As the first week of campaigning in the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) elections draws to a close, candidates gathered in the Robert Emmett theatre this evening for the Media Hustings where they fielded questions from Trinity News Editor Aisling Grace and University Times Editor Donal MacNamee.
Having presented their manifestos on Monday at the Dining Hall hustings and engaging with questions on equality issues at the Council hustings on Tuesday, the 10 candidates for President, Education Officer, Welfare Officer, Communications and Marketing Officer, Ents Officer and University Times answered questions which honed in on the intricacies of their plans and promises.
Opening with a question about lobbying for funding, each candidate for TCDSU President was asked to rate their knowledge of higher education funding out of 10 and name the first thing they would do as president to try and change the situation when it comes to funding. Ryan Carey rated his knowledge of funding decisions at a seven, noting that colleges are now receiving 50% of funding from private sources, and acknowledged the crisis in funding. He claimed he would be proactive about fees, quality of funding and education. Hand claimed his knowledge of funding was at a “solid six”, noting that Ireland has the highest student contribution fees in Europe, despite having a leading economy in the continent. He pledges to ask the government why students pay so much, and why they aren’t getting as much back for it. Williams also rated his knowledge at a six, and claims to be “realistic” about fees and funding, drawing attention more to the reduced SUSI grant and increasing rent costs.
The candidates each fielded a question about their knowledge of College structures, and whether they’d maintain close relationships with staff or be a loud voice representing students “even if it ruffled some feathers”. Williams claims his knowledge of the institutions is at a seven, saying he’s “not afraid” of ruffling feathers, and pledged to be respectful and maintain good relationships with staff without necessarily always agreeing with them. Hand also rates his knowledge at seven and claims it’s “part of the job to hold people accountable”, and wants to rally student voices, pledging to break traditions and make change if students’ voices are disregarded. Carey cites his knowledge as an eight, and draws attention to his experience in university council and the administration committee for the school of histories and humanities, citing his experiences of sending aggressive emails to staff and having to sit next to them the same day in a meeting.
Williams was asked about his criticism of the perceived “union bubble”, and asked him how he would keep his new union colleagues happy whilst maintaining this criticism. Williams drew attention to the lack of engagement between students and the SU, praising the people involved in the SU whilst pledging to “be relatable to all sides”, bringing in normal students to the mix.
Hand was asked about his pledge for inclusive student spaces on campus and where he would create them. He pledged to ensure the buildings for each faculty represent their own students, drawing attention to the lack of heating or microwaves within the Hamilton for science students, as opposed to the arts block’s abundance of student spaces. He says “I don’t like no for an answer” when it came to holding staff accountable for these changes.
Carey was questioned about the recent Cut the Rent campaign and their interactions with the Union. He commended the campaign on their movement, promising that had he been approached by Cut the Rent, he would’ve thrown himself at it “wholeheartedly”.
Williams was asked if he was aware that the Central Societies Committee (CSC) and Dublin University Central Athletics Club (DUCAC) respectively were responsible for his pledges to book society rooms and remove the Pav’s €10 minimum card charge. Williams asserted he was aware, and claimed working with the CSC was important as head of the students’ union, as societies are “the backbone of college”.
When questioned about his lack of activism experience and his qualifications to lead campaigns for students, Hand claimed he “took his first steps” into activism earlier in the day for the rent campaign at front square. He claimed he’d seen the “hunger and activism” of students, and committed to the importance of convincing students to take action and let the powers that be know that it’s not good enough. He also claimed marching was the “last step” in activism, after negotiating and boardroom decisions failed to represent students.
Finally, Carey was asked how he would ensure the union had the numbers and resources to cater to marches and activism whilst maintaining office hours. Carey pledged to enact a lunchtime office hour and late-night office hours in his own time, to maximize engagement with students outside the working day.
Sole candidate for Education Officer Megan O’Connor was asked to identify what she sees as the biggest issues facing postgraduate students in Trinity and the policies she would propose to address those issues. O’Connor criticised “poor engagement” between the union and postgraduate students. She described the high turnover of casual teaching staff as “unfair on them, on the college and on students” and that she would seek to put policies in place “so that cannot happen in the future”.
Responding to a question on how she would fight for better funding for third-level education, O’Connor said that higher education funding was “at a crisis level” and referenced existing campaigns for better higher education funding, commending USI’s current “Break the Barriers” campaign. She focused on local barriers to higher education, such as access to microwaves on campus for commuting students.
O’Connor drew a laugh from the audience when she responded to a question on how she would balance her promises to devote time to being available to students on a one-on-one basis with the number of committees the Education Officer sits on with the straightforward answer: “I’m a nursing student.” She elaborated to outline that the high number of coursework and work placement hours required as a nursing student have enriched her time management skills and that she was “determined” to keep everything in balance.
Facing a question on what O’Connor would do differently than previous Education Officers in relation to lobbying College on the Trinity Education Project (TEP) and overassessment given previous officers have faced difficulties in the area, O’Connor said she was “not entirely sure what has been done by education officers in the past” and would “have to look back to see what has been done”. She emphasised that deadlines are imposed on students “far too close” together and that she would seek to meet with the 24 schools in Trinity in order to address overassessment. Acknowledging that her time would coincide with the first academic year after Trinity has finished rolling out TEP, O’Connor said it would be easier for her than previous officers to “point to the problem and say ‘you think you are done, but there is a problem’.”
On the question of whether consent workshops should be made mandatory, sole candidate for Welfare Officer Leah Keogh acknowledged the difficult nature of the question, recognising that consent training “can trigger people”. She maintained that she would “encourage so many students to take part in these workshops” and that “we can give it a go” but does not think it is feasible to make training mandatory.
When asked about how she intends to address the issue of gambling, Keogh stated that she believes that “counseling services aren’t doing anything specific to target gambling”, but that based on attendance at group counseling meetings, “there’s definitely a demand” for services to support students in dealing with addiction of any kind. “To tackle gambling specifically,” Keogh stated, “we can definitely look into rolling out an addictive behaviors campaign” which she would support with her proposed annual statistics reporting by the Welfare Officer.
Discussing whether the Welfare Officer needs to do more for minority students, in a question which referred to the lack of policies in her manifesto tailored to minority groups, Keogh highlighted the importance of engaging these groups.“Minority groups, when collated, are a majority on campus, so I think it’s definitely something that needs to be targeted.” Pointing to the increasing diversity in Trinity, she said that the introduction of unconscious bias training would help to acknowledge this change, saying “difference is not the issue, but it is our response to difference.” She referred to part-time officer roles as “doing a good job so far”, but acknowledged that there is more to be done to engage students from ethnic minority groups.
In terms of College’s drug policy, Keogh argued “I think it’s a crying shame that Trinity isn’t recognising drug use at the moment” despite having extensive policies on alcohol use and smoking. In the role of Welfare Officer, Keogh intends to research the policies held by other colleges in order to shape a more progressive drug policy here at Trinity. Keogh explained that “[she has] spoken to the reps from SSDP and [she has] asked them where they’re at in terms of devising policy” highlighting the steps that she’s already taken to help address this issue. “Students need access to information first of all,” Keogh stated, “and then support second of all”.
Communications and Marketing
In the face of their similar campaigns and proposals, both Hiram Harrington and Philly Holmes were asked about what made them the better candidate. Holmes replied that it was a choice for the students to make, but his focus on accessibility, equality, diversity and being the voice of the students was what made him a worthwhile candidate in order to show that the SU is made up of people, and not just brands. Harrington cited their experience in branding for off-Broadway and LA-based companies, claiming this experience sets them apart, alongside an increased focus on accessibility against Holmes. They also cited “easy to make changes” that would be fun and more engaging for the student body.
Asked about whether the candidates would use the SU’s social media to promote political causes, Harrington said it was “so important for us to be political”. They claimed the student body was so openly for and against so many causes that it was important for the SU to push that, for students to “know what we know”, and drew attention to the value and importance of the USI in representing student causes and cited their experiences in movements on campus. Holmes agreed, claiming being a student was inherently political, and praising the processes the SU goes through to vet which politics and policies it advocated for, to ensure they represented what Trinity students stand for, as opposed to staff.
Harrington fielded a question on whether their proposed weekly round-up of activities would be an effective way to get students involved, considering students’ ambivalence to the union’s current online content. Harrington suggested that students want to engage and want the union to actively engage and respond to them. They affirmed that images are a more accessible and effective way of engaging with students, and that ways of giving feedback are increasingly important for students.
Holmes was asked about his plans for Irish translation and audio readings of his weekly SU email, who would carry out the translation and readings, and whether they would be compensated for it. Holmes said he would need to verify with the next Oifigeach na Gaeilge whether it would be possible, but insisted he would ensure the reader and translator would be fairly compensated. He says it would be a commitment from the SU to show the student body and Irish-speaking students they are provided to, and to provide students to engage with the Irish language and find a love for it, no matter the popularity of the decision.
Holmes was questioned about his concrete ideas for the marketing aspect of the role, and how he proposed to bring in additional revenue for the SU. Holmes says he has ”concrete” propositions to increase the SU’s value for businesses, including “streamlining” the website to make the union more valuable in developing relationships with businesses. He also claimed the existing sponsorship handbook could be updated and improved to let students know exactly how the SU operates with branding and marketing, from larger sponsorship deals like this year’s sponsorship with Three to smaller deals.
Similarly, Harrington was asked how the SU would bring in revenue while maintaining ethical sponsorships in the face of more lucrative prospects. Harrington promised to partner with small-scale Irish businesses we could engage with, not “faceless suits” that represent conglomerates, saying: “The Commercialisation of the union would be a tremendous mistake”. Pushed on how they would maintain the “bottom line” of the SU’s sponsorship income, Harrington affirmed that with more small businesses, alongside this year’s SU surplus as a “cushion”, they can maintain profitability while reducing and removing engagement with more harmful larger sponsorships.
Besides the specific plans he emphasises for Sober October, Hugh McInerney’s responses showed that he intends to retain many of the current Ents policies. When asked about possible plans to institute events other than Trinity Ball, for which the role of Ents has diminished in recent years, McInerney stated that he thinks “Trinity Ball is fantastic as it is”, and if anything, he would “keep it as one of the best nights of the year” but also “focus on the smaller stuff.” He intends to plan similar but less momentous events throughout the year as well.
When critiqued that a hefty €91 price for Trinity Ball tickets may not speak to policies laid out in his manifesto to be “open, inclusive, and welcoming to all”, McInerney acknowledged that it would not be easy to lower the price for next year’s event. Instead, much like his other claims, he believes “our main goal should be keeping it at the price that it is”. The prices for Trinity Ball have continued to increase over the years, and McInerney believes that the Ball “has grown so much that it is one of the most iconic events in the Ents calendar”. He will “try [his] best to lower [the price] or keep it the same”, but again, he seemed aware of his boundaries in this regard and opted instead to promise to retain the same standard for Ents as this year.
In light of last year’s criticism of the union after students were searched for drugs at Trinity Ball, McInerney denounced the actions of the gardai, stating: “Personally, I think it is absolutely abhorrent.” However, he explained that the circumstances last year “were because of licensing”, and therefore “it might be a sacrifice we might have to make to keep having Trinity Ball”. McInerney reiterated that he recognises that students will take these drugs and that most important is working “towards a sensible drug policy”.
McInerney was reminded that a drinking culture is still associated with Ents but quickly retaliated, stating that “this is not just an alcohol-free box I want to tick.” He intends to continue hosting events with and without alcohol, but he simply wants to show students that it is possible to go sober. “I really do strongly believe that to change the culture,” McInerney stated, “we need to be the ones going out and putting on these events.” Planning to draw on his personal experience of going sober for the past two Octobers, and to spark interest in potentially sceptical students, he argued that “we have to put it out there, we have to tell them to take a break and come to our events”.
University Times Editor
Drawing on his experience in the role, current University Times Editor Donal MacNamee asked the candidates how they intend to carry out the plans in their manifestos on accessibility and inclusivity in addition to the existing workload undertaken by the Editor. Susie Crawford outlined that she would introduce a social media editor to lead social media coverage, and that an important aspect would be “really being on the ball and really being organised with your time”. Watson agreed that delegating was important, and outlined that the Editor has a “huge amount of time” over the summer which he would use to set plans in motion.
Questioned on whether the candidates agreed with the University Times’ decision in 2019 to place a recording device outside an on-campus residence hosting a hazing by the Knights of the Campanile and where they would set the bar weighing controversial reporting methods with the public interest, Watson and Crawford both supported the decision. Watson said that the story was “very important” and that he would set the bar at the same place if “there was another all-male elitist sports group on campus”, while Crawford said that she would set the bar where “there are students being physically harmed in some kind of institutionalised society or club”.
Crawford, who is the current Editor of UT’s supplement Radius, fielded a question on her lack of experience in news journalism and how she would lead the paper’s news coverage, promising students she would “work tirelessly” to build up sources and learn from the paper’s current News Editor. Questioned on how she would make hard calls on sensitive and high-level issues in news coverage, Crawford reiterated that she would work before assuming the role in July to learn from current editors in the paper and “make sure [she] is able to make those calls when they come up”.
Watson, when asked whether he agreed with Crawford’s suggestion that the best thing about the paper is not the content it produces but the opportunities it provides students, stated that he feels “high quality journalism is the most important thing we do”. He continued: “If we’re not producing that high quality journalism, we’re not offering opportunities”. Running against Crawford, who has branded herself as a candidate for change, Watson responded to a question asking how he would bring about change in the paper given his traditional route through it as Deputy Editor by saying that the paper has to “constantly change” and that he has “plans to grow”, referencing his plan to introduce a board of advisors for the paper.
Additional reporting by Shauna Bannon Ward, Audrey Brown, Shannon Connolly, Patrick Coyle, Alfie Fletcher, Jessica Hobbs Pifer, Patrick Horan, Jack Kennedy, Meadhbh Ní Mhidigh, Eoin O’Donnell, Jack Ryan, and Madalyn Williams.
An earlier version of this article misquoted aspects of Cormac Watson’s response to a question on the function of the University Times. The article was updated to amend the relevant quotations at 9:30pm, February 20.