Trinity’s Megan O’Connor and Muireann Nic Corcráin were among candidates running in the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) elections who faced questions this evening from students at a hustings hosted by Trinity College Dublin’s Students Union (TCDSU).
In each race, candidates were given time to outline their main manifesto points and respond to questions from Trinity students that pushed them on their stances and places.
A third Trinity representative, TCDSU Ents Officer Hugh McInerney, had originally entered the elections in the race for Vice President for the Dublin region.
However, McInerney did not appear at this evening’s hustings and has confirmed that he has dropped out of the race.
Clare Austick, USI’s current Vice President for Welfare, is uncontested in the race for the union’s presidency. In her speech, Austick expressed a desire for the USI to recalibrate itself, saying that the “the challenges that students faced a decade ago are still the challenges students are bringing to us now” and that she would like to lead the student movement in “spearheading social, cultural and societal change”.
Looking at the future, the former president of National University of Ireland, Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU) said that the “continuous marketisation” of higher education and “potential funding cuts” challenge the USI’s mission to improve access to third level. She assured students that she would lobby for pay for student frontline workers and improved student grants.
Austick stressed the need to improve student engagement with the union, citing challenges with communication over the last year. To combat this, she plans to start monthly forums to have a “direct link to students on the ground”.
Austick was pushed on her manifesto point of ensuring student nurses are paid, being asked whether she thinks students should be paid minimum wage when on placements or equal to that of a fully qualified healthcare professional. She stated that she would bring students to the forefront of that discussion and listen to what they want. She touched on the need for a “living wage” to be given to students, and said that pay is “the most pressing issue” for student nurses, but that it is not the only issue that needs to be addressed.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
Two candidates are contesting the role of Vice President for Academic Affairs; Eimear Curtin and Megan O’Connor.
Eimear Curtin, the Education Officer of University College Cork Students’ Union (UCCSU), pledged to bring students voices into “the issues that matter”. Curtin wants to “reach out to part-time officers and also to class reps on issues specific to their students” and engage with students are on placement as part of efforts to engage with a wide range of students.
“I want to develop an issues log with clear priorities, actions and goals,” Curtin said. She would create a “policy portal” resource for students.
Looking at her previous experience, Curtin said that she has pushed within UCCSU for students’ academic welfare, including by running a survey of students of their online learning experiences which led to staff training conducted “directly as a result of what students said”.
TCDSU Education Officer Megan O’Connor said that the pandemic has “highlighted inequalities” among the students and that “we need to make up for lost time”. She said that the physical return of students to campus needs to happen in the “most progressive way possible”.
O’Connor plans to focus on the key issues of “new and improved access routes” to higher education and funding. She said she wants to “invite students to participate in these conversations”.
“I have stood on the picket lines fighting for students,” O’Connor said. “I want to work with you over the next year to continue to shape the future of our education.”
The candidates were asked how they would tackle government engagement with USI on the planned reform of the SUSI grant and the governance of Ireland’s higher education institutions.
O’Connor emphasised the importance of not taking a “one-size-fits-all approach” on the governance of colleges.
She highlighted the need to ensure “clear lines of communication with the government” and make sure USI is “accurately representing students and what they want”.
Responding to the same question, Curtin said in terms of dense government proposals, it is “all about breaking things down” for students to ensure that they can engage with the process.
She highlighted the needs of part-time and online students, stating that SUSI “doesn’t help” them as of now. “It’s about making sure that everyone can feed in” to the discussion.
Vice President for Campaigns
Sole candidate Beth O’Reilly spoke at Hustings this evening, identifying that while “campaigning has changed”, the“response to these campaigns have been subpar”.
O’Reilly, who hails from University College Cork (UCC), spoke about her plan to “revamp” USI communications, starting with overhauling the website so that it is an “one stop shop on what the USI is doing and why”. She added that the union need to be on “every platform student’s use”, including apps like TikTok, stating that this will lead to a rise in student engagement.
O’Reilly also spoke about introducing an “activist training weekend” for students who want to get involved with activism.
“The role of VP for campaigns is a role of facilitating the campaigns that matter to you,” she added. “I have the experience needed, I have the passion, and I want to make your experiences front and centre of all the work I hope to achieve.”
Pushed on how she would facilitate strikes and attract attention to them, O’Reilly said that she would “work to use the digital avenues we have to our benefit and not see them as a detriment”. She said that digital campaigns need to be “something that people want to share”.
O’Reilly said she has “the experience with managing large scale digital events” and “ensuring content that goes up online is of a high quality and is shareable”.
Vice President for Equality and Citizenship
In the Vice President for Equality and Citizenship race, Bukky Adebowale of Maynooth Students’ Union (MSU) emphasised the need to be “unapologetic” in pursuing diversity and equality. Addressing campaigns in Trinity, she said that “the standard of what you’ve done needs to be taken to a level that everyone on this island experiences”.
Adebowale, MSU’s Vice President for Student Life, touched on a range of equality issues including race, Direct Provision, international students’ fees and the climate crisis.
“It’s not enough for us to just talk about equality or diversity, we need to start going to the roots in our systems,” she said. Adebowale said that we “need to talk about decolonisation” and that “there’s a lot of work to do, but we have to be unapologetic about it”.
Fellow candidate Luke Daly said he was “no stranger” to students’ movements, drawing on his experience in multiple roles within the students’ union at Technological University Dublin’s Blanchardstown campus.
“We must ask to what extent Covid-19 has impacted you and your experience,” Daly said. “We need to heal and my experience in welfare will focus on how we best look at that.”
Daly said he would bring the “bite back” in campaigning for students’ rights and using “radical, local strong activism” as needed to push on issues around fees and students’ treatment by their colleges.
Both candidates were questioned on the rise of far-right candidates and sentiments expressed throughout unions in the country this year. Adebowale answered that it is “important that we have the ability to protect all of our students”, and the union needs to “take a stance immediately” and “give it no room to fester and grow”. She added that it was important to have a focus on “fighting for freedom rather than just diversity”, and “really focusing on liberation”.
Daly answered by saying that “Covid-19 has allowed a strain to emerge from our society”, “it has allied violence”, and “it is not enough that we ignore this”. “we must push them out it is not good enough”, he explained, stating that he would do this by “deplatforming and rejecting”. Daly emphasized that it needs to be made clear that these ideals “are not welcome here”.
Vice President for Welfare
The sole candidate for Vice President for Welfare, Somhairle Brennan, gave a rapid-fire speech where he pledged to put his weight behind many issues from supporting union officers with additional training to pledging to lobby for student interests in renting and in SUSI grant reform.
The current Students’ Union President in the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art and Design Technology (IADT) indicated that providing information aimed at drug harm reduction was one of his “primary goals,” and further to this, that he would provide addiction supports for all students whether they are experiencing drug-related addictions or those such as gambling.
Another key area that Brennan brought attention to was student counselling services. The candidate acknowledged that “there will be an increasing necessity for mental health supports” over the coming year and plans to lobby for better counselling services within colleges and publicly funded mental health services.
Brennan was then questioned on what harm-reduction policies he would put in place in the context of drinking and drug-taking among students during the pandemic. He stated that Ireland has “an issue when we discuss substances” and there needs to be “open and honest conversations” about what drugs students are using. Brennan said that students would be able to “handle themselves much much better” when they are given “knowledge” about substances. “All of these things are in our communities – they’re just not being acknowledged,” he said.
Vice President for Dublin
There are two candidates running in the race for Vice President for the Dublin Region; Caelainn Kerrigan and Caoimhe O’Carroll.
Current TCDSU Ents Officer Hugh McInerney had also put himself forward for the position, but has now withdrawn from the race.
Speaking to Trinity News, McInereny explained his decision saying “I am withdrawing my name for the USI election for Vice President for Dublin as I have received an offer for my dream masters in the Netherlands”.
“After much debate I have decided that the students of the Dublin region deserve a fully committed and enthusiastic officer and having received this offer I would be distracted and wondering if I’d made the right choice, and this would detract from my work if elected” McInerney continued.
McInereny also praised the two remaining candidates in the race saying that they are “both fantastic and no matter what happens the Dublin region will be in safe hands”.
“I still believe this country needs to change to fully serve its students and young people, and although I am withdrawing from the race to pursue my masters I will continue to lobby and campaign for change.”
Speaking at the hustings, current National College of Art and Design Students’ Union (NCADSU) President Caelainn Kerrigan said that she believes her “years of experience” make her “the perfect candidate for VP for Dublin”. She hopes to “host a monthly debriefing session for SU officers” and “regain that sense of community” in USI post-Covid-19.
“I really want to shake up how USI engages with its members,” she continued, highlighting her desire to make sure all Dublin students “know who [USI] are”. She hopes to support student renters by running “an information campaign on the basics of being a renter”.
Fellow candidate and former Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty Representative in Dublin City University Students’ Union (DCUSU) Caoimhe O’Carroll wants to “revive student life in Dublin” and lobby for the “continuation of lecture capture” in all Dublin universities.
“Students are all fighting for the same cause” but we often “work in isolation as institutions,” O’Carroll stated. She highlighted plans to lobby politicians to address the current “accomodation crisis” in Dublin, saying that USI need to be “concerned with the issues of today”.
O’Carroll also hopes to lobby for the improvement of student facilities such as plugs, library seats and microwaves on campuses.
Vice President for Postgraduate Affairs
Sole candidate for Vice President for Postgraduate Affairs Jenna Barry did not appear live at the hustings, but a short video was played in which Barry set out her manifesto promises. She said her vision for the role would be to “create connection, communication, collaboration and change”.
Barry, a research postgraduate student in the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), identified her priorities as creating virtual communities for postgraduates, increasing engagement, and collaborating with partner organisations. She drew on the words of US Vice President Kamala Harris to say that unity and diversity are strengths.
“I want to build strong working relationships with student postgraduate representatives, enabling them to build more engagement on campus through the use of virtual communities and developing a space where no voice is left unheard,” Barry said.
Leas Uachtarán don Ghaeilge
Two candidates are vying for the position of Leas Uachtarán don Ghaeilge, with both Muireann Nic Corcráin and Grian Ní Dhaimhín putting themselves forward.
Nic Corcráin told students that “because of you, I’ve found my voice”, but that “there are still many barriers in place” when trying to live through Gaeilge. Nic Corcráin is a Trinity student, and has previously served as the Oifigeach Gaelige in TCDSU.
Nic Corcráin said that she wants to “show you that by voting for me you will be enabling the trinity spirit” to be “spread across the island”.
She continued to identify her work on adding fadas to student cards, and said that she would continue to work on inclusivity, accountability, language rights and supporting campaigns in the North.
Speaking next at the hustings, Grian Ní Dhaimhín said that growing up in Northern Ireland meant that she “had to struggle day in and day out” to get her name pronounced. Ní Dhaimhín is from Tyrone and is the SU President at Queen’s University Belfast.
Ní Dhaimhín said that a vote for her would mean voting for “language rights, language growth, and language visibility”.
She added that the Irish language is often treated as something “performative”, which she said was an effect of a “colonised society” and a “capitalist society”. She spoke about how she thinks the union needs to work from “the ground up” to “decolonise our high education system”.
TCDSU representatives vote on behalf of Trinity students in the elections at USI Congress. The union is currently running a student preference poll to determine how representatives will vote at Congress.
The vote among Trinity students closes at 4pm on March 29.
USI Congress takes place from April 6 to April 8, with the election taking place on April 7.