Observer journo of the year Donal Fallon delivers a verbal tour de force regarding the MSU elections
Some observations on the election that appears to be being fought in the pubs of Maynooth, and not around key issues. If students pay the wages of their Student Union, Donal Fallon argues, it’s vitally important they elect a strong union.
In my three years of third-level student activism, the mass-campaign I am most proud of being involved with was the campaign to bring Maynooth Student Union back into the Union of Students in Ireland. The role of the Free Education for Everyone network in that campaign was acknowledged by the executive of the USI at the time, and it marked a radical departure for Maynooth, which for so long had been outside the main student political arena in this country
With it, I hoped we would see a new kind of student politics in Maynooth. Being part of a national union, the Student Union here took on a new importance, one which went beyond the parish pump. With the parish pump in operation, nothing said in the hunt for a job with the union counted for much. Last year, I heard outlandish promises made regarding a new canteen for example. Were any of the candidates going to wear a hard hat and construct us a canteen? Were they implying the Union had the power to instruct others to do so? It made little to no sense.
Many who don’t vote in the SU elections do so on the grounds that there is a perception that:
1) Candidates will say anything, no matter how bizarre, in the hunt for a full-time paid position.
2) Candidates come from a clique that is already in place around the Union, and new candidates are unlikely to break through.
3) The elections are reduced to a competition where a winner is determined on the basis of who could afford the most Haribo packets or customised t-shirts. This is due to the absolute lack of regulation in our elections. There is no real desire to introduce any kind of regulation, as many of the people in the union have ambitions of running again (and again and again…)
During the recent General Election, one of the stories which raised a laugh in many circles was that of Bertie Ahern’s old pal Cyprian Brady and his hunt for votes in Cabra. Brady, quite foolishly, was reported to be handing out sweets in the vicinity of polling stations.
Of course, this was worthy of ridicule. Brady knew he would be punished for government policy, and was attempting to save himself in a manner that said nothing to anyone, putting forward no ideas for consideration.
Here at NUIM, the last week or so has seen much the same. Thankfully, the chalk which plagued us in years gone by appears to be no more, but the same gombeenism exists around freebies and completely outlandish promises. On one Facebook page, I see the need for a swimming pool on the north campus highlighted. Once more, the ‘one purpose student card’ pops up left,right and centre. People have been promising this since I arrived here, and probably long before me.
The image of a paid, full time member of the executive canvassing for one of the candidates perhaps marks a new low in terms of Student Union elections here at NUIM. The Welfare Officer has perhaps the most demanding job of the executive. While there are huge challenges for every member of the executive, the Welfare Officer deals with issues such as crisis pregnancies or students in precarious financial situations.
To be told your Welfare Officer has ‘taken a week off’ to campaign for someone in the elections is ridiculous. It is downright offensive too, on the grounds that we are the ones who pay the wages of those in the Student Union. If one loses a family member, of course we must expect them to take leave of absence from work. In this case however, it appears a full time paid worker here has taken a week off to canvas. Many around the Union have been criticised in the past for political affiliation, but would any elected Labour, Sinn Féin or even Fianna Fáil member take a week off from such an important to campaign for a friend seeking a full time paid job themselves? One would hope not!
In response to discussing this matter on boards.ie, three students found ourselves banned for a week. Last year, we were told that boards.ie would become an ‘official communications outlet’ for the Union. It was noted in the present VP Comms manifesto that “Boards.ie will be an official channel for NUIMSU” It obviously isn’t, if it’s not moderated by the Union themselves. Like many things from all corners, it was clearly just something thrown around before an election.
This election appears to have been fought not on the campus, and not over vital issues of local and national importance, but in the public houses of Maynooth. Almost all candidates, who I added on Facebook to get a better idea of their personal policy, appear to spend more time uploading photographs of themselves in the smoking area of the various pubs and clubs in Maynooth. In at least one case, barstaff (and not one member of staff, but an entire team) in one particular pub have been seen wearing t-shirts endorsing a vote for a particular presidential candidate. This kind of stunt belittles the election. The majority of candidates partake in such nonsense.
The time for outlandish promises, Haribo sweets and t-shirts should be coming to an end in Student Union politics here. Rumours of one candidate even having a personalised shot on offer in a Maynooth club bring a new level of absurdity to SU elections anywhere In UCD and other universities, each candidate is given a certain amount of posters/leaflets and other literature they can distribute. They are all on a level playing field. This is the model we need to copy. Let candidates be elected on the back of their campaign and manifesto, rather than how many bedsheets they could hang off the bridge or how many random Maynooth students they could photograph themselves next to.
A Fine Gael government will equal more savage austerity cuts, with education to the fore of their plans. A Graduate Tax is inevitable. The Union of Students in Ireland must consist of activists with the experience and commitment to fight for free education. On a local level, our union must lead the way in protecting services on campus. Make your vote on the basis of manifestos, and not a Twibbon.
This University refers to students not as ‘students’ in its internal documentation, but as ‘clients’. To them, we are nothing but customers. Are any of the candidates going to fight to change the relationship between students and the university? Are any of the candidates going to increase links with staff on campus, where many areas of common concern rest? We don’t know. All we know is that most of them have cameras, sweets and lots of energy at least.
It’s time we took our Union more seriously. The SU is more than a pub. Read the manifestos, know what you’re voting for and get active.
Donal Fallon is a third year history student at NUIM. He is an activist with the Free Education for Everyone network and blogs at Come Here To Me.
“We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.”