The first ever media hustings, co-hosted by Trinity News and the University Times, took place tonight in the Lloyd Institute. The second hustings of the election campaign for the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) sabbatical officer positions saw the twelve candidates – in the races of President, Welfare, Education, Entertainment, Communications and Marketing and the University Times Editor – answering questions from Trinity News Editor Oisín Vince Coulter and the University Times Editor, Sinéad Baker.
University Times Editor
Dominic McGrath, a Junior Sophister Law and Political Science student, was the first to speak at the hustings as the uncontested candidate for Editor of the University Times. He stressed the role of the paper in preparing students for future careers in journalism, promising podcasts and skills workshops.
When questioned about the perception of an internal process within the University Times on deciding the candidacy for the position of Editor, given that it has been uncontested three years in a row, McGrath called it an “unfair perception, there are other races that are uncontested”. He continued: “I’d love to change it, I think we’ve made great efforts to encourage people to run.”
With presidential candidate Kevin Keane proposing to cut the printing budget of the paper, McGrath was asked how the University Times plays into the wider financial structure of the union: “The University Times does great work trying to make money” but he added “very few newspapers in the world turn a profit.” He also found Keane’s policy “problematic as they (student writers) value seeing it around campus, they like to bring it home”. McGrath also suggested adding another person to the advertising team if he were to become Editor.
Baker questioned McGrath’s policy on varying media platforms, admitting that this year the paper has not held workshops and that it doesn’t have any camera equipment. Justifying this expense Dominic stressed that “it would be a good investment” as “every other video you see on Facebook now is a piece of journalism”.
Closing this section of the hustings, a member of the audience, Sean Egan, a Senior Freshman Sociology and Social Policy student, questioned the decision to publish an article last year by James Behan mentioning “grey areas of sexual assault,” and called it misogynistic. McGrath said that he stood by the paper’s decision to publish it, stating: “I think it’s important to have good debate and discussion,” but admitting that “there is a fine line but I think we do have the balance right”.
The Ents Officer is one of four uncontested races in this year’s leadership race. Junior Sophister Computer Science and Business student, Jonah Craig, is the sole candidate for the position.
Jonah was second to speak at tonight’s media hustings and the conversation began with a discussion of his new ideas for the role. He mentioned the benefits of developing the Ents Committee and spoke repeatedly about the introduction of Ents workshops which he views as a way to “help people get in touch with Ents, making it more approachable”.
On the question of providing non-alcoholic events in the context of College’s alcohol policy, Craig referred to the introduction of the Ents workshops as an example of this type of event. He commented: “For a club night, most people drink alcohol. If we run a comedy event, whether you drink or not, you feel included at this event. You’re not forced into (drinking).”
Craig also spoke of the importance of making events accessible, referring to the motion passed at SU Council last night to support the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the Irish government, and mentioned initiatives such as better event descriptions on Facebook which detail the facilities available in venues used by Trinity Ents.
Baker noted Craig’s reluctance to commit to events that are ambitious as opposed to reliable, which Craig responded to by highlighting the five months the Ents Officer has to plan over the summer: “You should know by Freshers’ Week whether an event shall be successful or not.” He added: “Planning is so key, you have five months of it and should be making the most of it”.
In light of the ‘Summer Sessions’ concerts to take place on Trinity’s campus this summer, Craig was asked whether Ents should be involved with these events. Craig noted that the concerts are experimental: “If it’s successful, it will run for the next few years for sure.” He said that for now, Ents should focus on getting students discounts to these events but added that it is open to negotiation: “We need to see what will happen, but I’m definitely open to talking about it.”
Current Education Officer Dale Whelehan posed a question on how SU events can be made more accessible for Health Science students, one of Craig’s main manifesto points. Craig responded that he had been in contact with societies such as BioSoc on how best to achieve this: “For first and second years, they mightn’t know what to expect, but you can break that barrier and build a presence from the start.” He finished by saying that he hopes this approach will be carried on in further years.
Communication and Marketing
The first question posed to the only candidate in the Communications and Marketing role, Úna Harty, came from Baker, who asked why Harty did not make transparency a point in her manifesto. Harty said that many of the points mentioned in her manifesto, such as introducing a better communication system between class representatives and classes, and using Snapchat to inform students of the sabbatical officers’ activities, would increase the transparency of the union.
Vince Coulter questioned Harty on using corporate sponsorship to fund the Union’s activities, asking how she would avoid “cosying up to large corporations”. Harty replied that her promise to work towards an ethical sponsorship strategy for the SU would be “something to strive towards over time”. Harty added that her strategy towards companies would be on a case-by-case basis, emphasising that last year’s deficit of €30,000 within the SU made new initiatives vital.
As a follow-up question, Harty was asked where she would draw the line regarding companies she would look to for sponsorship. The question concerned companies involved in areas such as fossil fuels and the arms trade. Harty made it clear that she would always take the SU mandate into consideration when working with outside companies.
When asked to expand on her promise to modernise the SU, Harty said this was the area she would be most passionate about. Lack of student engagement is an endemic problem, according to Harty, who said that average students often don’t visit the Union website or even open SU emails. Harty stressed that a greater emphasis on visuals over text would boost student engagement. She said that emails, the SU website and her proposed infoscreens would benefit greatly from this approach.
Harty noted how the current Union uses social media platforms to increase student engagement, citing how Snapchat is used by Ents to advertise events. Harty proposed to use Snapchat as a “window” into the actions of the sabbatical officers, to give students more of an idea of what Sabbatical Officers do and how it benefits students.
Harty was asked via Twitter if she would support the “Students for Justice in Palestine” movement in the future, to which she simply replied: “Yes.”
The race for Welfare Officer has five candidates vying for the position – Laura Grady (Senior Freshman Economics & Sociology), Méabh Cullen (Junior Sophister Environmental Science), Damien McClean (Senior Sophister Mathematics), Emma Purser (Senior Sophister World Religions & Theology), and Rachel Skelly (Junior Sophister Geography). The questions focussed on the candidates’ past experience and manifesto points.
The welfare hustings were approached differently to those of the uncontested races, as both general and candidate-specific questions were asked. There was a large degree of agreement between the five.
The first question, from Vince Coulter, was concerned with why students ought to trust the candidates with their problems. Cullen said that “if someone is voting for me they’re going to trust me with their issues,” also using anecdotal evidence from her own previous experience. McClean argued that “it’s easier to trust a student,” while Grady underlined the part of the role concerned with referring students onto further help. Skelly brought up the fact that the Student Counselling Service remains underfunded, and more broadly that it is important that the Welfare Officer understand these services.
Vince Coulter questioned Purser on her level of activity as a peer supporter, saying that “a number of sources” had revealed to Trinity News she may have been less active in the role than her manifesto implied. “I go to every single S2S event I can get to,” she responded, all while “trying to juggle my other society commitments, and academic work” in her final year of college.
In response to a question from Baker, Cullen addressed perceived gaps in her manifesto in the areas of LGBTQ+ policies and accommodation, referring to her Mental Health Mondays policies among others. “There are just more issues that I am more experienced with such as mental health,” she concluded.
Candidates agreed fully with each other on interaction with national organisations, mainly Nightline. “It’s foolish,” said McClean, not to bring these organisations’ experience to bear on issues that concern students in their college years.
Finally, Vince Coulter asked for a single “unique reason, as you’re echoing what each other say” why students should vote for each candidate.
Cullen focussed on her experience in the realm of disability activism, while McClean summed up his candidacy saying that it was an “amalgamation” of traits rather than a single one which could make him a more suitable Welfare Officer. Grady said that her personality and sense of being approachable made her the perfect person for the role. Purser returned to her experience as a peer supporter, saying that she wants “students to know there’s someone there for them,” and that she could be that person. Skelly argued that it was her determination that set her apart.
A question from a crowd member asked the candidates for their views on Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), with all voicing their agreement.
Alice MacPherson is a fourth year History student, and is the uncontested candidate for Education Officer. MacPherson has emphasised her intention for the role of Education Officer to affect students’ “everyday lives” and has cited extra plugs in the Lecky Library as an example of the kind of infrastructure changes she thinks will contribute to this. Similarly, as part of her manifesto, MacPherson has highlighted her intention to bring about “alternative study spaces” in the library.
The first question posed to MacPherson related to the accessibility to the SU and the lack of contest in the SU elections. MacPherson spoke about the supposed perception among students that the SU is inaccessible saying “that perception is something we have to defeat”. Regarding her own race she said that “I would absolutely love to be contested” for the role.
MacPherson proposed establishing an online archive of manifestos, and commented on how difficult it was to compile a manifesto with little experience running in elections. She stressed the importance of raising the understanding of what the sabbatical officers do and suggested creating ‘day in the life’ vlogs to do this.
The uncontested candidate stressed her approach to accessibility came down to an effort to eliminate false perceptions by “getting the information out there”.
The next issue put to MacPherson was on the Trinity Education Project and how the SU can have an input in this. MacPherson pointed out that “nobody really knows what the TCD Education Project is” and the Students’ Union has a part to play in informing people on it. MacPherson suggested that the SU’s first priority is to act as an intermediary, making sure information from students reaches college authorities and vice versa.
Speaking about outreach to off-campus students MacPherson stressed that “off campus spaces are just as important as those within the walls of Trinity”. She emphasised that this doesn’t just apply to students in Health Sciences but also students on Erasmus exchanges. MacPherson says she would hold Skype office hours to provide students who are abroad with an opportunity to access the union.
When queried on her proposals to make the SU Council more efficient, MacPherson explained: “I want to make it more useful for students who don’t know how Council works.” When pressed as to whether the efficiency of Council would compromise its democratic nature, MacPherson denied the claim, and outlined her specific proposals for making Council more efficient. These include placing time limits on speeches during Council and also training class representatives on how Council actually works.
Pressed by a crowd member on her previous stance on higher education funding, MacPherson admitted that “I was wrong when I spoke in favour of an income contingent loan system” and said that she “came from a place of ignorance”. MacPherson said that the views of “experts in government and finance” had convinced her that free education was in fact a real possibility. MacPherson favours a “reforming of the SUSI grant system” to make free education possible.
The joint hustings saw Kevin Keane, Bryan Mallon and Thomas Emmet face off again after an eventful first exchange.
The first question was what TCDSU could do better in five words. Kevin Keane pledged to make “college better for everyone,” Bryan Mallon said that the SU “needs engagement to achieve everything we can achieve” and Thomas Emmett said “more visibility and more representation”. Asked to briefly explain what they felt the SU did well, Keane said: “The union is excellent at representing people but needs to be better.” Mallon said that the SU “pursues a lot of good issues that people care about,” while Emmet felt it is strong on “local and national issues” though it could do better.
The candidates were then asked whether they believed the SU President had any real power. Emmet believed that the SU President was powerful “but only as powerful as those around him. As President, you are captain but you need a good team as well.” Mallon believed that internally the President did have power but that “national issues are hard to fix”. Keane stated that the SU was a great “facilitator” of engagement and that reform of the roles of part time officers would help to “make the SU great again”.
The next question concerned threatened strike action by non-academic staff over pay and conditions. The candidates were each asked whether they would support industrial action. Mallon, expressing support for non-academic staff, said that the SU was “not just all about students. We represent everyone”. Emmet too expressed solidarity with non-academic staff.
Emmet was asked how he would engage “the generally apathetic student body”. Emmet said that the lack of engagement was the sole issue in his manifesto and that town hall meetings which could be attended by any student would combat this. Mallon lamented that hustings this year had been held after council, which closed them off to those who would have attended the Dining Hall hustings. He said that each year we see “the same candidates” and that he was a departure from this template. Mallon stated that one key to engagement was accessibility. He wished to focus the conversation about access to grants and what he saw as the “social barriers” to Trinity. While speaking, Mallon asked how many in attendance were from the country and then asked how many of those with their hands raised knew someone who was afraid to come to Trinity due to “social barriers”. This was met with a chorus of jeers and boos from those in attendance.
During the course of the debate Mallon pointed out the lack of attention given to Irish in the other candidates manifestos. Keane interjected immediately in Irish, inviting Mallon to debate with him in Irish. This drew an admission from Mallon that he did not speak fluent Irish. He likened this to Thomas Davis, Irish republican and Land League member, a patriot who also did “not speak English”. Mallon quickly corrected himself “did not speak Irish”, which drew laughter from those in attendance.
Candidates were asked if their own personal preferences on “divisive issues” such as the mandate to lobby the government to repeal the eighth amendment would affect their policies of inclusivity and engagement. Keane stated his belief that the SU had become more of a political party than a union and was keen to avoid the SU descending into a “hegemony”. Keane said that SU mandates should not shut down debate. Bryan Mallon too said that while he was personally pro-choice, he would be happy to “engage with (those who are pro-life) in discussion… (and) engage with them in debate”. Emmet told those in attendance that he hoped the eighth amendment would be repealed but that he felt it was important to “get everyone involved”. Candidates were asked to further clarify their position by a member of the crowd. Mallon said he believed the president was there to act on behalf of the students and that one had to “be prepared to be stern and lead the people”. Emmet too said he would be prepared to lobby for mandates that he did not personally agree with but felt that this was not likely.
When asked about a specific part of his manifesto which dealt with reducing waste in the SU, Keane said that he would focus on “sensible pragmatic things that can be done”. He noted that SU shops were loss making and questioned why they were last week selling crates of unsalted butter. Emmet was asked whether his manifesto was too inwardly focused and would not be impactful on a national level. He said he believed that his manifesto was “addressing that one issue but I think it’s important to have that balance between local and national issues”. Mallon was challenged on his membership and involvement with Fianna Fáil. Mallon is the vice chair of the Wolfe Tone Cumman, the Ógra Fianna Fáil chapter in Trinity. He stressed that he was running “as Bryan Mallon, not Bryan Mallon Fianna Fáil”. He expressed his disagreement with some Fianna Fáil party members regarding direct provision, traveller rights and repealing the eighth amendment.
This shifted the debate towards direct provision which Keane called “the greatest human rights abuse happening in Ireland right now”. Mallon said that he had sympathy with those in direct provision as they are located in Mosney, near his hometown of Julianstown and said that he knows it is “not good”.
On the issue of a formal academic boycott of Israel, Mallon admitted that he was not fully informed on the issue and would look into it further. He did praise those taking the initiative to campaign for something they believed in and “engaging students”. Emmet expressed his support saying that “he could not see why not”. Keane, who pointed out he was wearing a badge in support, said that there was “no question” that he would support it.
A question was put to candidates by current TCDSU President Kieran McNulty regarding the continuation of facilitating student spaces on campus, student partnership and the “Knowing your Union” week. Mallon started his answer by complementing McNulty on what he felt was the right balance between “internal and national” politics. He pledged to “address lectures” in order to inform students what was going on and maintain a presence on campus. Emmett expressed his agreement with McNulty’s plans for student spaces but questioned why they had not been expanded off campus.
When asked on their views on the reunification of Ireland, a motion that had been passed at SU Council last night, Keane said that though “in a personal capacity I would vote yes… this is the most divisive issue that has faced Ireland in how many years.” He continued that he would have preferred “more discussion” and that there is “no question that the debate would be very very very passionate”. He finished by saying that TCDSU is not “a political party” and that the SU needs to be open as to not disenfranchise people. Mallon also agreed saying that he would vote for a unified Ireland. However he noted that the SU “shouldn’t jump the gun”. Emmet “wouldn’t have believed” that this motion would be passed by SU Council a few days ago but also agreed that he would vote yes.
Additional reporting by Stacy Wrenn, Conn de Barra, Emma McCarthy, Leah Albertini, Sarah Meehan, Cathal Kavanagh, Ríain Fitzsimons, Seana Davis and Daire O’Driscoll.