During the last two years UCDSU had it’s first taste for a while of having sabbatical officers with experience as sabbatical officers, with Niall Torris having been President of Carlow College Students’ Union before having two terms as Graduate Officer, and Barry Murphy serving one and a half terms as President of the SU. This is standard practice in many Students’ Unions, and the Union of Students in Ireland tends to recruit to its sabbatical team people with sabbatical experience from member SUs. This was standard practice in UCDSU also, until a few years ago. Between 2000-01 and 2013-14 there were only 4 years where the president was new to the sabbatical team, as most years either the Welfare Officer or the Education Officer would step up to the top position.
The most obvious reasons for a sabbatical officer to serve multiple terms is experience. A large portion of the summer is spent by the Sabbatical Officers doing handover training, attending workshops and training days in external organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre, and so forth. While the majority of union work happens during term time, there are some students, mainly post-graduates, who are on campus for the summer who may need union support. Even after the training is over, a welfare officer who has been dealing with case work for a month will be somewhat less helpful, all other considerations aside, than one who has been doing it for thirteen months.
Institutional memory, however, is the most salient advantage to having a sabbatical team with returning members. Each year Andrew Deeks meets the new team, listens thoughtfully to their ideas, and even gives advice. Then they start working on plans which are too complex to finish within a year, what with all the reviews and committees involved. The charade can begin again the following year, when a new line up propose near the exact same ideas to Deeks and the Governing Authority (GA) of UCD. If there were some continuity among student representation on university committees, then the university itself would have to be less brazen in their ignoring of student concerns.
This isn’t just conjecture, either. The President of UCDSU has for a long time had a seat on the Finance, Remuneration and Asset Management Committee (FRAMC) of GA. As this is the committee that advises GA on financial issues, it seems like a powerful seat, however it has its limits. Submissions to the committee tend to be about risk assessment and appeasing the Higher Education Authority, so union submissions that address student issues tend to be ignored. Figuring this out relatively early, Barry Murphy requested a seat for the Union on the Capital Projects Group. Having been informed that that was a good idea, it nevertheless wasn’t until during the early months of his second term that he was given a seat, allowing his future teams more input into UCD projects. It seems highly unlikely that if a new SU president had been elected, the university would have felt the same pressure to provide this seat.
Most of this experience and applied pressure relates purely to committee work within formal university structures. This makes sense, as the roles of the college officers and campaign coordinators provide much of the relevant experience for internal union work. With the exception of case work, participation in GA and its subcommittees is the biggest difference in job description between a Sabbatical Officer and any other member of UCDSU’s executive committee. This may have drawbacks, however. For the past several years it has been impossible to talk to the president during semester one and not be told that Deeks is really interested in their ideas, and coming around to their way of thinking. It’s a naivety that may be somewhat diminished by having a multi-term sabbatical officer on the team, especially in the role of president, but ultimately one that exposes a more systemic problem in UCDSU, which is the reliance on formal university structures.
It is a running gag that at Hustings each year, candidates will say “I’m down for a protest if you are”. Actual attendance at protests among UCD students, however, is low, and none of the protests organised by the union ever take aim at the university itself. Organisation for participation in the Climate Strike included successfully petitioning the University for permission to skip class, which by definition makes it not a strike. Activists in Trinity College, on the other hand, have had major success in recent years with campaigns such Take Back Trinity, and currently are embarking on a campaign for rent strikes which USI’s deputy president, Michelle Byrne, has promised to support. Murphy may have gotten himself a nice committee seat in the Capital Projects Group, but at the end of his second term this seat was his only tangible answer when asked if his extended tenure as president had been beneficial.
Is there anything to be said for having another sabbatical term?
What all this means is that if any member of the current team is eyeing up a second term, or a move into the role of President, it may be time for them to start figuring out how to most effectively use committee seats and which committees they would like the union to get a seat on. The lesson for low tier union hacks aiming at becoming sabbats is roughly the same. For everyone else though, when it comes to election time Sabbatical experience should be seen as a plus in a candidate, but it has nothing on a serious commitment to bringing a real fight to Deeks.