The Save the University Times (UT) campaign threatened legal action against the Electoral Commission (EC), the Students’ Union body that organises and regulates referenda and elections, Trinity News has learned. In a letter sent by Prof Eoin O’Dell, legal counsel for the University Times, he alleges that the EC incorrectly applied rules for sabbatical officer elections to the referendum, and that “[the EC] has acted in breach of the principles of natural and constitutional justice and fair procedures” in relation to a sanction given to the Save UT campaign by the EC for receiving external support.
According to article 5.1.5 of the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) constitution, the duties of the EC are “a) to organise, run, monitor and return the results of all Union elections and referenda. i. This shall be done in accordance with Chapter 7 and Schedule 3.” Article 7.1.2 of the constitution reads “a) The EC shall be responsible for elections and referenda as in Chapter 5.1.5. b) The EC shall manage and enforce Schedule 3.”
It is unclear how any intended legal action would be funded, as both the Electoral Commission and the University Times are both funded by Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).
Secretary to the EC, Aimee Connolly, commented: “The EC takes seriously all questions of procedures and operations. The EC has operated under the same guidelines over the years, which has seen many referenda such as the insertion of the University Times into the TCDSU Constitution.”
Meanwhile, TCDSU President, Shane De Rís, said: “I find any attempts to undermine the work of the EC very disappointing and worrying. The EC has overseen referenda and elections for many years in Trinity and attempts to discredit them, discredit all democratic exercises performed throughout the years. This jump to threaten the EC with litigation is unnecessary and unhelpful. If any campaign has issues with how the EC handles its business, these should first be made aware to the EC by the campaign.”
In a statement to Trinity News, head of the Vote No, Save UT campaign and current Assistant Editor of the University Times, Kathleen McNamee, said: “After the sanction was handed down to the campaign, we took the decision to challenge it as we felt that it was unfair that we were being sanctioned for national support that, while welcome, was entirely out of our control. I sought advice on this and, following a communication from us, the Electoral Commission agreed to revoke the sanction.”
McNamee continued: “Being able to challenge sanctions is a key characteristic of a robust democratic process. Any suggestion that it was improper to question a sanction that the EC themselves agreed was unfair is absurd. Considering this referendum could see the abolition of The University Times in its current form, we wanted to ensure that the process was fully fair. We welcomed the EC’s decision to take our concerns on board and revoke the original sanction.”
The “No” side in the referendum on the funding of the University Times were previously sanctioned due to a breach of Schedule 3, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union’s (TCDSU) set of rules governing elections. The breach was in relation to outside support given to the No side of the referendum.
Following a petition which gathered the required 500 signatures, a referendum was triggered regarding Chapter 10 of the TCDSU constitution, which covers the Union’s relationship with the University Times. The petition was sparked by controversy surrounding the use of a recording device by the newspaper in a private student residence.
Voting on this referendum will take place on April 10 and 11, with campaigning starting today, Monday April 8.
A second referendum on reducing the term of the Union’s Ents Officer to nine months will be held alongside the UT funding referendum.
In the announcement of the sanction on March 29, the EC took the unusual step of issuing a statement prior to the upcoming referenda. The statement, signed by all eight members of the EC, read: “With two referenda on the horizon we want to remind all students of College’s Dignity and Respect Policy. Please be mindful of other students during this time, treat others as you wish to be treated.”
The statement continued: “No form of unacceptable behavior will be accepted and we will not hesitate to pass on information in regard to incidents to the Junior Dean.”