TCDSU President-elect Keane’s decision to speak against BDS motion at Council sends a cynical message

Rory O’Neill argues against the current student political culture prevents the union taking stances on controversial issues, in light of the recent controversy over a vote at council

By now many students will have heard of the debacle arising out of the most recent Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council relating to the defeated motion mandating the union to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In particular what is at issue was the decision of TCDSU President-elect Kevin Keane to speak against the motion.

A reticence in supporting BDS from elected officers of the SU and elected representatives in general is, in itself, no surprise. BDS remains a grassroots and civil society movement, one that is albeit moving closer to winning the argument with each year that the Israeli apartheid against the Palestinian people continues. Rather, the problem is that Kevin Keane had pledged on numerous occasions to support the BDS movement on campus, represented by the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, whose members brought the motion. Many will already be familiar with online criticism of Keane, but it is worth recapping the sequence of events.

At the media hustings during the Students’ Union elections, The University Times report that Keane was asked whether he would support SJP’s campaign for a “full academic boycott”, to which he responded “without a shadow of a doubt”. Following the hustings, Keane signed a pledge to SJP promising to advocate for an academic and economic boycott of Israel. A screenshot was shared of a conversation in which Keane’s campaign page states on his behalf that he thinks the SU should support Students for Justice in Palestine, and that “an academic and import boycott is something the union should definitely look at supporting”.

Keane’s position during the election, therefore, was unequivocal. He made as concrete a promise as is possible to make to support SJP in their pursuit of BDS on campus. He stated explicitly that the SU should support the campaign – he referenced specifically the objectives of an academic and economic boycott.

So far, so good. On Monday, April 3, one day before the motion was brought to council, Keane met with a substantial number of SJP members. He told them that he did not intend to speak on the motion for either side. At this point, it is worth saying that Keane was already in murky territory with respect to his election pledge. It is simply beyond argument that he had promised his full support to SJP in campaigning for a boycott. On that basis, Keane ought to have been ready to speak in favour of the motion, or at the very least, state his support of the BDS movement. If he wished to dispute some particular element of the motion as it was worded, then we could debate that on its merits. But the very least we could have expected is for Keane to have followed through with his promise to support the SU taking a pro-BDS position.

Nonetheless, Keane’s position on the eve of council, as he stated to members of SJP, is that he would not speak in the debate. One can, then, fully understand why members of the campaign would have been bewildered and aghast when he stood up to speak against the motion. Keane has attempted to justify this by saying that he never signed “a blank cheque”. Indeed he did not, he signed a pledge promising his support in the campaign for an academic and economic boycott – which he broke.

It beggars belief that there can even be a debate over whether Keane did not break his pledge or not. He broke not one but two promises to the SJP campaign, the second of which was inadequate. In a statement on Facebook, Keane apologised for the “confusion” he caused. “Confusion” is an odd spin to put on it. I would venture to suggest people were confused because Keane promised to do one thing and then did the polar opposite. His statement fudges the issue, lamenting some supposed ambiguity in his promises to the students and to SJP. There was no ambiguity. Keane promised to support BDS. He said he would not speak against the motion. He broke his pledge to the students.

Yet our political culture is so often bereft of principle, honesty and even the slightest shred of honour that a candidate is happy to make repeated and clear pledges to support a campaign and then decide to simply “change his mind” forty seconds before speaking for the other side. At what point do we say that what a candidate says when they’re running for an elected position, not least the most senior post in the Students’ Union, actually matters? On what basis can Kevin Keane expect to command any trust or confidence from anyone on anything? If this sounds hyperbolic, it is worth remembering that he has demonstrated that his election pledges are effectively worthless.

This should surprise no one. There are few who have any great deal of faith in Irish democracy in general, and anyone who has spent time in the students’ movement knows that at SU-level, it is worse. This will not be a particularly original criticism, because it is so blindingly obvious. Student politics is a bubble inhabited by nauseatingly ambitious would-be councillors and senators playing House of Cards. Ivana Bacik, Alex White and Averil Power are just a sample of the politicians who learned their trade in student politics.

Of all the politicians and people in positions of power who have progressed from the Students’ Union to national politics, how many have advocated and stood up for students? Certainly not those of the Labour Party or Fianna Fail, who have produced a number of executive-level student leaders-turned-politicians over the years. The Students’ Union is the ideal training ground for would-be politicians to master the art of committing as little as necessary to get elected and still somehow delivering less.

Of, course there are others who work hard to achieve much on behalf of Trinity students. There are people who come to Council to speak on something in which they have conviction and passion. I remember the stellar contributions of anti-fees activists from the Trinity Access Programme who appealed to council to support an anti-fees position and maintain accessibility to education. There are people who are elected to officer positions to campaign on LGBTQ or disability or anti-racist issues and so on. At the upper levels, however, student politics seems so often mired by total cynicism.

This incident should not be taken in isolation, because it is not just about Kevin Keane. It is about a cynical culture in student politics in which challenging ideas are discouraged, and promises don’t mean anything. Actor Hugh Laurie once mocked young Tories, heralding a speech as “very ghastly, completely sucked dry of youth, energy, ideals, imagination, passion or intelligence”. That is the culture of official student politics.  It seems that Keane’s first accomplishment as SU President is further confirmation of what one had more than ample reason to believe already – as an avenue for exercising the power of students to campaign on political issues, the SU, as it currently exists, is often utterly ineffectual.

It is to the great credit of those who pushed for the SU to campaign on fees and a woman’s right to choose that these positions were adopted. At least in the case of the former, however, it took a campaign to be formed in response to Council voting down an anti-loans motion. The instinct of the SU milieu seems always to be towards caution, avoiding anything overly controversial, not stepping up to take a stand on issues where there is a real ideological debate to be won – in other words, exactly when it matters. Kevin Keane seems to have succumbed to that pressure as countless SU officers and reps have before and no doubt will again.

What is required is both a major democratisation of structures, and a change in culture. It should not be acceptable to do what Kevin Keane did. Any elected officer should be permanently accountable to the students. We should have right of recall and the ability to vote on whether we want elected officers to continue in their positions based on their performance and how true they are to their promises. What is required is both a major democratisation of structures, and a change in culture. It should not be acceptable to do what Kevin Keane did. Any elected officer should be permanently accountable to the students. We should have right of recall and the ability to vote on whether we want elected officers to continue in their positions based on their performance and how true they are to their promises.

We also need a radically different culture in student politics – one that is genuinely political. We have made progress over the past year, with activists winning the SU to progressive positions on a number of issues; whether it be Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, Fossil Free TCD or the anti-fracking campaign. Our last two SU Presidents have placed more of a focus on campaigns than we have seen in recent years.  Yet still whenever we try and raise political issues for the union to take a stand and campaign on, we are met with the same, predictable sneers about how these issues have nothing to do with students. The recent referendum on Irish unity encapsulated this.

Of course the SU should advocate for students’ interests. That is why those of us in the Students Against Fees campaign pushed relentlessly for the SU to adopt a firmly anti-fees and anti-loans position. But students historically have often been at the vanguard of mass movements – whether it be against the Vietnam war, developing a new counter-culture in the United States, anti-racist solidarity, or the uprising in France 1968. Yet in Ireland we have this breed of student politicians who look like they really may actually believe in something, before deciding forty seconds before speaking that we must preach “caution” and “consensus”.

One may say that these issues are not what matters for students in Trinity but it matters to students in Gaza, being starved and blockaded out of existence. In thirty years when you are a TCD alumnus, looking back as the world descends into utter madness; a maelstrom of poverty, war, climate change and apartheid, perhaps you can comfort yourself that at least you took a stand on microwaves in the SU kitchen. This is not a moralistic jibe at students who have yet to become politically active, but those who regularly sneer at any attempt to mobilise students on a political issue, whether it be abortion, Irish unity or BDS.

For what it is worth, the path now for supporters of Palestine should be to put BDS to a referendum. If the events of the last week have proved anything, it is that the campaign for Palestinian solidarity on campus cannot rely on the support of our student politicians.

Rory O'Neill

Rory O'Neill is a former Managing Editor of Trinity News, and a History graduate.