Looking back at the previous campaigns and experience of the sabbatical officers, Nathan Young wonders whether this year will be any different?
The Sabbatical team leading the Union are the most experienced we’ve had in a long time, with President Barry Murphy and Graduate Officer Niall Torris both returning to their roles. Former Welfare Officer Mícheál Gallagher’s presidency in 2013/14 was the last time a member of the team had previous UCDSU sabbatical experience, with 2006 being the last time there were two Returning Officers. This, combined with the fact that last year was largely dominated by the “Ascough Fiasco”, seems to set the stage for a year of competent, if undramatic, good government of the Union.
There are a few points of qualification that need examining, before the experience is taken to mean that the sabbatical team will be more effective than usual. First of all, despite his experience, Torris received a staggeringly low vote in the Carysfort constituency last year, the only constituency where every voter had already had Torris represent them. Of the 25 votes cast, 15 were spoiled, 6 were to re-open nominations, and a mere 4 voters opted to re-elect Torris. It is impossible to know if this pattern would have been repeated across campus if the votes of final stage undergrad students were discounted in the graduate race. What good is experience when your constituents are so unhappy with your performance?
The other qualifier on the SU’s experience is that the disappointments of last year didn’t stop with the end of the impeachment drama, or even the subsequent by-elections. Events in the second semester such as SHAG Week, which consisted almost entirely of a handful of gimmicks such as the cameo appearance from the “Rodeo Penis”, came as a disappointment to many students.
There is a fair case to be made that the time and stress that went into the impeachment takes at least partial blame for the lacklustre year, as the time when planning should have been taken place was wasted.
There are countless old adages about learning from mistakes, and both returning sabbatical officers had quite different manifestos in the most recent election than when they first ran. Torris’ focused on convincing the university to have a “Graduate Student Advisor”, something he learned the need for during his role last year. Murphy’s major campaign focus was on continuing the work of the Union and not allowing university authorities to hoodwink a new naíve team into ineffectuality. Perhaps this shows that past mistakes are being learned from.
The next question to consider is what will the Union try to achieve this year? After the aurduos campaign for the repeal of the 8th amendment, the Union is almost certainly not as united or radical on any other national issue, and the manifestos of all winning candidates were full of issues closer to campus. After the drama of last year, it is probably a good thing to have a year where funding for the counselling services and more effective management of the ENTS crew are made a priority. Every candidate at hustings claimed they were going to increase student engagement. Focusing on campus issues would be a better way to achieve this than the current efforts to increase the Union’s social media presence, as previously disengaged students could see a real difference made to their lives in UCD.
Of all the issues UCD candidates run on, the one mentioned the most, as well as the one that makes the least amount of progress, is funding and resources for the counselling services. In his manifesto, Murphy proposed a triage system for the counselling service, where a new employee of the counselling service will make sure that students seeking help are sent to the right people for the problems they face, potentially reliving the current strain on waiting times substantially. While Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett has no experience as a sabbatical officer, she has proven herself more than competent in her role last year as the Mature Students Campaigns Coordinator. If the combined experience and ideas of this year’s sabbatical team make any tangible improvement to the operation of the counselling services, and other areas of Union interest aren’t neglected, they will have achieved something that makes a real and serious difference to the lives of students.
Even with the lack of Executive experience, this year’s sabbatical team are bringing with them, it would be difficult to not have a better year than last, but last year was undoubtedly an outlier, and this year should be compared to a hypothetical average year. With national press probably not taking much of an interest in our affairs and national campaigns for referenda probably not being the focus of Union work, it would not be unfair for students to expect better RAG and SHAG weeks, a better ENTS presence, and better campaigns on campus.