Procedure takes priority in TCDSU. Every motion given a hearing must be proposed and seconded by two class reps, or other Council members. Alternatively, ten “ordinary” students can propose a motion. It is not clear why this is a requirement, as the most cluttering motions don’t seem to come from ordinary students at all, but from endless new committees, many of which seem to live and die without ever leaving the paper they’re created on. There is no reason why ordinary students who are willing to present in person to defend their motion should not be able to submit motions alone, or with a simple seconding from another ordinary student. It is worth remembering that although all Council members are formally elected, the majority of class reps take these positions uncontested. The consequence of insisting that ordinary students cannot submit motions under equal terms is twofold; it’s a frustrating barrier to entry for Union outsiders, and a pointless formal elevation of the Council above the student body.
It takes time and organisation to put together a motion and to straighten it out so that it is agreeable to everyone in the campaign. If a campaign group successfully forms a motion, only to realise that they have no class reps at hand within the campaign to propose it, it creates a frustrating barrier to being heard at council. This could easily be remedied by the provision being removed or amended. However, the deeper negative consequence of the provision is the line that it draws between class reps and ordinary students.
This year’s Cut The Rent movement sought backing from the union twice; the first time, it was defeated. The second time, it passed near-unanimously, on the grounds that Cut The Rent had taken council’s suggestions on board. Council’s suggestions, for example, to remove the provision that the Union defend students from disciplinary consequences in the event of a rent strike, were removed by amendment in the first Council session, but the motion still failed. This provision made a return in the second attempt, mandating that the Union “stand with” Cut the Rent instead, which is functionally the same thing.
“The running theme is that things are said for the sake of being said, criticisms made for the sake of criticising, and time-sensitive campaigns are sent back to the drawing board… for the sake of being modified.”
Some of the details in the original motion that subjected to harsh Council criticism were left virtually identical, but went unchallenged at the second Council. One rep demanded which officer would be responsible for implementing the motion, and another asked to whom the campaign would be accountable, which I still haven’t been able to get my head around. The running theme is that things are said for the sake of being said, criticisms made for the sake of criticising, and time-sensitive campaigns are sent back to the drawing board for a month seemingly for the sake of being modified, regardless of what those modifications actually entail.
If polled, I imagine most students would have more faith in the ordinary students who are involved in actually building campaigns than in their class rep, or even their Sabbatical Officers, when it comes to the question of what to do next and how it gets done. In Council, the dynamic is strange, as seasoned campaigners have to prove themselves to and take on board the suggestions of a room full of class reps. Even supporters speaking in favour of Cut the Rent emphasised that they supported the movement specifically because Cut the Rent had “listened” to Council after the first motion.
The running theme is that class reps are treated as more senior than any other ordinary students who have taken it upon themselves to engage in campus civic life, by giving them the exclusive ability to be directly heard out in council. Many Council members seem to internalise this and take their collective perspectives in Council as more legitimate than any other collection of civically-engaged students’. This is even the case in instances where ordinary students have put serious hard work into getting a campaign off the ground, as exemplified by Cut the Rent, or Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) in 2017. SJP had gathered one thousand student signatures in support of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction motion prior to proposing the motion at council, only to be pilloried on the floor and utterly rejected by a Council which could not have possibly represented the student perspective. The very next year, a BDS student referendum passed comfortably with sixty-five percent of the vote.
“The most significant advice Cut the Rent campaigners received from the Sabbatical Officers who supported the motion was to make sure it was worded to match Council’s sensibilities for the second attempt.”
There is something wrong when groups of students, seeking moral support and the use of those resources and platforms which are put under SU control on behalf of all Trinity students, have to walk and talk like the Union’s homegrown campaigns to get them. This is despite the fairly unimpressive record of many Union-initiated campaigns. The most significant advice Cut the Rent campaigners received from the Sabbatical Officers who supported the motion was to make sure it was worded to match Council’s sensibilities for the second attempt. The current Council mentality is clearly not fit for purpose. Council members are not the only members of the union, and they need to recognise this, and greet their fellow students as equals in good faith. If the Union continues to behave as if Council is the most qualified section of the student body to comment on campaigning matters, it is inevitable that it will remain a talking shop for imagining theoretical campaigns and ignoring real ones.
It’s difficult not to be nostalgic for Take Back Trinity, where in 2018 the ground shifted below student politics and brought one-time adversaries together in building occupations in the Dining Hall, blockades of the Book of Kells and Front arch, and an unbelievable number of practical organising meetings in order to repeal the introduction of a €450 exam resit fee by the college. One of the most original tactics used was bombarding Trinity’s tourist attractions with bad online ratings en masse, which was as petty as it was effective. It all worked, and then it disappeared, and no one is quite sure how to get it back.
The Union has attempted to provide a basis for the rekindling of these historic activist situations through setting up the Campaigns Support Network and Campaigns Committee, and most of today’s regular Council-goers seem to be on board for building something like it again. But the lessons have been muddled along the way: Take Back Trinity didn’t just work because “direct action” gets the goods forever and always. It worked because the Students’ Union had opened itself up, dispensed with procedure, and allowed in outsiders who were capable of making the strategic calls. It stopped trying to float above student affairs as a sort of student government, and engaged with ordinary students on equal terms.
Actions were taken on the basis of winning the political arguments, in detailed, strained, and frustrating discussions at organising meetings, where formal standing, or complete non-standing in the Union was considered no object. If someone clearly didn’t know what they were talking about, they were not taken seriously, and people learned not to make comments for the sake of having something to say. Many of these meetings were deeply horrible, as must be the case when deep-rooted convictions clash and where the consequences of that discussion holds so much immediate practical weight. Even still, I would trade them back in a heartbeat over the arbitrary placard-raising of a peacetime Council which considers itself standing above the ordinary student body rather than being just another segment inside of it.
“The SU is being held back by its self-conception as apart from and above students.”
If Trinity students are going to assert any power over how the college is run, TCDSU needs to rediscover this spirit. The ghost of a better union is hiding in the Union’s capacity to organise ordinary students and to develop and deepen student perspectives. The SU is being held back by its self-conception as apart from and above students. Council should be an opportunity for reps to learn from campaigns, take on board their practical experience and centralise them. Reps should play a role in spreading awareness of campaigns through their class group chats, but more importantly should consider actually attending practical organising meetings themselves for these campaigns, so they can actually materialise. Council should not merely be a space where existing campaigns are put on trial by a suspicious and disbelieving jury.