The role of the Welfare Vice President is generally accepted as the most important sabbatical position within the Students’ Union (SU); even surmounting that of President at times. This elevated responsibility is partly due to a change in direction a number of years ago. “I think that a number of years ago Welfare took a step in a direction that could have been right at the time but one that we need to move away from now,” says Mícheál Gallagher. “That was a step towards too much service provision. We’re taking men and women in their early twenties and late teens and burning them out over the course of a year. I think we need to be turning the Welfare and Equality Officer into a role where they are campaigning for better service provision across the entire campus.”
That is a development that Gallagher will be able to act upon as President-elect of the SU. However, casting a thought back over the year and looking at his achievements, he focused on the financial accomplishments throughout the year: “I guess the biggest accomplishment would be two-fold. It would be in the financial remit of my job. When I say two-fold I mean number one, dealing with the SUSI crisis that grasped the entire country. I felt that we dealt with it particularly effectively here in UCD. Number two, in the aftermath of SUSI by addressing what is wrong with our welfare funds and reforming them in such a way that it is streamlined, easy to access service.”
Gallagher keenly notes that addressing the teething issues with the SUSI grant system were problems he foresaw developing before his election to the role in spring 2012. Dealing with these issues unfortunately falls at the feet of the Welfare Officer, and though he counts how he dealt with it as one of his biggest successes, it is equally part of the cause of what he lists as his biggest failing: not having the time to run many campaigns. “I’d have liked to campaign on more kind of varied topics this year. This year was particularly challenging in terms of office hours between 9am and 5pm. I’ll stand over it that I always prioritise casework over my campaigning, but if I could go back and do it again, I would have preferred to have more time for campaigning on welfare issues.”
This shortcoming didn’t stop Gallagher fulfilling his other remits and promises made before he got into office last summer. His first reach clinic that advised students who were unsure about seeking counselling was a welcomed service, while also developing UCD’s relationship with the eating disorders organisation Bodywhys and bringing AWARE on campus for the first time were significant achievements.
These achievements highlight the importance that Gallagher places on mental health awareness: “I do feel that this year was a particularly strong year in terms of talking about mental health and reducing the stigma. A lot of people in UCD do see me as a mental health activist, someone who is very much ready to pick up the mantle in this cause.”
However, the Welfare officer’s brief does not just incorporate mental health and dealing with financial worries. Dealing with problems that arise in Residences is a huge remit undertaken, and one that Gallagher takes seriously: “We do need to start playing hard-ball with Residences. As I said, one of the key themes from my manifesto is that I want to scale everything UCDSU does and start campaigning at the local level here that students give a damn about.”
While this is something he promises to continue work on, one clear downfall is not only failing to stop the practice of Residential Assistants (RAs) filming in students’ apartments, but allowing it to be introduced in a clause of the Licence to Reside, and allowing it to remain. In response he says: “The sabbatical team and myself brought this up with Hugh Brady last semester saying that this is borderline breaching human rights at this stage. Some of the feedback we got said that this would only be used in extreme situations and that it is impossible to write into license of residences that cameras may be used in extreme situations so they’ve left it as it is.”
When questioned about being too ambitious in his objectives involving Residences throughout the year, Gallagher rebuked: “In my Welfare manifesto, in the Residences section I think I was a bit ambitious, I think you should always be ambitious. You should always aim for the very top. They were difficult to deliver on, and if you look at my president’s section you’ll see that I’ve scaled it back and focused it all round, focusing on residences rights.”
Though a number of his promises remain unfulfilled, it’s difficult to fault Gallagher’s year in the Welfare Office. There is no questioning his work ethic, as one of few officers who work almost around the clock, and this is something that will stand to him next year as President. With unforeseen crises arising, such as the SUSI fiasco or ludicrous counselling service waiting lists, Gallagher has been quick to react, and put in place solutions to these problems to ensure all students get the assistance they need. In this role at least, that is almost more important than election promises.
Looking back on his year as a whole, Gallagher was keen to emphasise that despite being a testing year, he enjoyed representing and helping the students of UCD. “It’s just been an amazing eye opening year in terms of seeing how many students do need help with mental health issues and being a person that can point them in the right direction and bring organisations in to help them.”