Only class reps can vote, but anyone can go to an SU monthly congress, and they are fascinating things. Speeches for or against motions can only be about 2 minutes long. For the motion to support BDS at the most recent council, there were so many speakers on both sides that speeches were reduced to 30 seconds.
Working the room
People have no time to make arguments: feelings and momentum so often determine which way the class reps will go. Manipulating the crowd in that environment is a skill; it demands a special kind of charisma, that guilts people into supporting you instead of putting arguments to them.
The most effective speakers at congress do not speak with any kind of logical flow: they say things like “Don’t worry I know ye’re all going to support this”, or associate their side with inclusion and diversity. The most effective speech in favour of holding a United Ireland preferendum described how hard it is to be a student from the North, and how Southerners voting on Northern issues is like men voting on abortion, and then demanded that everyone support the motion.
Speeches like these would never work as argumentative essays, but the people who give them understand the simple truth that emotion and false associations between ideas are more important at congress than arguments.
The result of all of this is that if you know how, and have the right people on your side, it is relatively easy to get something mad through TCDSU. More than two-thirds of class reps present voted in March to have a referendum, which became a preferendum, and then a non-binding preferendum – to fund campaigns and potentially two ballots – on whether TCDSU should have written down somewhere that it wants the North.
They voted down a suggestion that they take the month to talk to their classes first. Last year class reps voted emphatically to support fees, and then, at the following congress, to oppose them.
A skewed system
The vast majority of students do not want these things, but they happen anyway. This is because student politics is skewed to favour the wishes of the passionate minority. The vast majority of students are uncaring, and have minimal contact with TCDSU.
In student political speak, they are the ‘microwave’ people, who are happy when TCDSU brings some kind of material benefit to them, and consider it a waste of time and money when they play national and international politics. They get annoyed at seeing something like a preferendum, but do nothing about it. Most of them never vote in anything student-related.
TCDSU is skewed because a small number of the people who disagree, who want to use it as a political vehicle, are extremely invested in those political positions. This is not to say that none of the apathetic majority want to see TCDSU take a stance on student loans, for example: it is rather that all of the people who care are politically-motivated, because their political positions give them a reason to care.
Those people go to every council, put motion after motion forward, and send articles into student newspapers until they get their way, and the majority grumble, and nothing happens.
Nothing happens, except we all end up paying more money, and TCDSU fight for political causes in our name, and nobody is allowed to leave or opt out. Some people become pleased, most grumble and move on. The reputation of student politics suffers.
For the even smaller minority who oppose those positions as passionately as the people who support them, or the people who have no experience with the congress crowd, their SU has left them behind.
Between two poles
As this year in TCD student politics went on, it became increasingly defined by this struggle, between the passionate minority who want to use TCDSU to further their political agendas, and the mostly apathetic majority who oppose them.
In student political terms, the stakes of the this struggle are high: potentially at the end of this year TCDSU could have been using our money to campaign against all fees, advocate boycotting and sanctioning Israel, and pressing for a United Ireland.
Soon, maybe, the SU will be supporting political parties. The positions above fit well with those of Sinn Féin. More likely, we will spend the foreseeable future lurching through the area between the two poles, as sabbats decide at different moments that one is better than the other, and throw their support behind it, so that we adopt random political stances here and there without ever addressing the key issue, and without ever letting anyone leave if they want out.
It was with this in mind, I think, that so many sabbats spoke against TCDSU adopting a pro-BDS stance, and that Kevin Keane, if he really did, changed his mind after supporting it through his election. They saw the derision on social media, and the widespread student opposition to TCDSU taking such a strong stance on something they knew little about, and realised that if they want students to engage with their Union, playing international politics is a bad way of going about it.
Mostly, though, it is bad because of how uninformed we all are: a bunch of students in Ireland cannot properly know the rights and wrongs a 3000 year-old conflict. When TCDSU weighs in, and pretends to have any moral or intellectual authority in something like Israel/Palestine, most people find it hard to take seriously.
No one who heard all of the speeches at Congress could possibly have learned anything about the conflict from them. Mahmoud Abbas, chair of the Palestinian Authority, was said to have opposed and supported BDS; the motion would lead to a ban on Israeli academics and it would not; those in favour of the motion were anti-semitic and those against were islamophobic.
Student politics, on that night, and so often, was about feelings instead of facts, because no fact could meaningfully establish itself. Many of the pro-BDS speakers asserted an analogy between the conflict and apartheid South Africa. I have no idea what the material point of boycotting South Africa was: it is very unlikely that anything TCDSU affected anything in South Africa.
All that really happened is that we can now feel good about ourselves 20 years later for having been on the right side. Is that a good use of our time and money? Is that what TCDSU is here for? I am not convinced.
Most likely, there will be a preferendum-referendum-waste of time, in which if turnout is low BDS will win and if it is high then neutrality will probably win. No matter how low the turnout, the result will be taken as the democratic will of the students.
After that, whatever the outcome, attention will turn from BDS to something else, some other issue that occupies the passionate minority. The boulder will roll back down the hill, and the whole wearisome cycle of a few people trying to convince the rest to stand back while they play politics with their money will begin again.