Kevin Keane’s focus on Repeal is killing student activism

Kevin Keane’s cynical focus on Repeal has come at the expense of improving student life

Photo by Joe McCallion / Trinity News

In many ways, the “Fresh” debacle is typical of TCDSU’s actions this year. Every student received a self-congratulatory email implementing a change that no one seems to have wanted, and with Kevin Keane’s name conspicuously at the bottom of the email.

When he faces criticism for having spent time and resources on removing the last three letters in the word “Freshman”, he and his supporters bristle and the comment sections of every student publication is full of people explaining to the rest of us that in fact the change came from the Equality Committee.

According to their website, there are 17 people on the Equality Committee; Damien McClean, the TCDSU Welfare Officer being one of them, but not Keane. All that Keane did was attach his name to the policy. He tried to take credit for it, and when people criticised him, Part-time officers and people like previous TCDSU Welfare Officer Aoibhinn Loughlin worked hard to disassociate him from it in the comment sections of Trinity News and the University Times.

If there hadn’t been any backlash, it’s unlikely that we would’ve known that this decision had almost nothing to do with Keane. This is because he likes taking credit for things much more than he likes working on them.

Initiatives like “Empowerment Week” and “Refugee Week” have been catastrophic failures due to Keane’s penchant for farming such events out to individual activists and student organisers. Many of the events during these weeks weren’t advertised on Facebook. One of the organisers of Refugee Week said that Keane “didn’t come up with any of the events”. Many of them, such as the “Activism in Writing” workshop or the “Cultural Appreciation Day Panel”, had no representation from the senior members of TCDSU at all.

Keane has given up on much of the everyday activism that, in previous years, made up a huge portion of the SU’s job. The logo is still on the events, but no one’s putting any energy into them.

Despite TCDSU having a mandate to oppose direct provision for years, it wasn’t until a group of students tried to do so on their own that TCDSU rushed to back and appear involved with the authoritative “Aramark Off Our Campus” campaign. At a protest held in Trinity against Direct Provision earlier this month, no TCDSU representatives showed up. This year’s March for Education featured one of the lowest Trinity attendances in recent years.

The fact is that for this year’s TCDSU, none of these things are on the radar. Everything for this year’s TCDSU is about the Repeal the Eighth Amendment campaign. When Keane stood up and introduced himself to the incoming freshers in Trinity Hall, the first thing he said was “Hi guys, I’m Kevin and I want you to help me repeal the Eighth Amendment”. He has held town hall meetings about it. He’s written op-eds for this paper about it. He’ll soon be contributing a chapter about it to a book on the Repeal movement in Ireland.

Anyone who’s been following student politics in Trinity this year can see that Keane, the President, the man who sets the agenda, has decided that nothing is going to be more important than Repeal.

With higher education funding, direct provision, and mental health all on the plate too, it’s hard to see where this totalising, no-distractions attitude to the Repeal campaign comes from. It certainly doesn’t come from the fact that there’ll be a referendum next summer – if that were the case they would surely be trying to register as many students as possible to vote. However, this year’s SU voter registration drive has been substantially less successful than the drive before the marriage equality referendum.

Voter registration has had a much smaller presence on campus than then. In 2014, under President Domhnall McGlacken Byrne, TCDSU registered 3,150 students by the voter registration deadline. This year, it was 1,200.

It’s also hard to understand why a referendum happening next summer makes Repeal more urgent than the cases of the many students who have been living on friends’ sofas since September because there’s no accommodation available for them.

It’s unlikely then that Keane’s decision was anything to do with the issue itself; his reasons were probably personal. One possible reason is, that by latching onto something, Keane can try to give himself a political identity. If he owns an issue, he stands for something, which is important if in the long-term you want to succeed politically. Keane would be the Repeal President, rather than the President who changed his mind about Palestine.

Partly, Repeal allows Keane to be a foil against former UCDSU President Katie Ascough. The thinking is that if Ascough is pro-life, and is bad in the eyes of students, then Keane who is pro-choice must be good. The more that Keane writes book-chapters, gets photographed with a megaphone, and imposes himself into the centre of the Repeal Campaign, the more – he believes – he can make himself seem like a passionate student voice. The success of countless Repeal campaigners also translates to political success for Keane.

This abandonment of other issues would be more acceptable if it was less vacuous, but the fact is that even though he holds the megaphone at Repeal rallies, Kevin Keane has always stood for himself more than for any student issue. The empty beige candidate during last year’s elections has become the President who stands for nothing except himself.

His support for Repeal has always been full-throated until it becomes inconvenient. In an op-ed for Trinity News after the removal of abortion information from UCD student handbooks, Keane went fire and brimstone. He writes: “When the students have spoken clearly, repeatedly, and loudly on an issue as central and fundamental as choice in abortion, no union officer should stand in its way. Any officer who does so brings their union into disrepute.” The one thing he never does is what everything in the piece seems to be leading him towards: an explicit reference to Ascough and UCD, and an explicit condemnation.

In a way, it’s almost artful how he avoids doing this: possibly this is because he was writing before the impeachment process had begun, and he may have had to work with Ascough in some capacity. In other words, he was fire-and-brimstone for Repeal exactly up to and not beyond the point where it would make his life even a small bit more difficult. He was perfectly willing to say that he wouldn’t do what Ascough did, and expect praise to be showered on him for saying so, but he couldn’t quite muster the backbone to say that he thought she was wrong.

Whatever your view on Repeal and Ascough, a person with principles is far more deserving of respect than a person who pretends to have them. It’s not as if Keane has the best interests of students at heart; he’s chosen to abandon those for the sake of one single issue, which is always less important than himself.

Given how little interest he has in so many of the duties of his office, it’s hard to see why he ran for President, except because of ambition and a desire to be loved by others. And so we’ve had a Michaelmas term characterised by organisational incompetence, silence on most issues, and an intense brand of Repeal populism. Either Kevin Keane and TCDSU start genuinely working to improve student life, or whoever is elected after him will have to rebuild its campaigns and institutions from the ground up.

Rory O'Sullivan

Rory O'Sullivan is a former Contributing Editor and Comment Editor of Trinity News, and an Ancient Greek graduate.