What the Tom Lenihan debate says about Trinity

William Foley

Comment Editor

On the Tuesday before reading week I was invited to speak in favour of Tom Lenihan’s impeachment at a debate in the Hist. I declined the offer. There were a number of reasons why I felt uncomfortable about speaking publicly in favour of his impeachment: my unease with the prospect of removing a man who struggled with depression from a position he’d taken a year out of college to take up, and my reservations about speaking in a public debate in the GMB when my only previous experiences had been a Maidens run that quickly fizzled out.

But there was one overwhelming factor which prevented me from donning my naff suit and putting on my best cultured accent for the Histies: cowardice. I was, like many others, afraid to poke my head up above the parapet. While I had not been following the impeachment campaign closely, I was well aware that the majority of the student body who were anyway interested in the referendum intended to “#StandByTom”.  I had seen the unpleasant response of some to Alice Kinsella’s pro-impeachment article online where a commenter advised her to “take your crusading lily white witch hunt somewhere else”. So unwilling were people to draw upon themselves the collective ire of #TeamTom, that no-one had even stepped forward to manage the Yes campaign.

The No campaign, on the other hand, seemed determined to personalise the issue – the referendum would be about Tom and anyone who favoured his impeachment was a callous ogre, camping at the summit of High Moral Mount, lobbing gobs of spit down on mental health sufferers below.The Hist debate confirmed me in my suspicions. Tellingly, the pro-impeachment side could only muster three speakers, below the required amount for a parliamentary style debate, with audience members having to make impromptu speeches to prevent the debate from finishing early. Throughout, there was an atmosphere of hostility towards those who favoured impeachment and the Yes side had to constantly fob off points of information from the floor. The No side spoke virtually unmolested.

Despite the attempts of the three pro-impeachment speakers – Eoin Silke, William Dunne and Brady Manning – to centre the debate on a matter of principle, rather than a matter of personality, the No siders, one of whom was an avowed lifelong friend of Lenihan, relentlessly personalised the debate. It was demanded of the Yes side, again and again, how they could seek to deliver such a humiliating blow to a man whose poor mental health had already become a matter of national media attention. In the end, the chair called for a vote. “All those in favour?” – a scattering of hands were raised tentatively in favour of impeachment. “All those against?” – a forest of arms shot up. The Hist voted to Stand By Tom, as did the rest of college – the referendum was defeated by a margin of 20 percentage points.

It is not my intention to re-open the debate. A significant majority of students voted to keep Tom Lenihan in office, and that is where he should stay. This article, rather, is about the culture of student politics and student life in Trinity, a culture which stifles debate and dissuades dissent.

Out of the twelve thousand undergrads attending College, 2,730 voted in the referendum. It’s likely that even less than that actively took part in the general debate and discussion. In reality, those active in “Trinity society” constitute a minority within in the student body. Most people are content to attend college, hang out with their friends, get their degrees and get out. We are a college divided where a passive majority views society life in general – and student politics in particular – with either apathy or antipathy.

The remainder – the Phisties who fill out the GMB’s auditorium every Wednesday and Thursday, the hacks who pen articles for the student publications, the thespians hamming it up in Players’ Theatre, the contemplative types who ponder the big problems at the Metafizz meetings, the treasurers and chairs and secretaries of the two hundred odd societies and clubs – these all constitute Trinity society. They comprise a small community where everyone is, at most, one degree removed from everyone else. Everyone is the friend of a friend – and if you’re SU president, then you have a lot of friends. So when a number of students began to question Tom’s credibility as president, the community closed ranks. As was natural, friends instinctively defended friends and the agenda was already set – either you stood by Tom, or you were personally attacking him.

This is reflective of a certain sickness in Trinity society, a society which is already somewhat inoculated from the dull rigours of the “real world”. In its worst moments Trinity society can become a narcissistic echo chamber where pride becomes vanity, where altruism becomes self-gratification, and where the politics are personal and the personal is petty. We too often swap the tragicomedy of life for the farce of accidental satire. The monstrous hubris attached to certain Trinity events encourages many to view their own actions disproportionally. The saddest part is that many will see their delusions of grandeur realised when they graduate into the higher echelons of Irish and international society.

I count myself among the ranks of the guilty party. I have focused far too much attention on addressing issues entirely abstracted from the experience of an average Trinity student – I feel more at ease critiquing Western foreign policy towards Syria and constructing an abstract analysis of charity than I do dealing with issues that directly affect the average Trinity student. For example: someone recently told me that they were almost forced into becoming an escort so that they could remain in college. Why have I not written about that? Why has nobody written about that?

Don’t get me wrong; I stand by every article published in the Comment section of this, and every other issue for which I have served as Comment editor. In these pages, you will find engaging and original analyses on a panoply of difficult issues. This is testament to the rich seam of talent that veins the College community like a particularly sharp Stilton. It is vital that Trinity students engage with the wider world. But it’s also high time that we cast a colder eye on College life.

The Lenihan debate underlined the suffocating atmosphere that sometimes puffs its way up from the depths of College life like a noxious gas released from a split in the seabed. The Lenihan debate illustrated that we live in a somewhat unhealthy community. This is not to exaggerate the damage done by this sickness. In the Grand Chain of Suffering, the problems with Trinity society lie fairly low down, well below hospital waiting queues, dole cuts and lobotomised pop music. There is much to take heart from – I have met, and continue to meet, fantastically talented and creative people who locate themselves both on the margins and in the core of the College community. Our institutions and societies have allowed countless students to excel. But many more are held back.

The fundamental problem is that Trinity society is too small and its conditions of membership are too restrictive; we are all pressed together cheek by jowl, with little or no space for a friendly dig, let alone room to swing a criticism. The very air we breathe has become stale; it passes too often through too few bodies. Our pool has stagnated. We need to direct new streams of people into College life.

Growth is a result of movement. Movement is a result of conflict, of equal and opposite reactions. It’s time to enlarge our social space and become more critically aware of it, while remaining grounded in the real terrain of human activity. Our slogan must be: neither navel nor star gazing. I hope that, in future, you will see more critical engagement with College life in these pages and among the student body in general.

Matthew Mulligan

Matthew is Editor for the 62nd volume of Trinity News. He is a Sociology and Social Policy graduate and was previously Deputy Editor of tn2 Magazine.