The accounts for TCDSU in 2017/18 are a thorough indictment of the operating practices of last year’s Union leadership. The deficit is more than four times that of 2016/17. That year, the Union had a deficit of €14,837. Last year, the total was €70,622.
It’s worth stepping back for a second and thinking about just how eye-poppingly gigantic a sum of money that is. It would be enough to pay the full fees of 23 EU students. It would cover the down payment on a very large and centrally-located house. Deficits happen, and sometimes they rise before they go down, but they don’t rise by that much unless the people who are responsible don’t care about them.
It’s especially shocking because the deficit has been constant since Lynn Ruane’s year as President, 2015/16. After years of warnings every time the TCDSU accounts come out, reducing the deficit should have been an important priority. Instead, it was increased by so much that Shane de Rís wrote in his executive summary that “the SU, and the services it provides, are at serious risk.”
The Treasurer’s report by TCDSU’s permanent staff member Simon Evans goes much further in its criticism of last year’s management style: “The Union’s successes in the past decade have been built on achieving a surplus and then spending on student services. We must get back to this situation within the next two years.”
The change that Evans alludes to is the Union’s increased involvement in high-profile national campaigns. The TCDSU party line about these deficits has always been that they were the result of one-off expenditures. They spent €20,125 this year on activism and campaigning in the run-up to the Repeal referendum, and €10,615 during the Take Back Trinity protests.
Of course it begs the question, was it really necessary to spend more than €20,000 on the Repeal referendum? It passed by a two thirds majority. And during the marriage equality referendum, which also passed by roughly a two thirds majority, the Union were able to run a surplus. Even if certain people in TCDSU like to believe that they single-handedly liberated Irish women, Irish women would probably have gotten on fine without them and a large portion of that €20,000 was money down the drain.
That’s to criticise the idea of riding one-off national political waves, rather than TCDSU’s actions during Repeal. But even if we were to accept the idea, its execution last year was abysmal. The Repeal referendum may have been a one-off but it was hardly a bolt from the blue. Last year’s leadership could have anticipated the high Repeal spending and planned for it by cutting spending elsewhere.
But instead they chugged on as normal, and even ran loose on other spending. If we remove Take Back Trinity, Repeal, and the refurbishment of the Hamilton shop from the deficit – all of the “one-offs” – then it’s still around 50% higher than it was last year, more than €20,000. The Union leadership could have actually reoriented themselves towards political campaigns. Instead they decided to stretch the Union close to breaking point.
All of this points towards a deep cynicism at the core of their decision making. In one way it made perfect sense for them to run up a massive deficit, because it meant that they had to make far fewer trade-offs and could foist the problems onto their successors. And now, when the problems cannot be foisted anymore, they’re all long gone.
It’s no coincidence that last year’s Union leadership ignored much of the usual white-bread work of the Union in favour of campaigns that raised their own personal profile. If you want to reorient the Union towards Repeal because you believe it’s the best thing for the Union, you do your best to be cost-effective. If you throw away money like you don’t care, it’s because you don’t care.
TCDSU Presidents will have to make hard decisions going forward. The shop in House Six lost €8,419. If students aren’t using it then maybe the space should be put to better use. In the past number of years, The University Times have attempted to reduce their burden on the Union’s finances, but are still running at a loss of €16,569 without including the Editor’s salary or accommodation. It remains to be seen whether it is viable in the long-term for the Union to run a free student newspaper with a high print run and an editor who receives a salary and free accommodation.
But the biggest lesson from this, the sad lesson, is that people usually are who they seem to be rather than who we want them to be. If we elect people who want to do the best they can for students, they’ll manage things sensibly and improve the lives of students. If we elect people who want to use the Union to build profiles and pursue vanity projects then that is what they will do.