Editorial: Gardaí should not be welcome at Trinity Ball

Undercover police make us less safe at College’s biggest event

The end of Hilary Term is approaching and with it, by far the biggest event of the year: Trinity Ball. This year’s edition is all the more notable because it is the first since 2019, meaning the vast majority of current Trinity students have never been to a “TBall” before. For those who don’t know, it’s worth establishing; people take drugs at Trinity Ball. Not everyone does, but some do. This has always been true, and always will be true.

It is also worth establishing that in the opinion of this newspaper, illegal narcotics should be decriminalised. The carceral approach to drug use has caused untold destruction, suffering and death in this country and globally. Most drug use isn’t problematic and should simply be left alone, and where drugs do cause harm and/or addiction is an issue, this is made overwhelmingly worse by legal prohibition. Society recognises this as an obvious historical truth in the case of alcohol, and it is no different for other narcotics. Jurisdictions such as Portugal which have opted for decriminalisation have seen massive drops in organised crime and narcotics-related deaths. Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) has been mandated to support drug decriminalisation since 2016/17.

Despite the preponderance of evidence against it, Ireland continues to pursue a policy of prohibition. Because of this, and because of the nature of the event, undercover Gardaí regularly flock to Trinity Ball to try to catch students using drugs. At the last event, 26 attendees were arrested. People received punishments and lasting criminal records for using recreational drugs on a college night out. This is unacceptable, and should provoke anger.

It’s also a microcosm of the broader discussion around drug decriminalisation. The consistent, well-known presence of police at TBall has not at all tempered the rate of drug use at the event. Even if you think that people using cocaine, MDMA, LSD or ketamine is inherently bad and should be reduced, it’s objectively true that Gardaí are not capable of stopping it; all they can do is arrest and punish people afterwards. Students take drugs in either scenario, regardless of what anyone thinks of it, but now some of them suffer significant personal, professional and financial harm from being criminalised. Plus if people do have bad reactions to drugs at Trinity Ball, they may be less inclined to seek help when they can’t know if the person beside them is a Garda. This is a very basic safety issue.

Additionally, the presence of undercover Gardaí at the event makes some students particularly unsafe. Like any police force, An Garda Síochána do not treat all people equally, and members of marginalised groups are much more likely to be the target of suspicion, harassment or even violence at the hands of the organisation.

For example, the prevalence of racism in the ranks is an established fact; a 2020 study conducted by the force itself could not find a single frontline officer who did not admit to harbouring bigoted views against at least one ethnic minority. Gardaí are also the organisation responsible for immigration enforcement in Ireland, which fundamentally alters their relationship with many immigrants, refugees and undocumented people; if previously it’s been their job to scrutinise and police your very presence in Ireland, it is understandable to not exactly see them as a source of safety. Just 8% of trans people reported feeling “high trust” in the Gardaí in 2017. The force’s relationship with the LGBTQ+ community is inherently strained, because most current senior officers have been around since 1993 when they were still charged with arresting people for being gay.

“Gardaí aren’t there to make people safe—that’s what stewards and first-aid personnel are for—they’re there to put people in holding cells.”

Put simply then, there shouldn’t be Gardaí patrolling Trinity Ball, full stop. Their purpose is a reprehensible and harmful one, and their presence creates a whole host of other dangers due to how they treat marginalised groups. Students shouldn’t be criminalised for their personal choices, and they shouldn’t have to feel unsafe while having fun on campus. Gardaí aren’t there to make people safe—that’s what stewards and first-aid personnel are for—they’re there to put people in holding cells. The whole student community should oppose their presence.

There’s a broader precedent for this. A growing movement of students in UK universities is pushing back against the regular presence of police on campuses. Activists cite numerous examples of police harassment of students (including stop-and-search and intrusion into accommodation) and the targeting of people for their race or political views, as well as the harms of drug prohibition. They’re right, and both their moral clarity and their organising strategies should serve as an example to Trinity students.

This should include TCDSU. The union’s paltry response to the two-dozen arrests at the last Ball was a betrayal of the affected students. Trinity Ents threw up its hands and said that “Gardaí have the power and authority to police [Trinity Ball] as they wish” because of licensing laws. The organisation couldn’t even find its way to express solidarity with arrested students or to say that what happened to them was wrong. This was utter moral cowardice.

This needs to change. Yes, it is true that Trinity Ball must secure a licence, and TCDSU does not have the power to literally ban Gardaí from campus, but this is no excuse for tacit approval of police presence. For a start, the union doesn’t run Trinity Ball. The event is organised and coordinated by MCD Productions, and it is managed at a College level by the Trinity Ball Subcommittee (subordinate to the Capitation Committee), which the TCDSU ents officer doesn’t even chair. The union opposing Gardaí’s targeting of students will not endanger the Ball’s organisation, because both from the perspective of Gardaí and as an organisational reality, Trinity Ball is not an event organised by TCDSU.

But even if that weren’t true, the union could have its cake and eat it too. It can acknowledge the statutory right of Gardaí to be at the Ball and not actually prevent their attendance, while still expressing in no uncertain terms (to the force and to College) that it believes their presence to be harmful and wrong.

TCDSU can also try to reduce the harms Gardaí cause. It should inform students that undercover officers are almost always present—as currently this is chiefly spread through word of mouth—and keep them aware of their rights when dealing with officers. It should actively work on the night to support any arrested students; note who they are and where they’re being taken, give them contact information for solicitors, and have volunteers available at Garda stations to meet students as they’re released if necessary. To do anything less than this is, quite simply, not living up to the union’s drug harm reduction mandate and its general duty of care towards its members.

We all, as students, have a role to play too. As well as speaking up on the issue, we can learn about how to safely deal with being stopped by police, whether for ourselves or to be supportive if we happen to witness an arrest. We can warn people we know of the issue of undercover officers, and make sure they have friends they can call upon if they have negative reactions to drugs or are targeted by Gardaí. Most of all, we need to work to make drug decriminalisation a national political priority. There are no rationally or morally sound arguments against it, but it remains opposed by most of the political establishment. That must change.

To students: enjoy Trinity Ball. If you’re going to take drugs, please educate yourself on how to do so safely, and know your legal rights. To TCDSU: live up to your promises. To everyone: this campus belongs to its students, and Gardaí are not welcome as long as they make students less safe.