The radicalisation of TCDSU

The dynamic between the College and TCDSU has permanently shifted

Photo Credit: Joe McCallion/ Trinity News

Trinity’s beginning to catch up with the rest of the student-political world. On Monday March 5, several hundred students protested a meeting of the College’s Finance Committee, and made enough noise that the Vice-Provost had to come out and speak to them. Last Friday, a group of protesters blocked the entrance to the Book of Kells, forming a “human chain”.

Tourists were enraged: some of them reportedly went into the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) shop in House Six and demanded their money back. There were tense moments between students and security. The protesters have secret Facebook groups now; they don’t want College to know what they’re planning. The Presidents of the SU and Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) are holding megaphones.

It’s a victory for the brand of politics that groups like Students Against Fees (SAF) have been pushing for some time: the politics of force. The SU have decided that they can’t prevent the introduction of supplemental fees any other way. Instead of any of the normal channels for settling disagreements between the SU and College’s management structure, and instead of accepting the decision, they’ve radicalised.

In some ways, this step feels like it was inevitable. It’s no coincidence that the protesters outside the Book of Kells used the same strategy as those who protested SoFIA’s event with the Israeli ambassador last year, as well as using the same old chants like “students united will never be defeated,” which anyone with even a cursory SU involvement would know. For the last number of years, student politics, and more broadly, youth politics, has increasingly become a debate between people who believe the same things, but arguing about how to achieve them.

And increasingly, the side who believe in anger and force have been winning. They’ve done it slowly – and not always deliberately – but their greatest achievement has been to change the culture of TCDSU politics by changing its approach to national political issues. This created an untenable situation where SU committees effectively have had the dual role of bureaucrats on the one hand and radical activists on the other. Enter a President far more interested in the activism than the bureaucracy, and, less than a year after the supposedly historic Student Partnership Agreement, relations between the College and the SU have collapsed. The blockade of the Book of Kells could never have happened without SU-backed boycotts and stark black-and-white Repeal jumpers.

None of this can be separated from the national and international trends contained in the Repeal movement, Strike for Repeal, International Women’s Day, the Time’s Up movement, Black Lives Matter, the rise of call-out culture, the rejection of “consensus politics”. All of this has been the product of the same debate, held in roughly the same way, by similar groups in different places all over the world. They’re realising that if they force them – sometimes in very small ways, sometimes in big ones – people will do what they want.

Regardless of this, Trinity still ought to shoulder much of the blame for what has happened. When the GSU threatened to strike earlier in the year, and during the protests and public meetings of the last week, both Presidents described how the College has steadily increased costs for students over the past few years. At the same time, the Provost bought an apartment so that he wouldn’t have to hear the Luas works in front of his house at 1 Grafton Street.

The College is in a tough position, dealing with a huge funding gap and rising costs for students in areas like accommodation over which they have little control. But somewhere down the line they decided that fees and accommodation increases were easy money rather than a last resort. Most people are able to recognise when someone doesn’t like or doesn’t care about them. In the last several years, whenever money has come into conflict with some other benefit for the Trinity community, the money has almost always come first – but students are seeing no extra benefits or lower costs as a result. They get the strong impression that it’s one rule for those paying, and another for those enjoying the money.

Part of why the College has felt able to do all of this, surely, is that students are so disorganised. Every year, the leaders of student politics in Trinity change, and many of the old ones leave forever. The College has an advantage over students because its memory is so much longer, and because it can strategise over much longer time periods. The students have two sets of 12-week terms to work with. The time before the first reading week is spent getting used to the job, the time after the second one is spent handing it over, and for the two weeks before and after Christmas, people are either winding down or trying to remember where they left off before. The College know all of this, which is why they’ve targeted students so consistently.

It’s likely that there’s some of this sort of thinking behind the College’s strategy in the supplemental fees dispute: surely, with four weeks left in Hilary Term, things will wind down and they can implement the supplemental fees anyway. For the protesters, this must surely be a concern: for anyone wondering how the fees dispute will end, the question is only whether the protesters can do enough damage in four weeks to force the College to concede.

But even if they win the battle, the fact is that, from now, things are going to be far more difficult for the College, as they deal with an increasingly radical SU and GSU. The President-elect of the GSU said during the campaign that he wants postgraduate students to conceive of themselves as workers in a workers’ union; this language surely represents an effort to clear the ground for strikes. After a preferendum, a social media outpouring, and loud protests, Shane De Rís’s mandate in his dealings of the College – and the agenda for the next few TCDSU Councils – is clear.

The real danger for the College in all of this is how the protests have inevitably turned from a campaign against supplemental fees to a much more general outpouring of students’ grievances. People don’t just want to repeal supplemental fees anymore; instead they’re looking to “Take Back Trinity”. The former could, at least in theory, be achieved in one meeting – the latter could take a decade, and for the time being will continue to be a slogan for people to appeal to, protest about, and use as justification for the politics of force.

There’ll be more disputes – and from now on, students are going to be more and more radical whenever they lose out. The more that the College ignores them, the angrier they get; the more it listens, the more that students learn that the College will do what they want if they force them. For both the SU and the College, the task in these situations will be to succeed where many other universities have failed, and find a way to prevent the resulting anger and mutual distrust from tearing Trinity apart.

Rory O'Sullivan

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