#TCDSU21 Retrospective

The views expressed in this piece are purely my own, and not reflective of those of any other individual(s) or organisation(s).

With the TCDSU elections and my role in reporting on them now finished, I wanted to reflect on what lessons can be learned from the process both for Trinity’s own on-campus politics and more generally.

In short, I think the Burkean candidacy was handled badly. It’s no one’s fault (apart from, the people involved in it) that it happened, but given that it happened the campaign was allowed an unacceptable degree of impunity by the SU.

There is a reason it happened this year. In a regular SU election (where the primary medium of campaigning is having volunteers physically present on campus, accosting people, handing out leaflets and putting up posters) this candidacy likely wouldn’t have happened or would have been significantly less impactful. There are very few people who would be willing to be publicly identified with the far-right in order to campaign (this is the reason after all that so many authors on that website write under pseudonyms, and the candidate in question is pretty much the only member of the “editorial staff” whose identity is publicly known), and it is likely that the mood on campus would be quite hostile. It is not difficult to imagine volunteers for such a campaign being jeered at or its posters being torn down.

But this year everything was online, and that’s exactly the problem – it’s the far-right’s home turf.

What was done wrong

It was a significant stain on the electoral process that the Electoral Commission didn’t penalise the Burkean campaign for use of their “Irish Students Against Globalism” account. It continuously acted as an unregulated second campaign page subject to none of the rules of the election, it harassed other candidates, it harassed students saying anything remotely critical about the Burkean’s candidate, not to mention the basic problem that it’s account that has been used for huge amounts of explicit hate speech in the past. These are all things the EC has a duty to act on.

But do they have jurisdiction to do so? Undoubtedly, yes.

For a start, there is EC precedent for this; last year, a candidate was penalised after an anonymous “Trinder” post was made in support of their campaign. The reasoning was that if you don’t de-incentivise anonymous expressions of support, then every candidate would abuse online anonymity to break campaign rules. That infraction was one Facebook post, whereas the Burkean’s alt account posted dozens of times per day both before and during the campaign period. Thus even if this was an unidentifiable account that had randomly taken it upon itself to act as a candidate’s online enforcer, there would still be easily justifiable grounds to penalise the candidate for it.

But it wasn’t an unidentifiable account. It was an account that openly identified itself as affiliated with the Burkean, of which the candidate is a senior member of staff. Indeed, the candidate took personal credit in his campaign materials for the “Irish Antifa Project” which the account was set up for. He all but admitted to setting up the account. It is very likely he was personally controlling the account when it made many of these posts, but either way it’s effectively impossible to argue the account could have been used without his consent.

This clearly and obviously meets the definition of a campaign’s Online Presence as laid out in section 2.5 of schedule 3 of the TCDSU constitution which governs elections: “any online web presence controlled or generated by a candidate, or any persons acting on behalf of the candidate” (emphasis mine). Thus even without the precedent about anonymous campaigning set out above, the account was clearly subject to the electoral regulations and the Burkean’s campaign should have been penalised for its numerous breaches of said regulations, pretty much from the day nominations were made public.

Why we should care

Part of it is on principle. The Electoral Commission is set up to ensure elections are run fairly, that candidates don’t gain an unfair advantage over each other, and that personal harassment and abuse don’t occur. In this instance, none of those things were ensured. That’s wrong, and there should have been accountability for the cheating, abuse and bigotry right from the start.

The other part is what it means for the future. This is will empower the far-right on Trinity’s campus, because they’ve seen they can do a Donald Trump on it; engage with existing power structures for the purposes of attention, be absolutely horrible and bigoted, break all the written and unwritten rules, and still get away with it. Their paper-thin attempts to establish deniability and stubborn refusal to be ashamed when confronted with the awful, terrible things they’ve said and done have paid off. Their playbook of simultaneously presenting two faces – one “respectable”, erudite and willing to engage with normal institutions in a faux-good faith way and the other aggressive, openly hateful, and often anonymous – has proven to hold up very well in a Trinity context.

If you think I’m being dramatic because their candidate was handily beaten, consider this: three hundred and ninety people voted for them. After everything that candidate and his campaign manager have publicly said and done in the past. After everything that publication has published. Enough people to fill front square said “yes, I endorse that”. It’s not about winning elections – they never actually cared about controlling UT and knew they wouldn’t win – it’s about building power and reach.

So they’ll become more emboldened, they’ll be willing to speak and act more brazenly, their numbers will grow, and it’ll get to the point where maybe physically organising on-campus without fear or shame will be possible for them. And what the fuck kind of campus will we have then? How will LGBTQ+ students, BIPOC students, refugee students, or female students feel safe in that kind of environment? How can they feel safe now, when a candidate was allowed to get away with this?

So while this is about the election, and it is unconscionable that the Burkean’s campaign was allowed to break the rules and harass opponents, and there does need to be a reckoning with that inside TCDSU so it can be prevented from happening again, it’s also bigger. We must consider how we can stop these ideals taking root in our communities more widely.

Most importantly, we can’t accept the premise of deniability and the dual-personality shtick. The Burkean isn’t a “conservative” website, it’s a far-right one. It espouses eugenics, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, misogyny and classism. Some of its most committed fans on social media are literal, self-identifying neo-Nazis. The calm demeanour from the campaign update videos that just wanted to “dump paper” and the Twitter account that spreads propaganda about “violent bogus asylum seekers” and called Emer Moreau a “psycho intersectionalist” are the same people, probably the same actual person.

If someone did that on their official campaign account, they’d be booted out of the SU election and probably hauled in front of the Junior Dean. So why have we been letting them get away with it?

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