On an overcast morning in March, Provost Patrick Prendergast announced the introduction of a €450 supplemental examination fee. Trinity’s student populace had faced an endless list of issues with the university’s officials as it stood, but it was this event that became the catalyst for unprecedented student reaction. We now know this as a pivotal moment in the College’s recent history: Take Back Trinity.
The movement placed great emphasis from the beginning on the fact that it would not be the sabbatical officers controlling the plan of action. It was to be purely student body run, and student body led. Among supporters were Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), the majority of their successors, and a group of students from diverse social and political backgrounds. Members of Trinity’s People Before Profit (PBP) party in particular distinguished themselves, having cultivated a long history of protesting social issues in recent years. Plans for protest, action, and the ultimate demands of the movement were formulated immediately at an open Town Hall. Protest action would not cease until the €450 fee was withdrawn completely and a commitment to not raising international or graduate student fees were established.
After a protest outside the meeting of the Financial Committee left student demands unanswered, blockades were staged primarily at College’s Front Arch and at the Book of Kells. Online campaigns were also fielded by an even wider range of students, leaving hundreds of negative reviews on Trinity’s official social media accounts. Aodhan Donnelly, a member of Trinity’s PBP committee, pointed out that: “The College’s history of clearly valuing profit margins over students and the administration’s total ambivalence to the problems and grievances addressed to it by those students (had) reached a tipping point”.
Undoubtedly, the most famous element of Take Back Trinity was its occupation. As the site where fellows and scholars of College eat their free three course evening meal, as well as being one of the oldest buildings on campus, the Dining Hall is a quintessential venue to Trinity. The event received little acknowledgement from the Provost beyond a controversial tweet stating that he was “considering alternatives” for the fees. Take Back Trinity was also bolstered by their receiving national and international support from political parties, other students’ unions, workers’ unions, and alumni of the college. Kevin Keane, then-TCDSU President, and the liaison between the movement leaders and the College Board, also notes that Take Back Trinity was by far “the most radical show of student power that Trinity has seen in decades”.
The turning point came on the second day of the occupation. Noonan Security Company was hired privately by College and instructed to block entrances to the Dining Hall completely. Access to food, supplies, and even bathroom facilities were cut off. Those blocked from returning began to rally students outside, calling on social media and class groups for anyone available to fight the latest attempt by College to intimidate students. Spontaneously, a protest hundreds strong formed on the steps of the Dining Hall. Once their numbers had grown, the group consisting of students, occupiers, and even supporting politicians from PBP and USI blocked the Front Arch of the College and staged a temporary occupation of another essential Trinity location – the Exam Hall. GSU President Oisín Vince Coulter highlights that he “remains baffled more students didn’t get involved” in Take Back Trinity, even with the large-scale support.
Six hours later, the lockdown on the Dining Hall had ceased, but students remained in the building for another night still. Choy-Ping Clarke-Ng, Public Relations Officer for PBP, said: “Although we only physically occupied the Dining Hall for three days, it felt longer on the inside. Before we began the occupation itself however, weeks were spent planning and preparing for the peaceful move in. Strangely enough, despite the security shutdown, the hardest part was the nightly meetings which lasted hours, as debates around the direction of the occupation took over. It was the first time so many different College groups and individuals were working together radically, but with that, it meant a lot of negotiation…We decided to leave with the hours spent inside equalling the amount of time it would take on minimum wage to pay for the increased supplemental exam fee.”
Take Back Trinity’s occupation of the Dining Hall ended on the third day after a commitment from Provost Patrick Prendergast to enter negotiations with representatives from the SU and GSU. As occupiers left the Dining Hall they were greeted by over 1,000 students in Front Square. GSU President Shane Collins spoke emotionally about how “every single person united together – that’s what a university is supposed to be”. Vince Coulter, his successor, also expressed pride in the victory they had achieved. Laura Beston, an avid campaigner and TCDSU’s Officer for Students with Disabilities thanked the student body for their support during the protest, and was preceded by an overwhelmed Conor Reddy, who had been instrumental in the planning and execution of the protests. The PBP Treasurer noted how he had not always appreciated TCDSU and their approach to action, but now saw the power in being able to work with them cohesively. They were joined by a number of PBP politicians, as well as Sinn Féin’s Fintan Warfield and former TCDSU President Senator Ivana Bacik. DJ sets and live music followed the rally, creating an atmosphere of celebration that swept across campus.
Séan Egan credits the success of the movement to the radical action: “The occupation worked because it disrupted the normal running of college and crucially it disrupted the administration’s carefully cultivated image…Take Back Trinity showed that good old-fashioned protest gets results and when students get organised, we can get real concessions from College.”
Take Back Trinity was ultimately, and continues to stand as, an act of rebellion against the orthodox powers in Trinity. Supplemental fees were withdrawn and a pledge to halt the increase of international and graduate student fees was also made, but has since been tested by the Provost. The support from Trinity’s staff and societies also highlights the importance of solidarity, even when one cannot partake in protest.
There are those who would leave Take Back Trinity as it stands: a revolutionary act that forced the hand of the College Board in favour of students. There are others, an apparent majority, that see this as just the beginning for Take Back Trinity. They see potential for the movement to grow on a national scale, pushing for affordable student housing, and the reduction and even elimination of annual fees. A group consisting of original Take Back Trinity members has presently thrown their support behind another occupation movement in Summerhill and North Frederick Street to protest rental costs and vulture landlords.
As we begin another academic year however, it seems only time will tell where the movement will go. Take Back Trinity is, no matter what, something to be proud of – both as students and as revolutionaries. The events of the occupation will serve as a most powerful reminder that we are never truly alone in our struggle.