President Race: Fewer tourists, more sequoias, and a dinner date with Linda Doyle – is Ralph Balfe the “safe” vote?

The psychoanalytic masters student and Oxford graduate’s other pledges include the construction of a “Book of Kells World” and a “Rollies Onlys” policy

As one of the contenders for the biggest prize in the sabbatical elections, Ralph (which he is keen to point out is pronounced “Rafe”) Balfe is a newcomer to the field of Trinity student politics. However, he doesn’t plan on hiding his rather grand ambitions – not his own, nor for the College he entered into only this year as a Masters student.

“I’m motivated by one pretty simple and humble desire, which is to radically alter the course of this university’s future, and [to] go down in history as the greatest student to grace its hallowed halls — and also to ban tourists,” he declared from the offset, on the question of why he was running to be the next President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU).

Indeed, banning tourists, which Trinity welcomes more than two million of each year, lies at the core of Balfe’s manifesto, proposing to direct would-be visitors to a “Book of Kells World” theme park north of the city.

When asked what gave him the inspiration for this extravagant idea: “I’d say Disney World has to be in there,” he said, also citing Banksy’s “Dismaland” art project.

Balfe sees the project as a step up from the recently opened Book of Kells Experience, which he admitted to enjoying elements of: “There’s a big kind of 3D wraparound animated film of the history of the Book of Kells, and I thought, “Yeah, it’s alright”, but I can just see so much potential.”

Among his ideas for attractions include a “Resurrection Rollercoaster”, a Conor McGregor-themed go-kart track, and a “Hagiography Hotel”, which includes a statue of St George slaying a dragon (though he points out that this would be a cow with red wings).

On the St George reference, it was put to him, an Englishman and PPE graduate from Oxford – the course of many a British prime minister – if a Balfe presidency would represent a return of the Protestant Ascendency of College’s past. “You know, there are lots of historians that argue that St George was actually Palestinian. He’s also the patron saint of many countries, including Ukraine, including, of course, Georgia. So you can take your pick if you’d like him to represent a particular country,” he said.

“He also believed it right to ‘honour the founder of the college’ by installing a statue of Elizabeth I, and, ‘for good measure’, Elizabeth II”

On the contrary, he pointed to his support for policies that “aim to really honour the Irish traditions of the university”, including the recent passing of the Oifigeach na Gaeilge initiative, and swapping around the off-campus GAA pitch with the on-campus cricket pitch. Though, he also believed it right to “honour the founder of the college” by installing a statue of Elizabeth I, and, “for good measure”, Elizabeth II.

Leading on from that, he was asked about the lack of references to major student issues in his manifesto document, be it housing, LGBTQ+ advocacy, or the Irish language. Reemphasising his support for the Irish language officer, he argued in favour of creating an additional post for an “Irish music officer.”

He was probed on the point about the lack of references to LGBTQ+ issues in his proposals, particularly given his opponent’s resume as a former LGBT rights officer in TCDSU and as a prominent trans rights activist. He responded by saying that he has chosen not to focus explicitly on those policies, though he went on to clarify that he believed in equality and inclusion, and in the “just and fair treatment of students, whether they are from the LGBTQ+ community or from ethnic minorities, or from other groups with protected characteristics’.’

“Whatever Jenny [Maguire] has proposed on those fronts, I would do that — plus ban tourists,” he affirmed, adding that he would solve issues around the provision of gender neutral bathrooms by getting rid of all toilets on campus entirely.

Another one of Balfe’s key pledges is the reduction of student rents by half, funded by the unrestricted solicitation of corporate donations and sponsorship deals. “I think we shouldn’t underestimate how alluring the appeal of academia is to potential donors and sponsors,” he argued, adding that he believes them to be “very interested” in his proposal.

Among the purported sponsors in Balfe’s plans are the ruling family of Dubai, whose funding would help realise a 1:1 replica of the Burj Khalifa, taking the place of the Campanile in Front Square.

What then for the Campanile? “I’d invite suggestions of what to do with [it] … it would be a shame to just give it over to the tourists,” he answered, his derision for College sightseers not dissipating. “They can maybe get a replica with, like, a water slide around it, or something like that.”

Talk of College connections to external firms certainly isn’t an irrelevant point at present, what with the recent push by TCDSU for College to cut its ties with Israeli institutions amidst the ongoing war in Gaza. Balfe’s manifesto explicitly mentions arms companies as an example of a type of corporation he would happily take donations from, and so on that subject he was asked if he supported the continued SU support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and calls for an end to College cooperation with Israeli organisations.

“I don’t see any contradiction between opening our arms to corporate donations and pursuing student union policy agendas that we believe are right and principled,” he responded, after which the same questions regarding BDS and the calls to cut ties were put forward again. “I would,” he confirmed.

Continuing on through Balfe’s manifesto, next on the agenda was another major headline pledge: a plan to make College carbon neutral by planting 12 giant sequoia trees on the cricket pitch. More specifically, why 12 sequoias?

How many disciples did Jesus have?”

“How many disciples did Jesus have?”, he replied.

“I’m not a scientist, but if I’ve learned anything from watching how the climate catastrophe is addressed in both politics and business, it’s that big, bold gestures without that much substance behind them are the real key to making a difference.”

Delving further into his environmental policies, Balfe expressed concern about the impact of vapes, suggesting to combat them by ending the “era of the tobacco-free campus” via the implementation of a policy he calls “Rollies Onlys”, and advocacy for snus in a separate policy entitled “Loose Puss [pronounced ‘poose’] for Snus.”

Balfe’s eye-catching manifesto also includes a pledge to allow any student who wants to be TCDSU President for a day to do just that, but how does he plan to assure voters that he will fulfil his promises during the time whilst he is the one holding that post? “I don’t want to underestimate the difficulties of getting things done in the student union,” he conceded, adding that he did not want to be “overambitious” in his own abilities. 

Nonetheless, he said he would give students a “cast iron guarantee” on his promises, vowing to run a double marathon around the cricket pitch whilst naked on the final day of his mandate if they go unfulfilled. “As long as things have gone well, there should be 12 giant sequoia trees … at best it doesn’t happen, at worst, it’s a lovely run through the forest.”

On whether or not students would be receptive to his policies, Balfe believed there will be “one clear, unified voice” among them which says: “‘God, this is good. Why didn’t we do it sooner?’”

Amidst the relative chaos of his plans for the presidency, Balfe’s tone took a seemingly more sobering note as he analysed the overall would-be impact of his policies. “One issue that is close to my heart is mental health, and I think one thing that often gets overlooked by all kinds of institutions – and often universities – is how much material factors impact mental health.”

“If you’re waking up every day with anxiety about money, your living conditions … that is going to have a huge impact”

“It’s one thing to have an underfunded and under-resourced Student Counselling Service — that’s a problem, it should be addressed. But even if you have the best counselling service in the world, if you’re struggling to pay your rent, if you’re waking up every day with anxiety about money, your living conditions … that is going to have a huge impact.”

He believed that his policies are grounded on “improving student life in the most direct material ways possible”, offering a chuckle at the end.

Such plans might face obstacles by the College administration, so how does he intend to remedy this? “First off, I’d take Linda Doyle out for dinner… not in a weird way,” he quickly clarified, referencing his manifesto’s plans for him to take over her on-campus residence.

“Quite a lot of my proposals will require working with College, so I think there’s no harm in building up a good, amicable relationship,” he explained.

Balfe was asked about the possibility of students perceiving his campaign to be a joke – and, in a case of the Law of Inverse Consequences being in full swing, deciding to vote for him on that basis. What then, if Balfe is voted in?

“This election and this campaign are as serious as you make it,” he said. “I am running to be [TCD]SU President, and I have the intention of winning the election.”

“I think that my opponent, sure, she may have an in-depth understanding of [TCDSU] and how to make it work, and she would, without a doubt, fight for every single student in this college. But she also does improv, which is pretty lame,” he argued.

To conclude the hour-long interview, Balfe was asked why students should give him their support in the election. “Because I’m the best candidate,” he answered frankly.

“I think people should vote safe, and vote Ralph.”

Have your say: Fill out the Trinity News election poll here.

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.