The high amount of candidates in the SU Election signals increased political interest amongst students

Luke Fox Whelan discusses how politics is getting divisive both inside and outside of the college, and why we are seeing increased engagement with our students’ union

For a week, the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) elections were the most contested they’ve been since 2015. Michael McInerney dropping out of the comms race makes the number of candidates the same as in 2021, but that nine-year high of candidates should still be discussed. After all, McInerney stated that he only dropped out of the race because of pressures outside the Union must assume that this high number of candidates proves that there is significant interest in student politics right now.

“Though the frequency and style of protest has changed under the current sabbats, this does not necessarily point to higher levels of engagement in the student body at large”

This only considers the most active students in student politics, of course. A look at the pre-campaigning bios of candidates reveals, unsurprisingly, more senior students who have been heavily engaged with the union for quite some time, or politically active outside the College. You could point to the increased number of student demonstrations, such as blockading the Book of Kells, as a sign of broader engagement at large, but these are carried out by only a handful of people at a time. As it turns out, the Book of Kells can be very easily blockaded by a very small number of politically dedicated students. It’s the same with Regent House. Perhaps College ought to put more than one door on these places (or engage with protesting students meaningfully, but that’s another matter entirely). Though the frequency and style of protest has changed under the current sabbats, this does not necessarily point to higher levels of engagement in the student body at large.

What does point to higher levels of student body engagement in politics, however, are referendum campaigns. This year has seen a number of attempts made to change the TCDSU constitution – some successful, some not. The recent referendum for a sabbatical Oifigeach na Gaeilge was not only a stunning success, but had the highest turnout for a referendum in six years. The unsuccessful Chapter 1.4 referendum campaign paints a clearer picture. In response to the union’s anti-Israeli stance in the current conflict, a movement began to “depoliticise the union” on the basis that it must represent all students, as all students are signed up to it upon entering the College. New language of pursuing union objectives “in a radical, egalitarian and autonomous way” was moved to replace the current final line in Chapter 1.4 but failed to reach the council votes needed to amend the constitution. It then became a public campaign, gathering the 500 petitioners needed to trigger a referendum, although this was subsequently cancelled due to legal concerns surrounding a reference to Christian extremists. All this generated significant publicity and sparked a conversation with students otherwise not involved in student politics. . The radical goals of this year’s union have not only been in the spirit of popular politics, but have had to engage popular politics too.

Though not all newly invigorated political activity is pro-union policy. The “TCDSU4ALL” campaign to “depoliticise” the union, although claiming to be apolitical, presents a reaction to the left-wing policies of the majority of the union. A policy of advocating neutrality when the union attempts to take left-leaning stances, such as supporting BDS, organising renters’ protests, and affiliating with left-wing unions and parties, is not apolitical; it is reactionary. While it is less active than either the union or independent left-wing groups on campus, it still claimed a role in the defeat of the 1.4 motion in council. It appears that the vast majority of politically active students are not reactionaries, judging by the online unpopularity of this movement and their lack of in-person mobilisation, but strategies for combating reaction and right-wing movements are worth consideration as we, and Irish society as a whole, move into a more divisive political culture.

“Postgraduates aren’t going on strike because of idealism. It’s because it is getting harder and harder to live, let alone be a full-time student or researcher in Ireland”

This brings us to a clear motivator for increased engagement with student politics that’s been left out so far – the necessity of engagement with politics outside of college, too. It is worth noting that the nine-year high of candidates coincides with the end of the recession. We are now seeing a similar cost-of-living crisis, similar conditions for students (particularly flocks of medicine students emigrating), and a housing crisis that was never fully solved since that time. Visibility is one thing – no doubt every student council president aims to get as many people as possible involved in their campaigns – but it isn’t the whole story. Postgraduates aren’t going on strike because of idealism. It’s because it is getting harder and harder to live, let alone be a full-time student or researcher in Ireland. 

The right-wing riots at the end of last year show another factor that pressures people into political engagement. Politics are getting divisive, even violent, in a way that Irish political culture, previously proud of “not really having left or right,” has had a harsh wake-up call to. The right-wing is mobilising in a way we have never really seen in Ireland, and a political establishment proud of not doing something so impolite as taking a partisan position can’t muster a proper response to popular needs and desires such as tackling the far right, making sacrifices of private property rights to solve the housing crisis, or to take a bolder stance on Israel. Engagement and visibility are secondary; the underlying motivators of political participation are material.

Linking national and international politics with immediate student issues has been a deliberate and successful strategy. I asked László Molnárfi to comment on whether he perceived a link between increased radicalism and increased engagement. TCDSU’s new visibility is “is in no small part due to focusing on material issues that students care about, and then connecting it to a larger picture…At each turn, we connect [the recent campaigns of the SU] to a larger picture of the world, what is wrong with society and how we can chart a course to fix it.” It’s part of moving the union away from single issues and toward “the transformation of society as a whole” – a tactic that has caused the pushback mentioned above, but judging by the general reaction of apathy or annoyance that has met the reactionary campaign, a tactic which was well-judged.

In a climate of radicalism and increasing engagement outside a core group of student politicians, a holistic political platform, rather than a list of single-issue promises, will win over the electorate.

Correction: This article was corrected on March 12 at 2.20pm to clarify the 500 signatures collected were to trigger a referendum about the wording of the union constitution.