondly, saying that she “saw a side of college life through the students’ union [she] wouldn’t have otherwise and that was a privilege”.
Ivana Bacik was SU president at the very end of the eighties, from 1989 to 1990, and was only the second ever female president of the SU after Aine Lawlor. Her presidential term was carried out at a time where Ireland was going through a lot of social change. The first referendum on the introduction of divorce failed to pass in 1986, and the fallout from that was still being felt. The country would have its first female president by the end of 1990, and the Norris case had been decided by the European Court Of Human Rights just two years previously. Bacik existed in SU politics against a backdrop of vocal Trinity alumni taking strong stances on varied equality issues, something which may have passed down to the Union of the time. She became involved in her first year because she “was interested in feminist and equality issues” and because of her perception that “the SU was very active and radical with a high profile on campus, and [she] liked the political work they were doing.”
During the course of her year in office, the SU ran campaigns to keep prices affordable for college catering, and also campaigned to keep libraries open longer on campus. For most though, Bacik’s time as SU president is remembered for an ongoing incident which revolved around the issue of abortion. During the course of her involvement in the SU, Bacik and other officers made available information to women who were experiencing crisis pregnancies “on all the options open to them.”
Distributing information about abortion was illegal at the time, but as someone who is pro-choice, Bacik feels that the SU had a right to do so, even after she was taken to court by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. She maintains that one of the proudest moments of her presidency was “when TCDSU stood up to the anti-choice movement in the Irish courts […] and Trinity students came out on the streets in large numbers to support us.” Bacik was in court represented by her lecturer Mary Robinson with the rest of the year spent fighting the case. Several years later it became legal to distribute information on abortion in Ireland.
Though Bacik was a president who became involved in issues that sometimes were bigger than College, she does not think that an SU should necessarily have to immerse itself in national politics, and that there is no right or wrong way to run a students’ union. “I think that SU politics and levels of political activity tend to change depending on the context” she says. “We were often told when I was SU president that we were much less radical than the SU had been in previous years, so it always amuses me to hear students say now that the SU was much more radical back in the late 1989s and early 1990s”. She thinks that students become involved in the matters that are important to them, and says she has been “delighted to see so many students involved in SU campaigns on campus in recent years on many different issues”.
Though these SU presidents achieved a lot during their time in office, they’re hesitant to comment on how the SU should be run at present. Duffy says that no issue is more important than another, and that what matters is getting students involved in the fight for rights. “If plug sockets are the issue, then that’s the issue” he tells me. “Once people realise they can come together and get that, they’ll realise they can come together and fight for bigger things”. Lawlor says that the importance of students’ unions and how they should be run is up to the students of today to decide. Bacik somewhat agrees that the leaders of the past should not impose their beliefs or determinations upon the current generation, but admits some lessons can be learned when it comes to balancing the focus on local and national issues. “ was a challenge in my time and it remains a challenge for whoever are elected as SU officers this year,” she says.
Photo, via Student History Ireland Project: Joe Duffy addresses protesters as USI president in 1984.