Six years in student politics: a conversation with Leah Keogh

The two-time sabbatical officer and outgoing president of TCDSU reflects on her time in the union and the national student movement

After two years as a sabbatical officer in the students’ union, the outgoing president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) might reasonably be excused for spending their last ten days in office winding down in preparation for handing over the reins to a new sabbatical team. Instead, Leah Keogh was tirelessly defending student representation in the face of proposed government changes, not only in Trinity but in every college in Ireland. Early in June, Keogh was told by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation, Research and Science Simon Harris that her goal of amending the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill nationally was unlikely to be successful – two weeks later, TCDSU’s amendment to increase student representation from two to three members on the governing body of every university in Ireland passed in the Dáil.

Keogh’s efforts in lobbying for change long after students had vacated campus for the summer are a testament to her genuine passion for the student movement, and her commitment to her role as a leader of it. Acknowledging the significance of successfully amending national legislation, Keogh nonetheless says that it is often the smaller victories that have been the highlights of the job. She recalled a day spent refurnishing the student space in St. James’ Hospital, and the enjoyment of engaging with students face-to-face. “I love the on-the-ground stuff, to be honest – and the HEA Bill has been the opposite of on-the-ground,” she says.

“We have to care about these things so students don’t. Students may not see the benefits of this change, but hopefully they’ll feel it.”

“Having said that, I’ve surprised myself in that I’ve really been drawn to that strategy, the long-term vision, legacy stuff.” Keogh identifies three projects in which long-term vision was key: securing a location for the student centre, a key goal of her election manifesto; beginning the process of making House 6 accessible by 2024; and lastly, challenging cuts to student representation in the HEA Bill. The low visibility of such strategies can make it challenging to get students on board, Keogh says, but that is simply part of the job: “We have to care about these things so students don’t. Students may not see the benefits of this change, but hopefully they’ll feel it.”

Trinity’s has long had a particularly politically active student body, from protests against a visit by the Belgian royal family in 1968, to the distribution of abortion information by officers of TCDSU in 1989, for which those officers were threatened with prison sentences. Keogh believes that this continues today: “We absolutely do have a particularly active student base,” she says, adding that this was evident at the Congress of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), at which TCDSU was awarded Best Delegation. “We also see councils where there’s impassioned debate and that kind of thing, and I know engagement is kind of like the magic word around student politics, but you can be assured that if there’s an issue with students, they’ll absolutely flag it.” Keogh also highlights that Trinity makes up a large proportion of national coverage of higher education issues: “So I think it’s no surprise that when we make some noise, people listen. And we’ve really tried to use that to our advantage and be strategic in what we’re making noise about.”

“I’ve definitely grown in my enthusiasm as to what we can achieve. It can be hard to be told no over and over again, but it’s about persisting.”

Though she has enjoyed engaging with the national union in her role as TCDSU president, and believes in the importance of national structures, Keogh says she never considered a run for a USI officership herself. After six years involved in the student movement – from first year class rep to students’ union president – she jokes that she has “paid her dues”. She also adds: “I think it’s important that those who have recently been a student go into the roles that represent students, because ultimately they will have that empirical knowledge, the on-the-ground experience… I knew that it was important to make space for other students to fill these roles.”

USI has drawn much criticism in recent years, from calls for reform of its structure, to suggestions that it is little more than an echo chamber, to accusations of bullying at its most recent Congress. Acknowledging these criticisms, Keogh affirms her belief in strength in numbers: “I genuinely believe, ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’, we’re stronger together.’”

“I truly believe in the union movement generally, and to leave USI, I believe, would only further dilute that,” she added, alluding to the potential secession from USI by TCDSU, a move which was previously made by University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) in 2013. Nevertheless, Keogh believes there are necessary changes that should be made to the national students’ union, namely the introduction of a mechanism similar to that of TCDSU’s own Oversight Commission (OC), a body responsible for managing and maintaining the union’s policy initiatives as agreed at council: “I do believe that you can have the most beautifully written policies ever…and the [USI] policy book is really robust. But I do believe it’s important that it’s somebody’s job to ensure that the policies are being fulfilled.” Though some efforts are made, “the accountability structures could be better than they are”, Keogh says.

“I’ve given that feedback to USI consistently, and I know the incumbent president Beth O’Reilly wants to revisit accountability in general in USI, which is really promising.” In terms of responsiveness, “there’s definitely a disconnect between students and the USI” Keogh noted. “And I guess it’s up to sabbatical officers to bridge that gap, to listen to students on the ground, and then bring the motions to council for them to be acted on. And that’s what we’ve really tried to do as an SU this year, is to bridge that gap.” While there are certainly changes that need to be made, Keogh expressed the “process before protest” attitude which has characterised her attitude to progress throughout her term: “I think the best way to achieve that change is to be part of it, and that’s where I’ve tried to channel my energy this year. As opposed to criticising, I’ve actually tried to offer solutions, which I think is important.”

In terms of accountability, Keogh says that “currently, there isn’t a very strong oversight. They’ve always said to me, when I go to them with the whole accountability piece, ‘you’re all elected to hold us accountable.’ But equally, we’re elected to run our own unions locally as well, and I just think it’s unrealistic to expect sabbatical officers to manage a policy document of hundreds of policies when they’re trying to navigate their own as well.”

“Whether it is through small-scale fixes or large-scale reform, fighting for positive change seems to motivate Leah Keogh at a fundamental level.”

Have six years in the union led to any sense of disillusionment with student politics? Keogh says no: “It might surprise people, but I’ve definitely grown in my enthusiasm as to what we can achieve. It can be hard to be told no over and over again, but it’s about persisting.”

She adds that what inspires this persistence is the sense that “we really do have a seat at the table.” She identified the threat to student union autonomy as the biggest threat to the student movement nationally, and is grateful that the funding of TCDSU is guaranteed, protecting it from College interference with its work. “So, we really do have a seat at the table,” Keogh says. “I’ve really enjoyed the committee work – and I’ve surprised myself in that I have – because that’s where you get things done. That’s where the decisions are made. That’s where you can make your case.”

Reflecting on her time in TCDSU, Keogh’s overall sentiment is one of gratitude: “I just want to say thank you to the student community for having faith in me and allowing me to serve as their primary representative this year.”

When I ask what’s next for her, Keogh expresses a reluctance to join the likes of Ivana Bacik and Lynn Ruane, former TCDSU presidents, in national politics. She indicates an interest in public policy, an area where she believes it is possible to tackle problems at their root, rather than simply their symptoms. Whether it is through small-scale fixes or large-scale reform, fighting for positive change seems to motivate Leah Keogh at a fundamental level. No doubt she will continue to do so after her tenure in TCDSU, while her contribution to student welfare and the student movement nationally will be felt long after her departure.

David Wolfe

David Wolfe is a Junior Sophister student of History and Political Science. He is the current Social Media and Managing Editor of Trinity News, having previously served as News Editor, Assistant News Editor and copyeditor.