Analysis: Book of Kells blockade signals an unquiet year ahead

The willingness of TCDSU’s new sabbatical team to engage in direct action marks a shift in relations between the students’ union and College

Following his election as President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) in March, László Molnárfi heralded the reemergence of the student movement, vowing to “take up the fight” against the social and economic system that, in his eyes, that produced the many issues students face on and off campus.

Molnárfi’s status as a student firebrand, underpinned by his experience at the helm of Students4Change (S4C) and as an outspoken member within TCDSU, meant that a more confrontational course of action by the union than in previous years was an inevitability.

We now know how long it took before the first significant student-led disruption occurred: just 48 hours into the teaching period of Michaelmas Term.

At 9am on September 13, a group of students led by the TCDSU President gathered outside the Arts Building, before making their way to the front entrance of the Old Library, where they stayed throughout the day.

Whilst the usual megaphoned chants and handcrafted banners made their appearance, this was more than just a simple protest. It was a full-on blockade of one of campus’ most iconic buildings – and crucially, a major source of revenue for College.

The blockade took aim at College authorities’ decision to raise rents in its fully-owned student accommodation by the maximum permitted rate, at a time where exceptionally high rents and the cost of living were already exhausting the student population.

As shouts from Education Officer Catherine Arnold beckoned for Provost Linda Doyle to emerge from her “ivory tower”, protestors made clear their demand for a two-year rent freeze on College-owned accommodation, amidst a wider housing crisis that appears to have no end.

Throughout the day, images and videos flooded social media and news sites of students keeping guard at the steps of the Old Library, turning away angered tourists who had come to see the landmark – having paid €18.50 a head for the luxury to do so. One such video reel posted to Twitter by Newstalk, featuring a standoff between Molnárfi and a frustrated American visitor, garnered over 1.5 million views.

There was no doubt, then, that the blockade was getting noticed. It was raising heads and eyebrows both within and beyond Campus gates, but whether it would receive the desired response was another question.

Instead of the commitment Molnárfi and the blockade participants were searching for, College reacted to the incident with criticism, calling the action “counterproductive”, and promised only a mere pre-envisaged review of the rate of rent increases, with the 2% increase having been implemented as part of a three-year plan which expires this year.

Though the blockade garnered little sympathy from the upper echelons of Campus, there were shows of solidarity from some staff members. Dr Niall Kennedy, a Teaching Fellow at the Department of French who spoke in support of the blockade, said that the issues faced by students mirrored those faced by teaching staff, many of whom are paid low salaries on full-time teaching contracts.

“I, as a staff member, know so many colleagues that cannot live in Dublin because of very low wages and insecure and precarious contracts,” Dr Kennedy said to Trinity News. “Enough is enough. It’s time for College to bring in realistic policies with regard to hiring, contracts, and student rentals.”

In recent years, there has been a noticeable absence of consistent, heavy-hitting direct action on campus. One might attribute the knock-on effect of the Covid-19 pandemic of stifling on-campus activity as a significant factor, but this has been a trend many years in the making, and was particularly evident in the last academic year – the first full year of on-campus activity since 2019. The national USI-led student walkout last October was the only significant course of direct mass action with the participation of TCDSU last year, with little follow up to mention.

An ‘all talk, no action’ mentality took hold – best exemplified by the publication of an open letter by former TCDSU President Gabi Fullam in March over the accommodation crisis, which promised “escalated action” if commitments by College on the matter were not made by the beginning of April. Not only was there no correspondence from College, there was no such action taken by the union either, summing up years of empty threats and inaction that may be partly to blame for increasing apathy in student politics.

The blockade of the Old Library, therefore, represents a marked change in the approach taken by the TCDSU executive, with it being apparent that no time is being wasted in attempting to rally students into supporting direct action in the face of social and economic injustice. The targeting of an on-campus cultural institution, one which College itself highlights as generating income that is “vital for running the university”, shows a willingness on behalf of the current union to confront College authorities in a more forceful capacity than their immediate predecessors.

It’s the requisite for such a change in tactics that President Molnárfi himself is keen to point out: “It has been the refusal to be confrontational that has led to a terrible situation in Irish society, where those of us who are the most vulnerable are treated with the greatest disrespect,” he says.

“We can no longer afford to be quiet about the terrible conditions currently impacting students and staff; we are speaking out. Our blockade is an attempt at building grassroots resistance to the neoliberal dogma. It steps outside of respectable politics, thus bringing something new to the table.”

As for the future? Are we likely to see a repeat of what we saw on the steps of the Old Library, or perhaps something more drastic?

Molnárfi continued: “Only through direct action and grassroots power can we mount a challenge to the prevailing socio-economic system.”

“We will keep taking disruptive action as we fight for a more equal society, one in which wealth is democratically owned and controlled,” he concluded.

To what extent all that can be achieved within Trinity’s walls is certainly up for debate, but one thing is certain – with the return of direct action as a tool in the arsenal of Trinity’s student politics, campus will certainly not be quiet this year.

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly

Evan Skidmore O’Reilly is News Co-Editor for the 70th volume of Trinity News. He is a former Deputy News Editor, and is a current final year Business and Politics student.