With the UCDSU and USI acting as training grounds for many mainstream politicians, Nathan Young questions whether they can effectively oppose government policy
While every year the purpose of the Students’ Union is hotly debated, with just this year candidates suggesting it’s anything from a platform for charity events to “a family”, the single most important purpose of UCDSU, like any union, is to represent students politically. The newly adopted constitution is clear on this, with most points in Article 2-“Fundamental Objectives”, being of this nature. There’s a lot to be exercised about for students, politically. Setting aside the on-campus issues such as repeat fees for a moment, issues affecting young people and students are abound in politics. The housing crisis makes attending university near impossible for many, at least in Dublin. Rising HIV rates, heteronormative sexual education, and the pathologising of transgender identites, makes life harder and more dangerous for queer folk. Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for young people, yet access to mental health services is serverly limited. For those students that manage to survive these detrimental conditions; the oncoming climate catastrophe, about which our government are doing nothing, will surely take.
The blame for this situation rests, largely, on the “two and a half party system” that dominates national politics. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are the only two parties to ever form the government, and Labour, the only coalition partner to not face complete electoral oblivion after accepting the poison chalice of being the small partner in a coalition. Labour participated in a coalition with Fine Gael from 2011 to ‘16. The ideological and policy differences between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are so minute as to be barely worth discussing, with the Labour party having done little in its time to hold back waves or austerity and privatisation. In fact, the Labour Party were more staunch defenders of policies such as the privatisation of Irish Water at times than their allegedly more pro-capital partners.
Surely, then, the most dreaded enemy of any Students’ Union activist worth their salt should be Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour? Why, then, is student politics so full of people whose dedication is to these parties? The incoming Sabbatical team includes two former Auditors of UCD Labour, President elect Joanna Siewierska and C&E Officer elect Katie O’Dea. Sam Blankensee and Amy Crean, who both had tenures as LGBTQ+ Campaign Coordinators and candidacies for sabbatical roles in UCDSU, also hail from the Labour Party. Current president Barry Murphy is reputedly a Fianna Fáil man himself.
This is not a new trend in the Union. Past UCDSU sabbatical officers include several Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Labour politicians. Chris O'Malley, who was the president of UCDSU in 1979, was a Fine Gael MEP by 1986. Charlie McConalogue, who was Education Officer in 1998, immediately got a job in Fianna Fáil headquarters, eventually standing for local elections in 2009. 2005’s President James Carroll found himself in the Seanad, representing Fianna Fáil in 2009. There are many more examples from UCDSU’s history. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has a similar smattering with figures such as Eamonn Gilmore and Pat Rabitte.
The issue at hand here is not that UCDSU or USI activists should not go on to seek a career in politics, nor is it that the SU experience is being put on a CV. Rather, it is that if opposition to the policies of the major parties is so weak as to allow a seamless transition from the union to a government party, then the opposition can’t have been all that heartfelt. That, or it is so ineffective as to not have been noticed by those in power. Neither option is good for students seeking a voice on political issues.
This is not to ignore the activists and politicians who have come through SU politics and would not touch the major parties with a barge pole, but they are far fewer in number. Unsurprisingly, the Labour Party has the largest contingent of former SU officers. Perhaps this is appropriate, as both the Labour Party and the SUs suffer from the same delusion, it seems, of believing themselves as far more radical and supportive of their supposed demographic, workers and students, than they are. If being in an austere and conservative party doesn’t prevent one from representing students, then bedding the blueshirts and privatising water prevent one from representing the workers. It’s self evident that the mainstream parties are opposed to student interest on so many issues, and that the Labour Party in general does little for workers.
Ultimately most students, if they vote, may well vote for one of the three main parties in local, EU, or national elections. Most people do. This is irrelevant to who should represent an SU, however. Between political parties and competitive debating societies, there are plenty of places for young wannabe politicians to pretend to hold power. Meanwhile, the offices of Students’ Unions should be for those who genuinely want to cause our conservative politics some upset on behalf of suffering students.