Taking it too far: the danger of the “joke candidate”

Kate Bryne analyses the ethics of running a joke sabbatical campaign

With campaigns for the TCDSU sabbatical positions well underway, and the high number of 13 candidates fighting for our votes, there’s been great debate and discourse around campus. Two candidates in particular, Ralph Balfe, (presidential candidate), and Nathan Harrington, (Welfare and Equality candidate), have received much attention for their so-called “joke” campaigns. 

At the start of the campaign, you would have been fair to assume that between the two candidates, Balfe would garner the majority of attention. Promises such as the creation of a “Book of Kells World” theme park seem pretty outrageous, and the idea of allowing every student to be president of TCDSU for a day is ambitious. However, it is his outlandish manifesto and his bizarre “beliefs” that make him distinctly a “joke” candidate. 

Despite Balfe’s many attempts to win the hearts and humours of Trinity students, much more attention has been paid to Nathan Harrington’s meme-filled manifesto. Harrington, who blurs the line between genuine and jest, has stirred major discourse throughout the College. Within his comic-sans manifesto, Harrington promises to house his “homies” in “the front square accommodation you get when elected” and “make shag week more shagalicious”. Pretty similar to Balfe’s humorous promises, right? The issues come when you examine the other aspects of his manifesto. 

Promises to use his entire salary of €19,042 to buy students chocolate are placed alongside plans to improve student counselling and the introduction of prioritised fire escapes for disabled people. Harrington is playing a dangerous game by refusing to define his campaign. While he pointed in his interview with Trinity News that the cost of living crisis is affecting students and young people, he also stated at Welfare and Equality Hustings that donating his salary to a food bank would do little to help anyone. While he has noted that abortion is an important topic to him, he also referred to the 2018 referendum on the issue as the “repeal the eighth thing”. They say that actions speak louder than words, but there will be little action for Harrington within the Student Union if he continues to choose his words as such. 

The difficulty with defining Harrington’s campaign is a direct result of the language that he chooses to use. The person that claims to have an interest in the needs of disabled people has also utilised the word “r*tarded” on his personal Instagram. The candidate has stated that he is running a “campaign of love and inclusivity”, but has made a mockery of LGBTQIA+ students in his manifesto, using them as the butt of a joke in a reference to queer sex education.

“The question of whether or not Harrington’s campaign is a “joke” comes down to the question of if it is funny”

On Friday, February 23, the electorate’s reaction to Harrington’s campaign of “love and inclusivity” was thrust further into prominence. Empower the Voice Dublin, a group that describes themselves as “a non-profit community for all people of marginalised genders”, accused Harrington of using his platform to mock marginalised groups. Speaking to Trinity News, the group stated that his “attitude is born out of unchecked privilege”. The question of whether or not Harrington’s campaign is a “joke” comes down to the question of if it is funny. While humour is subjective, many of us can agree that targeting the very students that walk through our campus every day is a pretty low blow. 

While there can be a great deal of privilege that comes with having the time, money and resources to run as a “joke” candidate, there have been “benefits” to their existence.  We have seen similar occurrences of joke campaigns outside of College. In 2018, presidential hopeful Bunty Twuntingdon-McFuff ran a joke campaign for the position in Áras an Uachtaráin. She suggested burning dead people for fossil fuels and turning the Áras into a hunting lodge and spa. Following a failed campaign, McFuff claimed that she “had to make her campaign outrageous to make her point”. The candidate believed that the quality of the other candidates was not up to standard, therefore felt that a joke campaign was the best way to draw attention to this.

“Even if you are not concerned by Harrington’s position on Welfare and Equality issues, you should be concerned with his inability to take accountability”

Such benefits are not relevant to campaigns such as Harrington’s. His campaign has drawn attention to the worst aspects of student politics, whether or not you agree with the statements that he is making. Yes, myself and many other students are in disagreement with Harrington’s position on most issues, but there are also issues with his approach to the arena of student politics. Harrigton has utilised his platform to actively argue against students who are critical of him, personally fighting against students in the comments of social media posts. When his manifesto was criticised for being harmful to marginalised groups, Harrington used his campaign Instagram to comment that he is “glad the hear” that the student “speaks for all of those groups”. While defending himself against EmpowerTheVoice’s protest, he called their statements “disgusting and defamatory”. Even if you are not concerned by Harrington’s position on Welfare and Equality issues, you should be concerned with his inability to take accountability. 

This is especially relevant when we compare Harrington’s campaign to that of Balfe’s. As a “joke candidate”, Balfe is doing similar work to what Bunty Twuntingdon-McFuff did in 2018. Think about it, students hate tourists and can be critical of their student union. Although outrageous, some students, in an ideal world, would jump at the opportunity to ban tourists or have more of a say in their student union. Whether you like it or not, Balfe is drawing attention to prominent issues in our College. The lines are not blurred between humour and genuine concern, however. Balfe shys away from making genuine promises and claims. Instead, when asked about serious issues during the Welfare and Equality Hustings, Balfe pointed to his opponent Jenny Maguire’s manifesto, noting that it was “maybe the best manifesto [he] ever read” and that he simply proposes everything Maguire had said. In a battle for the position of the joke candidate, Balfe wins by definition. 

Balfe’s campaign should not go without criticism, of course. There is a great deal of privilege that goes along with running as the joke candidate, and this argument extends to Harrington’s campaign as well. Running for a sabbatical position takes extensive time, money and resources that many students do not have access to. On top of this, other students give up their time to interview, platform and photograph these candidates as part of their campaign, and to be met with such lack-lustre answers can be insulting to those on the receiving end.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a joke as: “something, such as a funny story or trick, that is said or done in order to make people laugh”. The presentation of both Balfe and Harrington’s campaigns, through their manifesto, unserious speeches and lack of political awareness suggests that both candidates have aimed to be considered a “joke”. However, the lack of laughs garnered by Harrington’s campaign proves the danger of running as the “joke” candidate. When your campaign lacks definition, “funny” becomes foggy, “ambitious” becomes offensive, and “voters” turn into enemies. Nathan Harrington, joke candidate or not, has taken it too far.

Kate Byrne

Kate Byrne is the Deputy Comment Editor at Trinity News and is currently in her Junior Sophister Year studying History and Political Science.