Analysis: The constitutional debate at the heart of TCDSU

After a year of constitutional breaches by the president, the EC and OC must decide whether the TCDSU constitution should account for expression of political ideology

When campaigning for Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) president last year, László Molnárfi made clear that the “union needs to be strong, grassroots and … call out the government”. If nothing else, he has lived up to this promise. One scroll through the TCDSU Instagram and it is safe to say protest announcements, government accountability, and reports on College’s shortcomings make up the majority of posts. 

Problems have arisen, however, when Molnárfi’s attitude and actions in pursuit of his goals have been called into question by the Electoral Commission (EC) and Oversight Commission (OC), the bodies responsible for upholding the union’s constitution. A year of “warnings”, as the OC described them, culminated in a lengthy report of Molnárfi’s constitutional breaches and a motion to censure him at TCDSU council last Tuesday. The ensuing discussion was not an argument of whether the union president broke the rules, but whether the rules should be broken. 

TCDSU constitution, section 1.4

The heart of the conflict between Molnárfi’s presidency and the current constitution, developed in 2014, concerns the ability to take political stances. Section 1.4 outlines the aims and principles of the union and states these objectives shall be pursued “independent of any political, racial or religious ideology”. According to interpretations by the OC, section 1.4 protects against the politicisation of TCDSU to cater to students of all backgrounds and beliefs. 

Molnárfi has been involved in campaigns this year to change this wording to one that allows the union to pursue its aims through “radical and egalitarian” means, arguing the current wording restricts the actions and stances of the union.

The motion to hold a referendum on 1.4 failed to reach a majority vote twice and was withdrawn on another occasion for potential religious discrimination due to a reference to “Christian extremists”. To pass, the motion required more than a simple majority. 

Despite this, Molnárfi said he would “keep being political in defiance of 1.4”, a promise criticised by the OC for failing to uphold the current constitution.

Constitutional violations

In the OC report presented in council on March 19, Molnárfi’s preferences for his own principles over the traditional processes of the union were laid out. 

The OC highlighted Molnárfi’s constitutional breaches and clarified that 1.4 does not prohibit the union from taking stances on government policies which may harm students. Instead, 1.4 prohibits the overall expression of political ideologies. 

Section 1.4 has not been interpreted to mean that TCDSU cannot engage in topics of a political nature. If that were so, student groups like Trinity Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (TCD BDS), for example, would not be permitted to exist. A referendum took place to enshrine TCD BDS within the union, as is the case with many other policies in the union. In application, 1.4 merely prevents mass mobilisation of the union under a particular ideology.

According to the OC, the breaches are a direct consequence of Molnárfi’s commitment to overriding 1.4. On a previous occasion, he admitted to breaching the constitution various times and stated that his “faction is too strong” for him to be impeached. 

The OC acknowledged that Molnárfi’s breaches are not tied to his stances on the government, but rather how the union executes their political agenda. In specifying the breaches, the OC detailed when Molnárfi held a voter registration campaign calling on students to “evict this government”. The OC determined this campaign to be an unconstitutional “official statement of the union’s position on those parties and politicians” under section 1.4. 

Defending the right to break rules

During council, the OC formally delivered the report on Molnárfi’s constitutional breaches and recommended a motion of censure in lieu of impeachment. STEM Convenor Ruaidhrí Saulnier promptly proposed the motion. 

Supporters of the OC underscore the importance of constitutional integrity and holding those democratically elected accountable for abuse of process. This is especially salient as Molnárfi has received various warnings throughout the year from stepping outside his bounds of power. 

On the other hand, Molnárfi supporters emphasise the need to be able to hold the government accountable in order for the union to work effectively. If the purpose of the union is to protect students’ rights, they believe that a critical step in achieving this is the ability to call out harmful government policies. 

Molnárfi’s defence of his actions have not hinged upon trying to claim he did not break any rules, but that the rules must be broken and changed.

In defence of the campaign, Molnárfi said: “[Government] representatives deserve to be held accountable in a public way, exposed, shamed and embarrassed in the press”. 

Speaking in support of Molnárfi at council, TCDSU President-elect Jenny Maguire also said:

“To punish László would be a contradiction of everything this union has stood for.”

“When a procedure stops a college officer from fully and unapologetically saying that this government doesn’t care about poor people… then let’s break them.”

The conflict here is not about whether Molnárfi violated the constitution. The fact of the matter is that he did, and there are no grounds for debate. The conflict is about whether the rules need to change to accommodate student influence and union engagement with external politics. And when it comes to changing the constitution, the EC and OC struggle to make a decision. 

A standstill

Molnárfi and a number of his supporters demonstrated their protests against the current constitution once again at council on Tuesday when they staged a mass walkout in response to the censure motion. When leaving, they called for quorum, which immediately stopped the vote as council no longer had the minimum amount required to vote. 

Just before the walkout, Molnárfi stated that “he will not stop being radical” and that the government is “the enemy”. 

In response, TCDSU class representatives Seán Thim and Colin Harper launched a petition to impeach Molnárfi, which received over 160 signatures in the first two days. It notes Molnárfi compromised the democracy of the council by staging a walkout to evade accountability and thus must answer to the entire student body. For an Officer Impeachment Referendum to be held, however, a minimum of 500 signatures is required.

With a small window of time available for a referendum to be called, and with one more council meeting planned, the argument remains at a standstill. The EC and OC have no more power beyond calling a sabbatical officer out for breaching the constitution, while Molnárfi will continue to breach the constitution when he feels it is necessary.

Gabriela Gazaniga

Gabriela Gazaniga is the Deputy Editor of News Analysis and is currently in her Junior Sophister year earning a degree in Law.