On an overcast Wednesday morning in the Arts Building, I set out to talk to Trinity’s Students’ Union President in his preparation for the March for Education. Luckily, he was not hard to find. Towering above the swarms of students in the concourse, I caught him just as he greeted a group of first year students, asking with a casual enthusiasm if they were attending the march.
Kevin Keane is a typical example of a Union hack: eager, focused on a student related issue other students don’t seem to care about, and decked in a boldly-coloured t-shirt over a dress shirt. When I waved to him on the concourse, he nodded at me before launching right back into trying to convince a group of students to attend the march. It was clear he was a man on the warpath, despite his attempts to appear relaxed with his fellow students.
We sat down in his office in House Six to discuss his hopes for the march and for the day. Most of the other sabbatical officers were out at the Hamilton gathering support from that end of College. Keane, nursing an energy drink as he spoke, described what he saw as the most significant elements of this political statement. “Today is really valuable for two reasons – we’re here to show that students are not apathetic snowflakes and we won’t roll over and let any government trample on our rights. It’s important that we show this. In a broader context, politicians view us as a voting block, but they don’t see students as engaged with politics. We have to remind them that students are a powerful voting block. We need to remind the country that students have a strong presence in Irish society.”
This is not a short-term solution however, Keane warns. Mentioning the Taoiseach’s recent speech in Trinity where the old member of College assured us we would not have a UK-style loans system, Keane says the next step is applying the pressure for him to stick to it. “The point is that if students become complacent and sit on their heels and let the government get away without oversight, then they will let this slip away”. The number one priority, in Keane’s view, is getting the votes to create a better now for Irish students.
I spoke with Keane more casually about himself then. As an active member of SUAS prior to his election, he noted how his experiences with that society helped him develop the views and values he holds today. After attending a volunteer meeting on a whim with a friend, he signed up, and ended up going to India that same summer as a member of SUAS’s team.
Talking about his upbringing, and the influence of his reading Law, we were interrupted by Jonah Craig, the SU’s Entertainment Officer. Enlisting me to help carry speakers and mics, the two left me on the front of the steps of the Dining Hall with the other SU representatives to make some last minute phone calls to organisers. Before the march kicked off, he went back to the Arts Building with a megaphone in tow to entice more students over with the promise of free t-shirts and a fight for their rights.
Passing a group of students outside the Robert Emmett theatre, I overheard one exchange that seemed to summarise the sight at hand: “Who is that?” “I have no clue, but he’s huge.” Despite his cries of “March against loans, Front Square, right now!” ringing in the ears of everyone in the building, he was met with what seemed to be disinterest. He approaches groups with the same kind of goofy attitude you’d expect from a lecturer trying to seem “down with the kids”.
A speedy lecture address concludes his attempt to rally the troops and even on the path back to Front Square attempted to move more bodies over, “If you can smoke out here you can smoke in Front Square!” to those outside the Arts Building café, “Trinity isn’t that interesting anyway. Tourists, join us on the march!” to a group of confused-looking Italians next to the Campanile.
I stood watching him work his way through the crowd, picking out Students’ Union part-time officers to hold their banners and flags. Stephen Shiel, the SU’s Citizenship Officer, followed him at a distance, working through the crowd as he registered students to vote on a clipboard. Once a crowd began to form and grow, Keane returned to the steps of the Dining Hall, fiddling with a bottle opener keychain as he waited to start. The Ethnic Minorities Officer, Aghogho Atiyota, could be seen jumping in close by to find out all 200 t-shirts were already gone, with only half of the audience wearing them. It spoke to a decent turnout in Keane’s eyes.
Beginning his speech on the steps, Keane spoke quickly, hurriedly, and with little eye contact. It’s clear he was nervous, but powered through. He was only doing this for the second time ever, the first being at the March for Choice a few days prior, but he spoke with a determination that shows a sliver of what makes a good public speaker: the words were there, but the charisma was not – yet. He stood back to give the stage to Carly Bailey, the Mature Students Officer, who spoke with a conviction that only experience can bring. She was followed by Gary Gannon, a representative from the Trinity Access Programme, whose lighter and more casual approach to speaking contrasted with the others in a relieving way.
Once speeches had finished, Keane took to the microphone again to practice chants with the audience. His own voice broke as he shouted over and over, everything from “our future isn’t set, we say no to student debt” to “Leo, Leo off the fence, students can’t afford their rent”. This is where we parted ways, as he went to lead the small crowd of students out of Trinity to connect with other delegations on their way to the march.
After the march to Liberty Hall, and a host of speeches from officials from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), I met with Keane again in his office. Eating a Jacob’s cookie with a bottle of throat medicine on his desk, the president looked thoroughly exhausted. He noted with a laugh that opera singers used the same kind after a performance. I asked, quite simply, how it went. He sighed, leaning back in his chair. A “very good Trinity delegation” had made up a majority at the march. He noted how glad he was to see student engagement considering that last year’s march was so topical, and this year it’s fallen out of the limelight.
The casual student would perhaps be less engaged than those directly involved with the Union. There was great value in the turnouts of the mid thousands, for student activists to be able to see the power of a movement nationally. Many politicians in the last few months, including the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, have spoken about loans and higher education funding, which Keane equates to being “obviously” about the marches.
From my time with Keane, I got much the same feeling as I do with every other sabbatical officer in the country: there’s nothing that really sets him apart from the tens of other student activist speakers, except maybe that he’s a head taller than them. Despite his inexperience, Keane has a spark of something unique. It’s a flicker, if anything at all.
With the referendum on the Eighth Amendment looming in the coming year, Keane could be a major player in how students engage with the movement. There are a host of causes, opinions, and sentiments that with Keane’s clout could expand beyond the walls of Trinity. UCD’s recent debacle with their own SU leader has without a doubt affected the regard of presidential positions within student governance. If Kevin Keane can develop his skills, grow beyond the accepted cardboard cutout of SU leaders, he could do something truly exceptional; he could actually make a difference.