President race: Fullam leads but contest far from over

Gabi Fullam is more likely to become TCDSU president, but the numbers show it is still anyone’s game

In previous years, the SU presidential race has taken a consistent form: three candidates, one already deeply active within the union, one less so but still engaged in union activities, and one promoting themselves as the fresh outsider to the union. This year, however, represents a new and complex kind of election. Candidates Gabi Fullam and Rebecca Kelly are both currently part-time officers in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), holding the roles of Ethnic Minorities Officer and Gender Equality Officer respectively. This is part of a larger trend this year, in which most candidates running currently hold part-time offices.

Despite their similar union backgrounds, Fullam is leading by a significant yet tight margin according to the election poll conducted by Trinity News. In a poll of 574 students, Fullam has earned the first preferences of 51.1% of decided voters, while Kelly is approximately 8 points behind at 42.9%. A small, though not insignificant, number of decided voters indicated a desire to reopen nominations at 6.0%. 18.6% of respondents remained uncertain of how they would vote, the smallest of any race this election season.

Polling shows no major gender-based preference for either candidate, apart from non-binary/genderfluid students (the sample of whom was very small) who showed a considerably strong preference for Fullam at a rate of 69.0%.

Fullam, a final year sociology and philosophy student, topped the polls within Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS) with 51.6% of first preference votes there. Kelly, a final year law student, found considerable favour among (the small sample of) Health Sciences students, where she is leading by 24 points at 58.6% of first preference votes. Initial polling saw stronger support for Kelly among Engineering, Mathematics and Science (EMS) courses, but Fullam soon overtook, earning 51.1% of first preference votes against Kelly’s 42.4%.

While Fullam topped the polls across most faculties, Kelly has garnered the support of her fellow union members; despite both candidates being active members and part-time officers of the union, polling shows that students who have held a position within the student union are more likely to support Kelly, at a rate of 49.3%. Conversely, respondents who have never held a position within the union are considerably more likely to vote for Fullam at 54.2% of first preference votes compared to 39.3% for Kelly.

Notably, 75% of those who voted for Fullam want the SU to be taking more direct action, compared to 57% of Kelly’s voters. In line with these results, Kelly’s supporters are significantly more likely to feel that the SU does a good job at representing them already, whereas those who favour Fullam tended to respond more negatively to this statement. When asked how well they believe College handled exams, voters with a preference for Kelly are slightly more likely to think that College did a good job in relation to this. Those who support Fullam were more likely to respond negatively to how College dealt with exams; throughout the year, Fullam has shown support for Students4Change, an activist group that has criticised College’s handling of exams and lobbied for both in-person lectures and online exams last semester.

It appears that success in the ballot will be determined by demographic turnout, however slight; supporters and members of the current union will be a reliable source of first-preference votes for Kelly, while Fullam will need to depend on those less engaged and more disappointed with the union this year. On the other hand, Kelly may need to regain her support among EMS students and mobilise her supporters in the Health Sciences to secure a chance at victory, while it seems that Fullam may rely on the higher proportion of AHSS students who vote in elections every year.

Overall, the left-right political divide appears to be a strong indicator of voting behaviour in this presidential election. Polling results demonstrate that politically left-leaning students (voters for Solidarity-PBP) are much more likely to favour Fullam, with 78.3% of those giving her their vote, whereas only 16.7% of this category voted for Kelly. Fullam also leads slightly in garnering support from centre-left (Green Party, Social Democrat, Labour and Sinn Féin) voters, winning 49.6% of the vote here, compared to Kelly who received 44.6%. On the other hand, Kelly strongly leads in the centre-right, gaining 64.0% of the vote from those who fall under this category (which encompasses Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Aontú) as opposed to 28.0% for Fullam.

Previous presidential candidates have used their experience in the union , or lack thereof, to set themselves apart from their opponents; 2020/21 SU President Eoin Hand won on an “apolitical” campaign, while incumbent President Leah Keogh used her vast union experience to stand out. This election, union PTOs Fullam and Kelly have had to find other ways to stand out against their opponent. While cancelled hustings and campaigning meant neither candidate could fully flesh out or explain their plans for the union next year, both Fullam and Kelly took the opportunities they could to hone in on the finer details of their policies and carve out individual identities.

From her first speech at the Dining Hall Hustings, Fullam has appeared driven, drawing from her experience in competitive debating to deliver an emotionally-charged campaign. In her first speech, Fullam focused on her own individual experiences in campaigning and activism, and her wording was careful to state what she specifically will do. Fullam later flagged that the biggest issue facing students right now is “too much sympathy and not enough change” from College, and she has laid out plans to protect the “most vulnerable” students in College. Fullam has not had many chances to be probed on these plans, but her manifesto includes steps she plans to take in several areas, such as developing a “black students and students of colour advisory group”, similar to that within the Dublin City University Students’ Union (DCUSU).

Kelly has also shown a passion and drive for many changes on campus, though her rhetoric has not been as vigorous as Fullam’s. Rather than leading with her own experience, her speech at the Dining Hall Hustings framed her campaign around what “we” as a College and union can achieve, with her at the helm. Kelly has in fact leaned more into her union position, expressing desires for a “proactive approach” to fostering healthier debate and discussions within the union. Kelly was particularly passionate about students’ safety, her biggest priority in this election. Like Fullam, Kelly has not many opportunities to publicly flesh out her plans regarding this, but used hustings to address flagged the lack of a distinct sexual assault policy in College and her urgent plans to create one as president.

Both candidates have been confident and prepared at hustings, emphasising their institutional knowledge and passion. When asked about their tangible impacts on the union this year, for example, Kelly expressed her pride at working with the ents officer this year to develop anti-spiking strategies for students such as cup condoms and anti-spiking scrunchies. Fullam, as ethnic minorities officer, explained how she helped students by guiding them through “individual complaints through casework”.

At Council/Equality Hustings, both candidates highlighted inaccessibility on campus as an issue they promise to rectify if elected. Kelly emphasised the union itself as being somewhat inaccessible to students, whilst Fullam discussed her previous campaigning to make the GMB more accessible as well as her plans to hold office hours outside of House 6. The candidates also examined accessibility and inclusivity in relation to religious services offered by College, with Kelly stating that if students “want more support from our religious services, then that’s what we need to give them”. On the other hand, when asked if the chaplaincy is outdated, Fullam simply replied “yes”, and highlighted the need for a multi-faith centre on top of more secular support.

One difference between the candidates that became more apparent at Council/Equality Hustings was their planned approach to Irish language policy on campus. Irish is Kelly’s first language, something which is reflected in her manifesto and campaigning. During Council/Equality Hustings, she was enthusiastic to highlight her plans to encourage more services as Gaeilge within the union, and for sabbatical officers to make a greater effort to use their Irish language skills at Council. On the other hand, Fullam has not placed as large an emphasis on Irish language policy in her manifesto or campaigning, and explained that she does not speak it herself. However, she has highlighted the importance of preserving it as an indigenous language and encourages students to use whatever small bits of Gaeilge they may have.

The topic of accessibility in education is one that has dominated both Fullam and Kelly’s manifestos and campaigns so far, though once again the finer details are what delineates each candidate. While Fullam plans on taking larger strides through reforming the tutor system, identifying a location for the student centre, and forming a working group to review the scholarship examinations, Kelly has honed in on increasing accessibility for specific cohorts of students; she has discussed hopes to create accommodation for students working full or part-time, as well plans to lobby against the “hidden costs” for Health Science students.

On the second day of campaigning, Fullam shared that one of her posters had been “maliciously vandalised” in an allegedly racially motivated attack. She posted a photo online of the poster with the eyes scratched out of the image of her face. In the post’s caption Fullam stated “This is the very culture that I am fighting to change”, something which is certainly evident in her campaign so far. Fullam’s manifesto and campaign have a strong focus on racial justice, as she plans to continue campaigning to rename the Berkeley library, advocate for children who are affected by the 27th amendment and will be soon entering College, further develop an inclusive curriculum, and implement racism bystander training within the College community. Kelly’s campaign and manifesto have also discussed racial justice, emphasising diverse curriculums across all Trinity courses as a way to create a culture change on campus.

Out of the two candidates, only Fullam has received a strike beside her name from the Electoral Commission so far. Fullam was the first candidate of this year’s election period to be sanctioned, receiving a minor strike on the second day of campaigning. Speaking to Trinity News, Fullam explained that the strike was issued due to someone outside of her campaign team promoting her campaign on social media outside of the approved campaigning hours. This resulted in Fullam being barred from canvassing for an hour on Wednesday.

Despite Fullam receiving this minor strike, leaving her in a slightly more precarious position to her opponent, neither presidential candidate appears to be at any great risk in this regard, and we will most likely see both names on the ballot come voting. This sanction also does not seem to have affected Fullam’s chance at success as she maintains a lead against Kelly, though this race still seems to remain up for grabs.

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News and a Junior Sophister student of Politics and Sociology. She previously served as Features Editor

Ella Sloane

Ella Sloane is the current Life Editor of Trinity News, and a Junior Sophister English Literature and Sociology student.