Every now and again, one of us has to go to some kind of event catered to students’ union representatives. They tend to keep to a formula: finger food, wine, a guest appearance from a high-flying Dublin professional – a trade magazine journalist or a LGBT+ Equality Officer with Microsoft. All speakers offer heaps of self-congratulation. “You”, they say, “are the truly selfless. You are making the world a better place for your fellow students.”
The USI would claim that, in the last number of years, that’s exactly what they’ve done; they’ve led national drives to increase student involvement in politics, most notably in the marriage equality and abortion referendums of recent years. But their contribution to these achievements was not really very meaningful. Both referendums passed with around two thirds of the vote, after national campaigns by groups of all sorts, and grassroots activism from many students unconnected with the USI. None of this stops them chalking down their efforts in these areas as success.
The USI and TCDSU both need to be at the forefront of whatever it is that they’re doing, and will push others out of the way, literally and otherwise, to get there.
The USI, like almost any students’ union, is quick to take credit for things. Another example: at the time, insiders in the Take Back Trinity movement said that last year’s TCDSU President Kevin Keane was extremely reluctant to participate in their occupation of the Dining Hall. After being convinced by the movement’s organisers, he became one of its front-and-centre public faces, and after the occupation the movement, in the words of one activist, felt “as if it had become SU-led”. TCDSU were right to support the activists, but they did what they always do when they notice the wind blowing in a particular direction: hoist their sails and make sure it’s their ship that everyone is getting on.
The USI and TCDSU both need to be at the forefront of whatever it is that they’re doing, and will push others out of the way, literally and otherwise, to get there. The reason is simple. It isn’t because they’re all just shameless self-promoters, although some of them of course are. It’s that to rise through the ranks of students’ unions in Ireland you need a kind of Christ complex: a belief that you alone must take on the burden of hard work to improve the lives of your ungrateful students. In other words, you need to think that you’re a better person with a deeper conscience than everyone around you, thanklessly leading the world into a great progressive promised land.
Students’ unions attract a certain kind of person, and those people are usually fine, but the problem comes when there’s more than one of them and they all want to be in charge. We learned this week that TCDSU President Shane de Rís and the USI are now attending competing meetings aimed at coordinating campaigns against direct provision. The core of the problem is that the campaign to end direct provision is about to kick off in a serious way, and the USI and the universities are competing to be the people at the front of the movement with the loud megaphone. The USI are happy to invite UL and UCD along to participate within USI structures, but UL and the other universities would prefer to work on their own, with their own union presidents at the front of the rallies rather than national USI leadership.
The current dispute is entirely about who will be the leader of the campaign rather than anything to do with the cause itself. It’s a clash of egos.
De Rís, in a statement to Trinity News, criticised the USI’s obstinacy towards UL and UCD, and of course he’s right. But his suggestion that the USI “only want USI affiliated members involved with it” is untrue and in bad faith. And UL’s meeting, by excluding the USI, was much worse than any USI one would have been. It makes no sense to exclude the student body with the most resources and representative credibility in the country from a meeting about nationwide student activism. And the loss showed: only a third of higher education institutions were invited to the meeting, and none of the activist groups who have actually been campaigning against direct provision, such as Trinity’s Aramark Off Our Campus, were invited. One can presume that UL and de Rís forgot to invite them, but USI remembered.
All of this is to say that the cause of ending direct provision would be far better served by bringing all of these groups together. But that doesn’t matter, because the current dispute is entirely about who will be the leader of the campaign rather than anything to do with the cause itself. It’s a clash of egos, a struggle to see who will be able to write on LinkedIn that they ended direct provision. Meanwhile, the activists and asylum seekers are being left behind.