At the outset, this year’s presidential race told a tale as old as SU time. The race looked like it would take a similar shape to last year’s: three candidates, one deeply entrenched in the union; one less so but largely walking the party line; and one positioning themselves as a union-outsider.
However, although incumbent Eoin Hand, who had no previous experience in the union, beat out his more polarised opponents (one boasting a long union CV, the other calling the SU “broken”) in 2020, this year, experience looks set to triumph with Leah Keogh to take the presidency.
In Trinity News’ poll of 1,005 students, Keogh won the first preferences of 69.6% of decided voters. Ben Cummins came second with 24.6%, followed by Luke MacQuillan with 4.4%.
There was little appetite to re-open nominations, with only 1.41% of decided voters polled indicating that as their first preference.
Keogh tops the poll across genders, faculties, and political affiliations. Her popularity rises to 73.5% among women, but dips to 61.9% among men. Conversely, both Cummins and MacQuillan are slightly more popular among men compared to women – 28.2% and 23.3%, and 6.8% and 2.8% respectively. Of any voter group, Keogh finds least favour among right-wing voters, but is still at the top of their first preferences with 53.8%.
71.3% of respondents were decided on how they would cast their preferences between the president candidates, the highest certainty in all six races. 24% were unsure, and 4.7% indicated they wouldn’t vote.
A mixed bag of candidates
Leading in the poll, Leah Keogh is an unsurprising frontrunner. She is the union’s current Welfare and Equality Officer, a role she was elected to last year after securing 87.9% of the vote in the absence of any contenders. She twice served as Secretary to Council in 2017/18 and 2018/19, a position that comes with the dual role of Chair of the Oversight Commission, and as a school convenor and class rep.
At hustings, Keogh has been confident and prepared, putting forward well-researched policies and the plans to achieve them. She wants to prioritise safeguarding student representation within College governance, progress the development of the student centre and work on making House 6 accessible, and push for increased sustainability.
A second term as a sabbatical officer – though often seen in other students’ unions around the country – is a rarity for TCDSU.
A second term as a sabbatical officer – though often seen in other students’ unions around the country – is a rarity for TCDSU. At Council hustings, Keogh said: “It’s passion. I’m not sticking around for another year for the ‘fantastic’ pay, for the ‘lovely’ working conditions, the ‘great’ work life-balance. You have to run on a platform of passion if you’re going to rereun.”
Luke MacQuillan has set out a strong defence of his position, framing his status as someone who has not previously been involved in the union as an asset. He has emphasised the idea that his running, and theoretical election, could prove to students that they can become involved with the union at any stage of their time in college.
MacQuillan has touched on most of the points that students want to hear about in this race. He has promised to address the financial burden of the student contribution charge on students, support students with disabilities, and lobbying for rent caps on private student accommodation. What he has lacked in some areas has been a specificity on the steps that would need to be taken to achieve those goals.
However, he has hit on some notes during the campaign that his fellow candidates have missed. In his interview with Trinity News, MacQuillan – a financial analyst with the Trinity Student Managed Fund – said he would look at the union’s management of its stocks and potential sales to address its deficit if needed, one of the newest ideas for how to remedy the union’s financial challenges raised in recent years. Similarly, at Equality hustings the candidates were asked how they would progress the provision of gender netural bathrooms. Keogh and Cummins discussed working with Estates and Facilities to expand their availability on campus and at events, but MacQuillan – a rugby captain – moved beyond campus and identified the lack of gender neutral bathrooms at Trinity’s off-campus sports facilities, such as Santry, and named it as a barrier to participation in sports. In some areas, MacQuillan has succeeded in drawing on his experience in areas of college life outside of the SU to bring ideas to the table that have otherwise been overlooked.
For his part, Ben Cummins has run a clear, competent campaign. He had a stumble at Council hustings when he was unfamiliar with a student accommodation bill that the candidates were questioned on, but it would be unfair to allow this to characterise his entire race, which has, for the most part, been robust. His key campaign promise has been to build back a community among students post-pandemic, as well as fostering student activism, focusing on mental health, and implementing a survey of students’ sexual experiences to use for tackling sexual violence and policymaking.
In another year, Cummins may have been a clear winner, much like former JCR alumni-turned-TCDSU presidents.
Cummins was the president of the Junior Common Room (JCR) in his second year, a path that has been walked to the union’s presidency before, most recently by Shane De Rís in 2018. He is a final year BESS student and class rep, with experience in societies like Trinity Entrepreneurial Society and An Cumann Gaelach.
In another year, Cummins may have been a clear winner, much like former JCR alumni-turned-TCDSU presidents, but Keogh has secured an apparently insurmountable lead. Cummins likely has a strong voting contingent among his connections made through the JCR and societies, and may perform better in the final vote than this poll indicates. However, even if all the undecided voters who were polled ultimately chose to give their first preference to Cummins, Keogh could still win by a comfortable margin.
The state of the union
As the leader of the sabbatical team and chief campaigns officer, the TCDSU president is central to determining the direction and focus that the union takes. Whether the union should hone in on local issues or expand its remit to tackling national problems is largely determined by the students who are elected in a given year, particularly the president, and the vision that they hold of what the purpose of the union should be.
At Media hustings, the three candidates set out a similar vision for the union’s function – one that addresses both micro and macro issues. MacQuillan said that the union must take a “two-fold” approach by looking at both student problems and national problems. He looked at the union’s track record on effecting change in the referendums on the repeal of the eighth amendment and and marriage equality. “When the students all come together as a collective, we have caused change, and I think that the students’ union should continue on this path of causing change both on a college level and a national level.”
Similarly, Cummins described the question of micro vs macro as the “perennial debate” and said there is enough time for the president to devote attention to both. “Everyone wants to see the students’ union to be something different for them. Some people are happy for their class rep to be somebody who emails lecturers and organises nights out and that be that. There are also students that are politically engaged,” Cummins said. “In this college, we have a proud history of standing up for social issues. We have a voice and a responsibility to make people hear it.”
“I don’t think it matters what I think, I don’t think it’s the president’s prerogative to advance their own agenda.”
Keogh looked at the relationship between both types of issues, saying that it is “very difficult to evoke local change without the national structures in place”, citing that as a reason why TCDSU needs to work in tandem with the Union of Students’ in Ireland on a national level. “I would say that students feel local change more quickly, more efficiently, more effectively,” she added. “I don’t think it matters what I think, I don’t think it’s the president’s prerogative to advance their own agenda, political or otherwise, but I think it’s the president’s duty to action motions passed on at Council.”
A bump in the road
There is a caveat to all this, which is the assumption that the three candidates in the race will be the three who ultimately appear on the ballot. Most likely, that will be the case, but it’s worth mentioning that two of the three candidates have both a major and a minor strike beside their names from the Electoral Commission.
Leah Keogh was the first candidate of this election period to be sanctioned when she received a major strike two days ahead of the start of campaigning. Keogh’s campaign page had been temporarily published early, securing her a major strike and a ban on campaigning for the first day of the election.
Ben Cummins shortly joined Keogh when the Electoral Commission handed him down a major and a minor strike for separate offences. The major strike was due to early sharing of campaign materials, including a video that was sent to a lecturer to share with a class – a campaign practice permitted by the EC this year in place of in-person speeches to lectures – which was played prematurely. He received the minor strike after members of his campaign team campaigned and uploaded campaign material directly to their personal social media pages.
Coming into the weekend, Keogh received a minor strike after a video was posted to LawSoc’s Instagram of Keogh wearing her campaign t-shirt and promoting herself as a candidate at a society event. Keogh’s campaign manager had requested permission for the candidate to speak at the event, but had not disclosed to the EC that she was also the Social Secretary of LawSoc.
There is no recent precedent for a candidate being struck from the ballot by the EC, but this year’s team has been particularly exacting in its response to offences.
Under the rules set out in Schedule 3 of the union’s constitution, if a candidate receives two major strikes, a decision is made “at the discretion of the EC” as to whether they will remain on the ballot. Similarly, a candidate who receives more than three minor strikes can be struck off the ballot – putting both Keogh and Cummins into potentially precarious positions.
There is no recent precedent for a candidate being struck from the ballot by the EC, but this year’s team has been particularly exacting in its response to offences – an effect that has been felt by Keogh, who has taken issue with both strikes issued to her to date and promised to look at reformation of an appeals process if elected as president.
If Keogh were to be eliminated, most of her first-preference voters would move to Cummins as their second preference, and similarly, if Cummins is struck from the ballot, his voters will largely move to Keogh. MacQuillan’s only feasible route to the presidency is an elimination of both his fellow candidates – a highly unlikely, but not impossible, scenario.