The historical legacy and lull of TCDSU’s student activism

Has Trinity’s Students’ Union always been so willing to speak out on current events and mobilise the masses? Trinity News explored the Union’s history to find out

The Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) was founded in 1968 following a 1967 Hist debate on the motion “Trinity Needs a Union.” Trinity Law and Business Lecturer Kardar Asmal, who spoke at the debate, explained in a 1967 interview with Trinity News that it was necessary to “oppose the arbitrary power of academic staff” and create a “liberated zone of critical knowledge in what is virtually a dead body of institutional learning”. 

Before the SU, there existed the Student’s Representative Council (SRC). The SRC was widely considered to be highly ineffective. It was composed of student-elected representatives in low-turnout elections, and most of their time was spent gathering student opinion polls to present to administrators. These polls also experienced low turnout, often finding results opposite to student consensus, which ultimately made them lack real authority. In 1963, the retiring president, David Butler, characterised it as “a nasty provincial institution run by agitators who should be doing some [academic] work instead of wasting their time, and who are probably just gluttons for publicity and importance”. A reporter for Trinity News called Hutchinson President concluded that “the students of this College have too many representatives and not enough representation.” It was clear that a more capable body representing student interests was necessary. Thus, the Trinity College Dublin Student Union (TCDSU) was born. Accommodation has, since before the inception of the Union, been a pillar issue for student activists and representatives. In 1966, new flat regulations were announced requiring a resident landlord for flat dwellers and prohibiting men and women from living together. Trinity News reported that The University of Cork characterised the policy as “totally unreasonable, bigoted, foolish and short-sighted.”

In 1969, Dennis Dennehy, secretary of the newly founded Dublin Housing Action Committee (DHAC), was arrested for squatting in a vacant flat set to be demolished and turned into an office building. Trinity students rallied around him. They held up traffic, engaged in sit-down demonstrations, and held a mock trial of the landlord, Mr. Underwood, condemning him to life in prison. When students protested Dennehy’s detention in Mountjoy prison, Gardaí officers arrived, pulling batons and attacking non-violent protesters. Eventually, thanks in part to the efforts of Trinity students, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Frank Cluskey, made a special plea to Taoiseach Charles Haughey, requesting the release of Mr. Dennehy. 

Another student movement that saw success was the campaign to increase women’s rights within the college. In 1968, Provost Albert Joseph McConnell announced that students could finally sit in on board meetings and voice their opinions on school matters. That same year, the TCDSU was able to advocate for a policy that finally allowed women to live on campus, 46 years after they had gained the right to study in Trinity. 

Trinity News spoke to Mark Little, who served as TCDSU President from 1985-1989. Little has since served as RTÉ’s first Washington Correspondent, presented on RTÉ’s Prime Time, and started Kinzen, a company regulating harmful media, which has since been acquired by Spotify. He described the unique climate of Ireland during his time in college, characterised by the “tail end of the dominance of the Catholic Church”. Abortion was illegal and contraception was not widely accessible; Little made the spread of reproductive health information one of his key struggles. However, he described the Union during his time as President as a “very big full-time team”, for whom providing services like shops and cafes came before raising awareness about “issues that may be less connected to actual student life”. Little also explained how important it was that the SU be politically diverse, and never “stray far from the class consensus”. 

Little characterised the SU in his time as left-leaning but politically individualistic. Radicals had places within the SU but acted as individuals”

On the topic of the TCDSU being “politically diverse,” one BESS student who spoke with Trinity News expressed discomfort with the current state of the Union, describing it as “overtly Marxist and highly ideological.” In contrast, Little characterised the TCDSU in his time as left-leaning but politically individualistic. Radicals had places within the SU but acted as individuals. 

However, issues have always emerged that the Union has taken a stance on, including declaring Britain’s relationship with Ireland as “neo-colonial,” standing in early solidarity with the Nicaraguan government, and opposing the 1986 bombings in Libya. In fact, violence perpetrated by the US government – in Libya and beyond –  sparked “weekly occupations of the US embassy” by the SU throughout the 1980s.  

With that said, given the debilitating recession Ireland experienced in the 80s amidst conflict in Northern Ireland and all of the restrictions on women’s and minority rights, Little stressed that it was “unimaginable that we would have the social progress [that exists now] in Ireland … [I] cannot emphasise enough the journey Ireland has taken in the span of a lifetime. My lifetime.” He recalled a leftist chant from his days at the college: “Lose, lose, we always lose, what the fuck do we care.” 

Last year, just 10% of the student body voted in class rep elections”

The real difference throughout the history of the TCDSU is not its changing inclination to engage in activism but its ability to engage students in Union elections. Last year, just 10% of the student body voted in class rep elections. Though it is difficult to track down how much this has changed from previous decades based on information in the Trinity archives, Little explained that election turnout had never been an issue before. 

One can point to a multitude of reasons for decreased voter turnout. Perhaps comfort with the Irish liberal consensus has meant “revolution” is not as pressing to the student body today. Maybe the internet and immediate access to information as opposed to reliance on friends are wearing down on willingness to physically participate, or maybe even leftover COVID fatigue is taking its toll. Regardless, the TCDSU has proven to be a vital outlet for change across generations. Despite the disinterested attitudes of students towards TCDSU elections today, the Union’s ability to mobilise the masses for change will likely remain a constant for as long as House Six is standing.