Students are fair in thinking that the SU no longer represents them

As SU issues move beyond student concerns, a backlash against them must be expected

This backlash will only continue to grow if the union is to continue to widen its remit, as it appears to be doing.

This summer Young Fine Gael (YFG) passed a motion calling for students to be allowed to opt out of Students’ Union membership. While this may be viewed as a backlash by some conservative students against Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) for its success in campaigning for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, the issue is much wider than Repeal, and discontentment will only grow as students feel increasingly isolated from their union. It is fundamentally an issue of democracy – it is undemocratic for students to be enrolled in a union, when the option is either consent or not register for university.

TCDSU cannot claim to represent all students anymore. The union is a  decidedly left-wing organisation – there is no problem with this – but students who do not subscribe to these ideals should not be forced to be members of it. Anyone who did not expect some form of backlash from some conservative students because of the repeal campaign underestimated the sincerity with which theses views were held. This is not simply a case of conservative students being unhappy they lost, but rather represents a broader feeling that TCDSU does not represent their voices. As TCDSU engages in activities which are more tangential to student issues, more diversity of opinion will naturally follow. An obvious example of this is the mixed reactions to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The distinction between education and welfare issues, and issues that affect students no more disproportionately than society as a whole has never been a clear one, but the more TCDSU engages with the latter, the less it can claim to speak with one voice for students.

An example of a simple education and welfare issue can be seen in the opposition to flat fees for supplementals, where TCDSU was able to advocate effectively for students. The college unilaterally imposed a further burden on already overburdened students and TCDSU engaged in protests to reverse that decision. Even if there were students who favoured the introduction of fees, which I somehow doubt, they would have not felt so strongly on the topic, they would have had a desire to leave.

The Repeal campaign has to be viewed in a different light however. It was an issue of conscience. Speaking generally, students on both sides of the debate regarded it more or less as an issue of right or wrong – if you were pro-choice you regarded the prohibition on abortion as wrong. If you were pro-life, you viewed prohibition as right.

This backlash will only continue to grow if the union is to continue to widen its remit, as it appears to be doing.

Clearly the majority of students were in favour of Repeal; they voted for the union to endorse that position. TCDSU was duty bound to campaign for its removal. When the SU adopts a stance directly at odds with an issue of conscience, however, you should not have to fund, nor be a member of, that organisation. Each side of the Repeal debate held their views honestly and with conviction. I would ask a student who advocated Repeal: how they would feel if the union took a stance in favour of retaining the Eighth Amendment? Would they not feel a gross disconnect from the union? Would they not object to having to pay union fees and spending a portion of that money on campaigning for something that you cannot, in conscience, support? Would there not have been a massive backlash by liberal groups on campus?

This backlash will only continue to grow if the union is to continue to widen its remit, as it appears to be doing. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but not all students should have to belong to something that is incompatible with their beliefs.

The backlash will also broaden beyond conservative and centrist groups. The political left is fragmenting, as the right has already done. This can be seen in the plethora of bickering left-wing parties in Ireland at the moment. The SU cannot please everyone all the time, and as it moves from an organisation principally concerned with stating the case for improved education funding for third level institutions, or engaging with College authorities, its ability to bridge that gap decreases significantly. It moves from a union advancing its members’ interests to a vehicle for social change.

Another question we must ask ourselves when questioning this backlash is why is the union so afraid of making membership optional? If the union was doing its job, and providing real benefits for students, then they have no reason to fear a haemorrhaging of members. It is undemocratic to force people to belong to what is essentially a political organisation. We rightly decry a lack of democracy in the College’s decision making for students – our union has been vocal in the Take Back Trinity campaign – but they seem to be afraid to give true democracy to their own members.

If the union does not address the growing concerns, we can expect greater dissatisfaction this year.

In no other facet of life in a democratic country can an organisation force people to be a member. Fine Gael, the current party of government does not oblige citizens to join. Nor do the Conservatives in the UK nor La République En Marche! in France. Only one party dictatorships followed a policy of non-optional memberships. In no other sector can a union enforce membership. The right to dissociate is a constitutional right, and the SU is most likely in flagrant breach of this. TCDSU cannot claim to be a democratic, representative organisation when it ignores constitutional rights, and principles of basic fairness.

If the union does not address the growing concerns, we can expect greater dissatisfaction this year. It would be remiss of TCDSU officers to not acknowledge the fact that many students do not share the union’s vision of change. Though it may be argued that we all have democratic expression at the ballot box, we all know that the union’s left leaning persuasions are at this point entrenched. Though activism and left-wing politics play a loud role on campus, they are not reflective of the entire student body.

In order to regain a union that does what it can do best – represent the interests of students, and not international political issues – the union will have to depoliticise. If the union continues on its path of politics, it will have to reckon with the students who do not wish to partake, and give them their right to disaffiliate. The union will only become more effective, and appease those who do not wish to be part of its goals. The sentiment that the union is unrepresentative is one shared by both right and left-wing students in Trinity and cannot continue unacknowledged.

Darragh McDonagh

Darragh McDonagh is a staff writer for Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister Law student.