The SU – Pro-choice except on the membership front?

A commentary on the Hist debate “This house supports the right to Leave the SU”

Photo Credit: Prapti Setty/ Trinity News

On Wednesday night, the voices of eight talented speakers disseminated through the debating chamber in the GMB. The chair for the evening was former President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), Adrian Langan. The motion for the Hist’s first debate of the term was, “This House Supports the Right to Leave the SU”  a topic currently being widely discussed across campus.

Debating commenced with Chloe Kennedy presenting her arguments for the proposition. Her speech tackled how those who do not agree with the stances the SU takes feel alienated. She argued there should be no obligation to be a member if they do not believe they are being represented, as by its very nature a union is a representation of its members.

Kennedy highlighted the current TCDSU President,  Kevin Keane’s, backtracking on the proposed BDS movement, and a failure of accountability when he backtracked.

The opposition debate was opened by Hugh Whelan. Whelan agreed with several of the arguments made by the proposition saying: “backtracking on the proposed BDS movement was a low move, and the proposed affordable student accommodation that costs over of €900 a month is ridiculous.” He continued on to state, “As a body, the SU is not perfect,” but he believed that leaving ”is a step completely in the wrong direction”.

His arguments throughout his speech highlighted the fact that many students require the assistance of the SU if they have to deal with financial difficulty, accommodation and reminded the audience of supports made available by the SU to LGBTQ students and students with mental health issues.

James Martin spoke next for the proposition opening his speech by making points of rebuttal to the opposition referring to the budget of the student union, “even without our contribution, they still have about a million Euro. They can fund all of their beneficial activities without our contribution.”

James filled his speech with humour, pointing out that “a lot of people in the opt out campaign are pro-life and the SU is obviously pro-choice… Except on this, the topic of membership.”

Aine Corry carried on to continue the case for the opposition. Corry believed that for a student body, or a number of students, who disagree with a particular topic, “there are better ways to fix the SU than flat out leaving… if you’re unhappy with how unaccountable the officers are, … make a change.”

The proposition continued their case with Donnacadh Curran speaking. His main point for his speech included how making membership optional would lead to increased accountability of the union. He outlined that “at the moment we are customers who cannot withdraw our business. We put the money in and we have to accept what is given to us” leading to a “fundamental lack of accountability.”

His reminded the audience of the debt which the SU has racked up over the years. His second point focused on the fact that all major third level universities in Ireland have obligatory student membership. Curran proceeded to give the audience examples of how this differs in other countries, “the UK has an opt out option, Australia has an opt out option, New Zealand has an opt out option.”

Catherine Kelly spoke next, making her case for the opposition. Without the SU “we’d be without sexual health and consent education, we’d be without an academic officer.”

She addressed the point that some students will never have to use the students union, however also explained that one cannot completely know that they won’t need student union services at any stage. Kelly’s second point outlined that the SU holds their political stances democratically, often by having referendums.

The case for the proposition was closed by Clare McCarthy who outlined what a union is defined as, reminding the audience that a union should “represent its members.” The problem with the SU currently is that there is no opt-out option, which by law, as mentioned previously by her teammates, is a violation of the Freedom of Association Right. Students that are “morally opposed” to the SU stances should not be forced to remain a member.

She concluded the arguments for the proposition reinforcing that the SU “cannot claim to represent” the student body by taking a stance that does not represent all the students.

Finally, the opposition closed their case with their final speaker, Patrick McDonagh, who opened his speech stating that “SU money goes to the more mundane matters” and echoing his teammates statements that by providing the option to leave, we would be “doing more harm than good.”

He stated that he does agree with many of the points made by the proposition, but with the option to opt out, students who require aid would not be able to access them with as much ease.

At the end of the evening, the chair, Adrian Langan spoke to the members of the Hist present, calling upon them to reconsider their views, as the SU is “to the advantage of the weakest”.

At the end of the evening we could all agree that there have been shortcomings of the SU and it has failed to represent all its members, as a union, but should we be questioning the membership of the SU or should we focus on separating their political stances from their student services?