Candidates running for election to roles in the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) spoke this evening at Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council. Class representatives were asked to vote on which candidate TCDSU would support at USI Council. The six representatives from TCDSU were mandated to support Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha for Vice President (VP) for the Irish language, Niamh Murtagh for VP for Welfare, Amy Kelly for VP for Campaigns, Oisín Hassan for VP for Academic Affairs and Michael Kerrigan for President.
Prior to the hustings, TCDSU President Kieran McNulty, spoke to Council outlining the role of the USI in national and student politics. McNulty, described the USI as “one of the most respected bodies in the land” and urged those in attendance to vote for the candidate whom they felt was best suited to the role they were seeking.
The candidate for Irish Officer, Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha, was unable to attend Council so a letter from her was read out by Kieran McNulty. Ní Choistealbha said she was keen to shed the “baggage” related to the Irish language and that Irish was for everyone, not just “republican parties”.
Welfare candidates were next to speak to Council. Dan McCann began by admitting that his welfare career began because he thought it would be “good craic to hand out condoms on campus”. He went on to outline what he would do as VP for Welfare, stating that “changing this nation’s attitude to mental health” was a primary aim. He also wished to give students “the skills to take control of their mental health”. He gave mention to the “crisis” of accommodation in Ireland, giving special mention to the Dublin area. McCann planned to educate students on their accomodation rights by promoting “the importance of lease agreements”. He vowed to serve students with “passion and dedication”.
The other candidate for Welfare, Niamh Murtagh, asked students what they thought of “when we think of welfare”. Murtagh defined Welfare as the “health, happiness and fortunes” of the student body. She vowed to go “above and beyond the call of duty” for students and went on to outline her experience as the current Vice President for the Southern region, a two time welfare officer and a two term part time officer. Murtagh went on to describe what she felt were the key welfare issues facing students. Among these issues were suicide, as well as drug and alcohol abuse. Murtagh told Council that “student lives are at stake,” and that while “good will and ideas are nice,” students need a person with experience and qualification.
Both candidates were asked by former TCDSU welfare candidate, Meabh Cullen, how they would represent students with minorities including students with disabilities. McCann detailed his own experience with racial discrimination as a person of Pakistani descent. He vowed to look at “discrimination as a whole” and create a campaign to tackle the issue. Murtagh told Council of her experience campaigning for the rights of travellers and other minorities which she undertook as Vice President for Equality in her own students’ union. She pledged to work together with other officers to “[think] about minorities”.
Asked by current TCDSU Welfare Officer, Aoibhinn Loughlin, how they would promote different services pertaining specifically to public health, Murtagh pledged to continue publicising directories of services. She outlined the role of USI on the HSE Mental Health Taskforce which gave students a voice at a national level. McCann described the transition from second to third level as “huge” and questioned whether students were being equipped to “take care of themselves” surrounding hygiene, nutrition and “new experiences around drugs”. He said that lobbies and legislation have their part to play but cast doubt on whether “students on the ground [are] feeling the effects”.
Another of the four uncontested races, VP for Equality and Citizenship, sees Síona Cahill running for the position. Cahill is running for re-election and began by telling students that now was not the time to “pause” in the stride for equality for students. She praised Trinity students as being at the “forefront” of the fight for equality in Ireland. While describing her experience she told Council that she had just been appointed to LGBTI+ Youth Strategy and that this would help her focus on “young LGBTI+ mental health”. Cahill also highlighted the “complete confusion post Brexit” concerning “health care and insurance”.
The race for Vice President for Campaigns was next to be discussed at Council. This race was contested by Seán Cassidy, Amy Kelly and Dylan McGowan. Cassidy, a final year student at Dublin City University was the first of the candidate to speak to Council. He described his experience working as a part-time officer, class rep and chair of an LGBT society as a “length of experience”. Among his achievements were ensuring that exams did not clash with the marriage equality referendum in 2015. This is a key point of his manifesto, ensuring that election and referenda polling days do not clash with “academic days”. He told students that he had led DCU back into USI for the first time in over a decade and had reaffirmed their inclusion with a referendum win earlier in the 2016/17 academic year. Cassidy highlighted the increased likelihood of a general election and pledged to continue a Smart Vote campaign, which he claimed “slowed down the juggernaut of media manufactured consensus” surrounding student loans. Cassidy finished by pointing to Students Against Fees and Fossil Free TCD as examples of “what happens when you engage students”.
Current GMIT President, Amy Kelly, was next to outline her campaign. She described the VP for Campaigns position as the “backbone of USI”. She told students that she was the “only person with the skills, knowledge and experience” to undertake this “huge amount of work”. While describing her suitability, Kelly mentioned that GMIT had the highest attendance of any institution outside of Dublin at the national student demonstration in 2016. She vowed to lobby the “new leaders of government” regarding student accommodation and that she had seen “the stress and strain” students go through while attempting to find “sustainable and affordable accommodation”. She finished by pledging to “fight with enthusiasm and experience” in her role.
The final VP for Campaigns candidate to speak to Council was Dylan McGowan, a two term president in Letterkenny Institute of Technology (LYIT) where he had overseen a number of campaigns including an early childhood campaign and part time jobs campaign. McGowan also mentioned his involvement with a student delegation that spoke to the European Council about implications of the UK leaving the European Union. McGowan pledged to “make Dublin strong” and run for the position of Dublin area officer should it be created. He questioned the effectiveness of national demonstrations saying there was a perception that they were a “students’ day out”. McGowan believes that demonstrations “had not made a difference in the [Dáil] chamber” and should he be Vice President for Campaigns he would “lobby, lobby and lobby”. McGowan believed that the USI were not “successful enough” and that they could not “get SU teams to lobby representatives”. Much like Kelly he concluded his remarks with a vow to “fight”.
Asked how they would improve on campaigning through social media platforms, Kelly said she believed that USI “do too much on social media” and planned to look into more effective means of communication. She highlighted the belief that “people respond to videos online” and that USI can do a lot more than “just a post on social media”. McGowan told students that he believed USI could “utilise social media within our national campaigns”.
TCDSU President Kieran McNulty issued a question directly to Dylan McGowan regarding his promise to “make Dublin strong” and run for the position of Dublin area officer. McNulty informed McGowan that while the position did not exist, if it did, McGowan would be ineligible to hold it. McNulty mentioned McGowan’s address to students in Sligo where he told students that he would not live in Dublin. McGowan told McNulty that he “would live in Maynooth and commute” as it is “difficult to get accommodation in Dublin”.
The final two positions were both uncontested. Oisin Hassan, a Postgraduate Law and Governance student is running for Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the current Vice President of Education at Queen’s University Belfast SU. Primary concerns raised by Hassan include student fees for international students, and the fight for publicly funded education. Hassan was unable to attend Council due to illness of a family member.
The only candidate standing for the position of President is Michael Kerrigan. Kerrigan, who served as the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology SU President, is the current USI Vice President for the Border, Midlands and Western Region. Kerrigan’s manifesto touches on a number of topics including continued higher education funding, more autonomy for individual Students’ Unions, improved communications between the USI and the media as well as lobbying for a repeal of the eighth amendment.
Speaking to Council, Kerrigan said that he would oppose an income contingent loan scheme or any hybrid recommendation that involves loan schemes. Kerrigan directly challenged Welfare candidate Dylan McGowan’s claim that demonstrations did not work and said that when politicians see “twelve thousands students in the streets” they would be compelled to act. He told students that he was driven by the “fear” that his children and other relatives would be saddled with large amounts of student debt and this would be one of his primary motivations.
Additional reporting by Sam Cox, Oisín Vince Coulter and Niamh Lynch.