With the election of Katie Ascough, Orla Keaveney questions whether student politics really matter, and to who?
LAST November, the UCD student body voted “No” to the referendum for SU neutrality on the issue of abortion, showing resounding support for the existing pro-choice stance. Four months on, Katie Ascough, a vocal pro-life campaigner and head of the neutrality campaign, is elected the UCD SU President for the coming academic year by the same students. This change in voiced opinion over such a short space of time calls into question whether UCD students take their SU seriously as a political organisation.
It could be argued that Ascough’s supporters were more interested in her other policies, like mental health support, consent classes and reducing financial pressure for students, and were willing to put her personal views aside. But Philip Weldon, the Repeal the 8th activist who finished 113 votes behind Ascough when the other candidates’ votes were redistributed, shared many of these policies on his manifesto.
The main distinction between the candidates, besides personal views, was the campaigns they ran – Ascough’s team had a larger campus presence, her social media campaign had considerably more traction, and prioritising her promise of microwaves made her message simple but resonant.
“Ascough doesn’t have the power to hamper campaigns like the UCD for Choice movement… But if this is the case, is there even a point in voting in the elections at all? “
Considering the contrast between the defeated neutrality referendum and Ascough’s victory, it seems that voters in either case must have been swayed by buzzwords and campaign prominence, without taking the time to look into the candidates or issues in more depth.
When Ascough’s victory was announced, there was outcry from students who strongly opposed her views on abortion, LGBTQ+ rights and feminism – some went as far as to call for her impeachment before she even took office. Their main consolation was that Ascough didn’t really have the power to hamper campaigns like the UCD for Choice movement, as the SU constitution compelled her to follow the SU’s stance on abortion despite her own views. But if this is the case, is there even a point in voting in the elections at all?
Less than 3,000 students voted in the presidential election, not even 10% of the current UCD student population. As strange as it is to see students contradict themselves in their voting, it’s more concerning that so many are apathetic about our SU’s future – it’s a clear sign that the student body doesn’t see the value in the work of their representatives.
Most students are uncertain about the power the SU actually has to advocate their needs. The visible parts of the SU are its shops, class reps, and its events throughout the year. None of these will be greatly affected by the election results, and students see them as another part of UCD life. The general feeling is that, if the SU didn’t organise these things, someone else would.
“Less than 10% of UCD students voted in the election. As strange as it is to see students contradict themselves in their voting, it’s more concerning that so many are apathetic about the SU’s future.”
It’s in the behind the scenes work that the individuals within the SU have the greatest impact, yet this is also where the results are less obvious. For example, current Campaigns and Communications Officer Luke Fitzpatrick and a team of college officers have been working all year to overcome Campus Service’s objections to faculty microwaves. Yet during the SU elections, few students were aware of the progress that had been already been made, and credited Ascough with being the first candidate to prioritise the issue.
The lack of engagement with the SU could be symptomatic of attitudes towards politics on a national scale. Young people increasingly rely on social media as their primary news source, satirical pieces like Waterford Whispers articles are spread more widely than serious reporting, and therefore have a greater influence on students’ world view.
The effects of this phenomenon were evident in UCD just weeks ago. On Thursday the 30th of March, two public figures came to speak on campus: Blindboy Boatclub, one half of comic duo The Rubberbandits, and Frances Fitzgerald TD, the current Tánaiste and Minister for Justice. Blindboy packed out the Fitzgerald Chamber with a talk on mental health, which criticised the state’s handling of the issue.
Meanwhile, about twenty students took the opportunity to speak directly with one of the most powerful politicians in the country, who could even be a contender for Taoiseach. The advertising and timing of the events may have contributed somewhat to the turnouts, but the wide gulf clearly illustrates that many students prefer to make fun of the political system than to engage with it.
The SU needs to adapt in order to prove its worth to the students it represents. Ascough has promised to “bridge the gap” between the SU and the student population, with more frequent opportunities to give feedback and voice concerns. The SU could also make better use of its class reps and events to keep students aware of their activities, since these are the strongest existing points of contact. But without the implementation of effective changes, the existing trends of poor turnouts, inconsistent voting and political apathy shows no sign of improving.