The highs and lows of TCDSU 2023/24

This year’s sabbatical team has been memorable, both for their successes and for their missteps

Compared to previous years, this cohort of sabbatical officers has been the most politically active in recent history. As the face of the union, President László Molnárfi has expanded political engagement on the premise that radicalism is the only viable path toward change. From rent freeze strikes to Book of Kells protests to Free Palestine sit-ins, and more, Molnárfi has steered the union further towards direct action and radical disruption.

To his credit, the union has been successful during his tenure largely because of his advocacy for students’ rights. When it comes to what the union fights for, it’s undeniable that it has tangible positive effects for the future of students, such as ensuring a rent freeze on campus following the Book of Kells blockade.

However, several persistent issues have severely undermined the reputation and public perception of the union, predominantly stemming from the asynchrony of the sabbatical officers and Molnárfi’s execution of his political aims. 

Only a book would be the appropriate length to address every move the union has made this year. So I’ve compiled a highlight and lowlight reel outlining the victories and misfires of the 2023/24 student’ union. 

Highs of the union

Despite likely giving her multiple headaches, even Provost Linda Doyle had to give this year’s union its flowers. Following the 2024/25 sabbatical elections in February, in an email addressed to all members of College, Provost Linda Doyle said: “In my time at Trinity, the 2024 SU elections have been the most documented, most discussed, and most contested elections”. 

It’s no coincidence that the most “discussed” and “contested” election trails the heels of Molnárfi’s “radical leftist” union. His grassroots and radicalism have swung open a door inviting students from every corner of Trinity’s campus to voice their concerns and take action. This door is unlikely to close and is susceptible to chaos, but that’s something for later. 

From day one of his presidency, Molnárfi made clear that he would not be silent and subservient to unsuitable policies and he would encourage as many others to do so. By not remaining silent, they’ve not only been covered by student media but also gained national recognition for their protests in the Irish Independent, The Journal, and more. 

Like a prophecy studied for centuries in the future, in the beginning there was the first crowning jewel of this sabbatical team: the rent freeze.

In early September, Molnárfi and other protestors gathered on the steps of the Long Room and blockaded the Book of Kells entrance for hours on the premise that “if they take money from the students, then the students will take money from College”. This came after College announced in June that accommodation prices were to be raised by the maximum legal limit of 2%.

College, on the other hand, was very displeased. Dean of Students Dr Richie Porter told Trinity News: “They’re biting the hand that feeds them”. An interesting comment to make given the burden of exorbitant academic fees and accommodation prices put onto students by College.

A week later, an open letter addressed to the Provost demanding a two-year rent freeze and “threatening [further] disruptive action” if not complied with by October 11. 

Finally, on October 26, College agreed to a rent freeze for the 2024/25 academic year. This rent freeze affair took place within the first month of this academic year and has been hailed as a major success. In many ways, however, the behaviour of the union in the months that followed can be tied back to the rent freeze strike. 

By disruptive and escalating actions, in one month TCDSU was emboldened by concessions from College. If a path has led to success, why would you risk doing anything different? As the saying goes: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Although the rent freeze led to a positive outcome for students, perhaps it also marked the undoing of the union as it solidified its rebellious ways.

The union was also praised for its handling of the Dublin riots back in November. Amid the riots, the union, in collaboration with societies and the broader College, worked to provide food and shelter for over 100 students forced to seek refuge on campus. They worked to ensure students’ safety and keep the College community updated. A terrifying ordeal for many, the union was quick to denounce the far-right extremist groups that orchestrated the riot and left Dublin reeling.

Molnárfi and the union have also been outspoken on the conflict in Gaza, unwavering in their support for Palestine and efforts to push College off its neutral stance. From sit-ins, to other Book of Kells protests, to flag drops, and more, it’s admirable how the union will not surrender on matters it wholeheartedly believes. When Dominos, a former TCDSU sponsor, made posts supporting the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), the union wasted no time reevaluating its affiliation with its longtime headline sponsor. Although false claims were initially made that ending the partnership would result in a “billion-dollar” lawsuit, ties with Dominos were formally ceased in early December, replaced with Apache Pizza. 

Although this year’s union has had many other triumphs, the last of its hall of fame is likely the instating of the full-time Oifigeach na Gaeilge (Irish Language Officer) within the SU. The referendum which created the position also granted the Irish language official constitutional status within the union. This not only incentivizes students of all backgrounds to engage with the Irish language but gives it equal status to English within College, an undeniable positive step for inclusion. 

Lows of the union

The TCDSU Constitution lies at the heart of this year’s union controversies. Throughout the year, Molnárfi has been involved in several campaigns to alter the wording of section 1.4 of the constitution which identifies the aims of the union and affirms its objectives must be pursued “independent of any political, racial or religious ideology”. The Oversight Commission (OC) stated section 1.4 regards the union as apolitical to protect students of all backgrounds, but they’ve never applied this strictly. If that were the case, groups like Trinity Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) wouldn’t be allowed to exist. 

Molnárfi aimed to change the wording to allow the union to act through “radical and egalitarian” means to facilitate TCDSU political involvement. The alteration would further include a prohibition of far-right groups and policies within College. Although the motion failed several times, Molnárfi said he would “keep being political in defiance of 1.4”, even after he received several warnings and strikes by the OC. 

If rules are not effective, the democratic process allows for alterations to be made if the majority chooses. The cornerstone of democracy is the voice of the people. A president is made to reflect people’s interests, not to solely promulgate their own agenda. The motion(s) on section 1.4 failed and this cannot be misconstrued.

The OC was accused of basing Molnárfi’s violations on a longstanding precedent which is “undefined”. Perhaps the malleability of section 1.4 is problematic. But even so, it doesn’t absolve abuse of process. After all, Molnárfi admitted to violating the constitution and stated his “faction is too strong” for him to be impeached, a concerning remark by a leader installed to represent 20,000-odd people.

TCDSU President-elect Jenny Maguire said if the rules don’t work to Molnárfi’s advantage, they should be broken.  

Students, aside from his small faction, never implored Molnárfi to commit illegal acts, stage a mass walkout, or be a symbol of radicalism for College. With recent events, Molnárfi has surpassed civil defiance for progress and entered anarchy and rebellion. 

Just two weeks ago, Education Officer Catherine Arnold resigned, citing “consistent issues of a toxic workplace environment”. In recent history, no sabbatical officer has ever resigned before their term ends. Although we may never fully understand why Arnold chose to resign, and no one else has come forward to affirm their claims, it begs the question of whether this year’s sabbatical team was ever really unified in its political demonstrations.

In turn, the question we should all be asking ourselves is whether our SU should act of its own volition or by the will of the students. Civil and political defiance are tried and true tools to promote change, but everything has its limits. Many would rather have a strong, unified union that acts in accordance with students’ wishes, than one steered by a misguided officer, albeit with good intentions.

What comes next?

It’s safe to assume that next year’s sabbatical team will maintain a politicised union. With the successes of this year’s team, continuing with an outspoken and passionate union headed by Maguire means we will likely see another year of a union rightly holding to account the institutions dictating students’ quality of life. Whether they will follow Molnárfi’s footsteps of also defying the institutions it is held accountable to remains open.

Gabriela Gazaniga

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