Head to Head: Students Unions

Do we need a students union?


Conor James McKinney

In much the same way as our appendix used to serve a useful purpose, student politics used to be relevant, once upon a time. In the sixties and seventies – times of great upheaval and change in Irish society – students indeed played a leading role. Many former student leaders are now prominent in national politics – most notably Eamon Gilmore, the leader of the Labour Party.

But times they have a-changed, as Dylan might now warble. Looking back on the SU elections of recent years, there is a notable lack of manifestoes containing pledges to do with anything of substance. National issues, party political affiliations, ideological leanings – these are all out the window. There is a simple reason for this: students do not need to campaign as a stand-alone group. We’re all consenting adults here, so if we think that the world needs changing, we’re more than capable of doing it without the aid of the House 6 clique.

So, with student politics no longer a hotbed of radicalism, the SU has turned to “bread and butter issues” to justify their continued existence. Take a moment to reflect on the last time that anything the SU did, or didn’t do, mattered to you even the slightest bit. Perhaps you consider that Green Week, SHAG Week or RAG Week have some relevance to your life in college? I thought not. Yet this is the type of thing that the SU habitually concerns itself with.

This is not to take away from the grand achievements of the SU over the past few years. There was the Coke Crusade, which means anyone wanting a can of Coke must now buy it from a vending machine, in a blow to corporate tyranny everywhere. There was the Storming of the Arts Building, when the forces of Discomfort were cast down and the New Couches of Progress installed. There was the Irish Flag Affair, in which the students voted to have our national flag on display above the front entrance. It didn’t happen, of course, but the most important thing to note about that is that nobody cares that it didn’t happen.

Barry Devlin, writing in this newspaper last year, made the point that the SU does its job “simply by existing”. Since doing nothing other than exist doesn’t require skilled and qualified individuals, one could argue that the SU clique fit the criteria perfectly, so well suited are they for sitting in House 6 and admiring their CVs.

Which, not incidentally, is at the very core of why people run for a position in the SU. It looks good out there in the real world. There is nothing inherently wrong with people seeking to make themselves more employable – that’s why most of us are here. It’s just that it is somewhat incongruous to be told that this clutter of self-important careerists are the leaders of our little community, and that they care deeply about each one of us.

One way of measuring the veracity of student politicians’ claims to be driven by concern for your best interests is to have a look at what happens if they are not elected. My own memory, happily, is well enough trained that it hasn’t retained any of the names of the defeated candidates at last May’s polls, but it is 100 percent certain that you will never see any of them again. No defeated education officers continue to scrutinise the ARAM system; no former Welfare candidates pretend to give a damn about your problems on their own time; and no former Presidential candidates do a John McCain, and go straight back to working hard for the voters behind the scenes.

The elephant in the room, of course, is the fees issue. One might be tempted to conceed that if the SU didn’t exist, it would have to be invented to deal with this issue. That is only so, of course, if you accept the premise that the SU should be automatically against fees. Many students may feel that, for example, the education of an overwhelmingly middle-class, privileged section of society shouldn’t be subsidised by Joe PAYE. Your average SU officer opposes fees because they feel they should. There has been no more reasoned consideration of the issue than that, no contribution to the debate on how to reform third-level funding while preserving universal access than a rousing, Ian Paisley-style “NO”.You could bet your Trinity Ball ticket that next year’s candidates will unanimously oppose fees, one will be selected, and it will be another year of promising much, delivering little, and nobody outside their little clique really giving a damn.


David Norris

When I was asked initially to contribute to an opinion section on the relevance of the Students’ Union, I saw an easy way to slide out of this sudden additional weekend task. The invitation was to write against the Union. I couldn’t in conscience do that. I thought this was my getaway card. But no, they were happy enough to let me change sides.

Although my familiarity with that body is not as close as it was when I was teaching in the place, I couldn’t very well undermine the Students’ Union in Trinity. Apart from anything else, I am strongly in favour of unions. They defend the rights of the individual, and this may be more than ever necessary in these straightened economic times for students.
I am in fact a member of no less than three trade unions — the Irish Federation of University Teachers, Irish Actors Equity and the National Union of Journalists. Indeed, I remember when the Trinity branch of IFUT was being formed many years ago. There were some voices who said they wouldn’t join if it was a trade union. I thought this was an unnecessarily snobbish and impractical attitude, so I piped up and said I wouldn’t join it if it wasn’t a trade union.
To my great entertainment Kader Asmal, who taught in the Law Faculty, and subsequently became a South African Cabinet Minister, came over to me and said that although he was delighted at my attitude, he was rather surprised. “Why is that?” I enquired. “Well Norris,I thought you were a Conservative.” I asked him what made him think that that was the case, and he told me it was because I wore a three piece suit. Many years later he jokingly described Michael D. and myself at a Foreign Affairs meeting as a pair of left-wing loonies. It was one of the best accolades I have ever had.
I also have reasons to be grateful to the Students’ Union from many years back. In the seventies when there were moves afoot to establish a Gay Soc in Trinity, the vast majority of those involved were nervous of putting their heads above the parapet. It was necessary to make submissions to the Societies Committee, and these submissions had to have a named committee for the new society.

The entire Students’ Union joined the first Gay Soc and appeared as the committee. They were almost all heterosexual and I thought that was an act of political altruism which was quite memorable in its time. In the sixties and seventies, there were a number of significant political issues, both domestic and international, in which the Student’s Union exerted themselves.

However it wasn’t all heavy political stuff. The Students’ Union had a bright and breezy little shop. They also ran the Trinity Ball, which was then and I think probably still is now, the principal social event of the undergraduate calendar.
Look at the galaxy of names that have been associated with the Student’s Union over the years. Anne Connolly was an active member of Trinity Students’ Union, and is now a successful business woman tremendously committed to radical and feminist issues. She was centrally involved in the establishment of the Well Woman Centre in Dublin. Aine Lawlor was another active member of the SU, and her dulcet tones are now heard every morning on the RTE news. Ian Wilson also spanned the gap between political commitment and the RTE light music section as a major voice for the musical taste of the young.

And more recently? Well, I need only mention Ivana Bacik, doughty campaigner on issues of sexual liberation and other matters who courageously took on the Pro-Life Movement in a potentially very serious legal action. She is now Reid Professor of Criminal Law at Trinity and a very good colleague in Seanad Eireann. Add to this the production over the years of the Students’ Union Handbook, which sometimes got into trouble with the authorities but always provided a useful guide for new entrants into the university system.

Enough said? I rest my case and send my best wishes to the students and their representatives.

David Norris is a political and human rights campaigner, former university lecturer, and member of Seanad Éireann. He is the founder of the Campaign for Homosexual Law Reform.