Trinity, I love you but you’re bringing me down

This article was originally published in the April 12th 2022 issue of Trinity News, the final issue under my editorship. I hope you’ll forgive the uncharacteristic sentimentality.

With the conclusion of my term as editor approaching, I’m preparing to say goodbye to Trinity for good. That’s no small thing; I’ve been here longer than almost anyone who isn’t now actually teaching classes. I remember the buildings that used to be where the Business School is now. My student number begins with 15.

As I suffer from the kind of cloying nostalgia that comes with every major life transition, am I sorry to be leaving? Well, no, not really. The truth is, as much as I’ve loved (most of) my time here, Trinity is broken. It’s been that way for a long time.

This manifests in lots of ways. College’s unwillingness or inability to support its students is so profound and total that it’s literally killing people. It was noted at the last Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) Council meeting on April 5 that there has been one suicide a year in the School of Medicine alone for the last four years running.

As has also been noted by TCDSU of late, College’s response to the tragic death of another medical student in February was to pass the buck to the union’s education and welfare officers. All 18,400 Trinity students were advised to lean on two people who, for the Trojan work they do in supporting their peers, are also just students and don’t have any professional training in trauma counselling. This is Trinity’s idea of fulfilling its duty of care to its students. Meanwhile, the actual Counselling Service’s waiting lists just keep growing, and the broader question of why students from every Trinity faculty are so desperately in need of counselling remains unanswered.

The relationship between College and its students isn’t just characterised by neglect, though, there’s also actual hostility; I’m old enough to remember Take Back Trinity, when it was necessary for student activists to occupy the Dining Hall to stop the university introducing huge, regressive repeat exam fees. This piece of recent history was on my mind of late, when the College Board had to be talked out of jacking up fees for international and postgraduate students next year. I would be surprised if they don’t try again once the agreed year of grace has passed. It’s also worth remembering that in 2019, Trinity used students as bargaining chips in funding negotiations with the government by threatening to cut its undergraduate admissions by more than a fifth.

Postgrads should never be forgotten, of course. The way College treats postgrad workers is nothing short of abusive. If it weren’t for the handy blurring of lines between employee and student, the conditions under which many casual teaching staff are obliged to work would be outright illegal and College would very quickly find itself in front of the Labour Court. Even if these practices are technically legal (which sometimes they’re not), it’s just an absolutely abhorrent way to treat people. Trinity burns the welfare and dignity of graduate students to save cash.

Other, basic parts of the student experience betray how deep the malaise goes. Whether it’s the tooth-pulling exercise of trying to get Trinity to hand over class timetables each year (which has been a fiasco as long as anyone can remember), the Kafkaesque nightmare of even the smallest interaction with Academic Registry, or the inevitable administrative car crash of exams every single semester, it’s evident College is barely functional. Every part of it is so underfunded and over-bureaucratised it’s a wonder the light switches work.

These aren’t individual, disconnected policy problems. It’s all part of the same issue. College is in the throes of a decades-long identity crisis and a struggle to secure its own future. Years of abject neglect by government have left universities across Ireland strapped for cash, and Trinity’s solution has been to lean hard on international students and tourism as sources of revenue, while imposing a kind of austerity on almost everything related to being an actual university. Meanwhile, as a four-century old institution, Trinity retains many administrative anachronisms and a deep institutional conservatism around its core functions and structures. 

The result is a paradox; Trinity badly wants to attract sightseers and students from across the world who can be charged staggering fees, but both of these things are dependent on its reputation as a respected institution of learning. But its single-minded pursuit of a positive public image at the expense of basic functionality and student experience makes that reputation increasingly difficult to maintain. Thus, cracks keep appearing in the facade and College keeps slipping down institutional rankings; the harder it pursues its goals, the more unachievable they become. Trinity is like a stressed-out snake eating its own tail. The centre cannot hold.

I don’t point any of this to lay blame at any one person’s feet, or because I have a proposed solution. It’s possible there never were good choices for Trinity to make given the situation it’s been put in by years of neoliberal consensus in Irish politics. College’s strategy is undoubtedly making things much worse of course, and it’s clearly wrong for the university to throw students under the bus to save its own skin, but it would also probably be very hard for it to reverse direction now. 

I think the rot goes all the way through. I don’t know how it could be fixed now without a genuinely seismic upending of how third-level education is run in this country, if not the entire political and economic system. People are right to keep fighting for change in College, but I worry that the root causes of these issues are bigger than all of us, and that we may be doomed to play activist whack-a-mole forever. It’s not just that College doesn’t give a shit about us, it’s that College is structurally incapable of giving a shit.

If you’ll permit me some uncharacteristic earnestness: I’ll treasure the memories of my time in Trinity for the rest of my life. Coming here and getting through my degree was the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done, which is one of the reasons it took me so long. I’m walking away with friends and experiences that will define me for years or decades to come, and I just wouldn’t be who I am now without this place.

But I have the feeling about Trinity that I do about Ireland, these days: it never loved me back, and it never will, no matter how much I want it to.

I’ve had to find a way to accept that, while also accepting that I, and all of us, deserve more. In the words of Matt Damon’s eponymous character in Good Will Hunting: I’m holding out for something better.

How can you not be romantic about baseball?

This essay was originally published in the September 7th 2021 issue of Trinity News.

Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In school, I didn’t enjoy PE class. I was a weedy, asthmatic, bookish kid lacking the stamina and co-ordination that those two hours a week demanded of me. The problem only got worse once I reached second level, when I began to feel self-conscious and insecure in the hyper-masculine environment the likes of which only teenage boys can cultivate.

I wasn’t one for spectator sports either. I was mostly lost in discussions of football and rugby throughout my youth, despite a theoretical allegiance to Manchester United and Leinster, which I had really just inherited from my older brother and my county of birth respectively. It seemed like a fun thing to be interested in, and would doubtless have been a useful social shibboleth to have, but just didn’t do it for me.

But I always loved rounders. The most oft-forgotten GAA sport held, and continues to hold a special place in my heart. It was fast, exciting, and just manly enough without requiring me to throw or kick anything. The thud of a pitched tennis ball ricocheting off your racket and tracing a high arc across the park was enough to make anyone feel like Babe Ruth.

Perhaps it was nostalgia for moments like that which drove me towards baseball, years later, at the age of 20. What actually first caught my attention, though, was sabermetrics – the field of statistics as they relate to baseball. It’s a very unsexy and not at all romantic thing to be drawn to, but I like numbers. Numbers make sense. And baseball is full of numbers.

Like so many people, I saw Moneyball, and unlike many of those people, I was really very much drawn to the idea of winning a professional sporting title because you can write better Excel formulas than anyone else. I didn’t know anything about the sport, save that which I’d picked up on the rounders field, but I was of course familiar with its mythos and its place in US pop culture. And now I had an in.

So, I started reading through Wikipedia’s “Glossary of baseball terms” and watching old games on YouTube, and something strange started to happen. I started to get really into it. The team I’d arbitrarily picked to follow (on the basis that they’re sort of associated with NASA and space exploration, and I’ve always been a space nerd) went from an object of interest to one of pride and finally to one of almost religious importance.

I found myself staying up into the small hours of the morning to watch games taking place six time zones away (instead of staying up because I’ve always had a terrible sleep schedule). I bought a hat. I learned to yell “are you blind? There’s no f***ing way that was a strike!” at the TV. I became a sports person.

Baseball is not, on the surface, a very interesting sport. The average length of a major league game in 2021 is, according to Baseball Reference, three hours and eight minutes. The longest game of this season so far was a bit over five and a half hours, two weeks ago. Most of that time the game isn’t even being played. Hitters are adjusting their bat grip and taking practice swings, or pitchers are kicking at the dirt on the mound and spitting. The fans in the stadium spend a lot of the game talking to each other, drinking beer, and eating hot dogs rather than being enraptured by the action.

So what’s the appeal? Maybe we love baseball because of its emotional heights. When Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own shouted “there’s no crying in baseball!”, he could scarcely have been more wrong. I watched my beloved team lose (deservedly, unfortunately) in the final game of the 2019 World Series, at 4am, alone in my darkened kitchen. I’ve watched millionaire athletes sob or punch each other over the outcome of just one of each season’s 162 games. I know there is, in fact, a lot of crying in baseball, and every other kind of emotional outburst besides.

Because though baseball is slow, it makes up for this by concentrating all the excitement, tension, and pressure into one or two crucial moments a game. You can physically feel it, that tightness in your chest, as the hitter steps up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning. There are two outs, his side is down by a couple runs, the bases are loaded, and it’s the last game of a postseason series. You could be a hundred metres away in the stands or a thousand kilometres away watching a livestream, but when the batter and the pitcher lock eyes across 60 feet and six inches of grass and dirt and the whole stadium goes quiet, you might as well be standing behind home plate. And in just a moment, one team will explode into expressions of ecstasy, and the other will feel the bottoms of their stomachs drop. 

Hanks’ Jimmy Dugan was getting at something, though. So often the game is struggling with questions like whether grown men are allowed to cry. It speaks to something that all of the baseball stories in popular culture are partially about masculinity in crisis. Dugan (while not the star of the movie) angry and wretched, trying to get to grips with having his meteoric career shattered by alcoholism. Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane in Moneyball has never really recovered from his career never really taking off, and can’t figure out who he is if not a baseball player. The entire plot of Field of Dreams, supposedly the only film it’s popularly permissible for men to cry at, is about a guy who just wanted to play a game of catch with his now-deceased father.

Baseball, and by extension baseball movies, is the stage on which American men play out the drama of their inner lives, because they don’t know how or where else they could. Not only is there crying in baseball, perhaps baseball is the only place you get to cry.

But often-times, baseball doesn’t need us to write our personal stories in the margins. It has plenty of drama of its own. On 24 August 1919, Ray Caldwell, in his first game pitching for Cleveland, was getting ready to throw the final out of the game when he was struck by lightning. The bolt knocked off the catcher’s mask and the third base coach’s hat, and drove Caldwell to the ground. Many onlookers reported feeling a tingling sensation and their hair standing on end for several minutes after. After a moment, Caldwell got back up, dusted himself off, pitched, and forced a groundout to win the game.

Caldwell survived mostly unscathed, but a year later his teammate Ray Chapman would become the only person to date to be killed during a major league game, when he was struck in the head by a pitch.

But in terms of single pivotal moments that reinforce Billy Beane’s rhetorical question in the title of this article, perhaps nothing compares to game seven of the 2016 World Series. The Chicago Cubs were facing Cleveland, both teams had won three of the first six games, and the game was tied at six runs each after nine innings. The Cubs hadn’t won a national title in 108 years. When they won their 1908 World Series, the Ottoman Empire still existed.

With the game tied after nine, it would have to go on to extra innings. But then it started raining. Ohio’s Progressive Field isn’t a ballpark with a roof, so play had to be stopped.

It was just a comparatively short, 17-minute rain delay, but no doubt a tense one as the Cubs retreated to the visitors’ locker room. The players may have been thinking about the last time their team had reached the World Series but failed to win, in 1945. Or maybe the time before that, in 1938, or any of the other five times in 1935, 1932, 1929, 1919, and 1910. They may have been feeling a certain amount of pressure not to add an eighth entry to that list of almosts.

So Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward gathered his teammates together. He told them he loved them and that he was proud of them. He told them they were brothers, and that they had to look inside and remember all that each of them had done during the season to get to that moment. He said: “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best team in baseball for a reason. Now we’re going to show it.”

“I don’t know how it’s going to happen, how we’re going to do it, but let’s go out and get a win.”

And they went out and got it. Once the game restarted, the Cubs immediately batted in two runs and won their first World Series in 108 years.

I never thought I’d become a sports fan. Ray Caldwell never thought he’d be struck by lightning. Jason Heyward probably never thought he’d almost single-handedly break his club’s century-long curse. But in baseball as in life, everything can change in a single moment.

#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?

“There’s no going back”

Protestors in Babrujsk assemble in front of a statue of Lenin on August 16th 2020.

This article was originally published in Trinity News on November 22nd 2020.

Many of his own people call Alexander Lukashenko “the Cockroach”. Foreign media outlets frequently refer to him as “Europe’s last dictator”. He freely admits to having “an authoritarian style of rule” and until this year, he was the only person to hold the office of President of the Republic of Belarus since the country’s independence from the Soviet Union. But that may soon change. His grip on power, seemingly unbreakable for the last 26 years, is suddenly slipping in the face of unprecedented popular resistance.

When Art Balenok and Yuliya Aliakseyeva log onto our Zoom call, there is a white-red-white horizontal striped flag behind Balenok’s desk. The flag, which represented Belarus between 1991 and 1995 and the short-lived Belarussian People’s Republic of 1918-19, has become a symbol of popular resistance to the Lukashenko regime. This year, it’s been most frequently seen flying over crowds of protestors staring down armour-clad Militsiya – the national police force of Belarus.

Balenok, a journalist, and Aliakseyeva, who works in Trinity’s Buttery restaurant, are part of a Belarusian diaspora group in Ireland that has come together since July to mobilise support for pro-democracy protestors at home. Aliakseyeva estimates there are no more than a thousand Belarusians in total living in Ireland, and “we’re talking about 50, maybe 70 people who are really involved” in the group.

“Most of us didn’t really know each other before August or July,” Balenok says. “What the events of August 9 triggered was a never before seen unification of all Belarusians, within Belarus and outside Belarus.”

He’s referring to Belarus’ most recent presidential election. Since taking office in 1994, Lukashenko has claimed victory in five elections, none of which have been regarded as legitimate and free by international observers. This year was no exception. The voting was marred by violence, blatant electoral fraud, and the arrest of campaigners and independent observers.

The day after the vote, government officials and Belarusian state media announced that the president had won an almost comical 70-point victory over the main opposition candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, on 84% turnout. Tsikhanouskaya was, up until this year, a teacher and an interpreter with no prior experience of advocacy or political ambitions. She entered the race in May after her husband, blogger and activist Siarhei Tsikhanouski, was imprisoned for “organization or preparation for a grave breach of public order.”

Pro-democracy demonstrations had been held on-and-off since Tsikhanouski’s arrest in May, but with the announcement of the bogus election results, they erupted. “We all came together and became Belarusian, all of a sudden” says Balenok. “Each one of us on that night said to ourselves ‘what can and what am I going to do to help.’”

Belarus experienced waves of popular protest in both 2011 and 2017, but this year’s numbers have dwarfed any seen before. Estimates of the number of protestors in the streets on the biggest days range from 200,000 to more than half a million, out of a population of just 9.4 million. More than 25,000 people have been arrested, at least six killed, and hundreds injured.

“Everyone, everyone has been affected. People from every social class in the country – factory workers, teachers, doctors, pensioners, students, young people,” says Balenok. “Everyone knows someone who has been arrested or who is still in prison.” The universality of  the anger at the Lukashenko regime is reflected in the diversity of groups who’ve joined together to oppose him. Women’s groups, conservative Christians, social democrats, greens, and anarchists are just some of the factions who make up the opposition. Even small groups of Minsk municipal police officers have laid down their riot shields, refused to follow “criminal orders”, and recognised Tsikhanouskaya as the country’s leader.

Aliakseyeva and Balenok cite two key factors that differentiate this year’s protests from previous movements. The first is simply build-up; the protests in 2011 and 2017 were “so brutally suppressed, so quickly” according to Aliakseyeva, but people’s grievances continued to mount. “There was not enough critical mass of people” willing to stand in opposition, she says. “But it was all milestones that were leading to today. Everything that was happening at that time was generating momentum that was brought to the election, when it all exploded.”

The second factor is Covid-19. “The way the government handled the pandemic was atrocious,” says Balenok. Lukashenko made international headlines frequently over the past year for his dismissal of the pandemic, calling it “psychosis” and suggesting citizens visit the sauna or drink vodka “to poison the virus”. Balenok describes ordinary Belarusian citizens having to raise money to buy protective equipment for healthcare workers as the government refused to take the virus seriously. “It was people in Belarus who made things happen, and I am sure they saved a lot of lives.”

But the election was “the catalyst”, he says. “We always knew that this was happening. We turned a blind eye. But this year it was just too blatant.” And since then the country has been locked in “civil war, revolution, whatever one may want to call it“. Government forces continue to violently suppress demonstrations, with the United Nations Human Rights Office documenting upwards of 450 instances of torture in August alone. But protestors keep marching, night after night.

“You are constantly on Telegram, checking the news and YouTube, trying to think what you can do to help” says Aliakseyeva, on the experience of watching all this from afar. “We are all badly affected.” Balenok concurs, adding, “It’s as though we were there. Sleep has been affected quite badly. Overall my mental state has not been good at all.”

They’ve been in constant contact with friends, family members and others in Belarus as events have been unfolding. “People have been traumatised for life,” Balenok says. “The price has been so high that whoever takes part believes there is no way back anymore. The situation is never going to be the same as it was before election night.”

Within both the wider protest movement and the Irish group, there is a big emphasis placed on consensus. “We don’t have individual leaders. We don’t want them,” Balenok says. “There has been one of those for the last 26 years in Belarus.”

Nevertheless, they speak admiringly of Ms. Tsikhanouskaya. The opposition activist has rejected the results of the election, estimating that she received 60-70% of the actual vote, and worked from exile in Lithuania and Poland to gather international support. A few days after the election, she founded the Coordination Council, to develop “safe and stable mechanisms ensuring the transfer of power in Belarus.” The European Union and the United States have since ceased to recognise Lukashenko as the legitimate president of the country, and called for new elections.

“The way people feel about her has changed during the last few months,” says Aliakseyeva. “She was starting as a housewife, never taking part in politics. Since then she’s changed dramatically. She’s gathered a lot of very smart, intelligent and good people around her.”

“She’s openly said she’d like to go back home and continue making burgers for her kids,” says Balenok. “Her only presidential program was to become a transitional leader to take the country to a proper free and fair election.” He adds that “her goal was never to become president or to get personal power.”

This emphasis on grassroots organising is reflected in how the Irish diaspora group operates. The initiative wasn’t the brainchild of any individual person but came together organically. “We had a few protests in Dublin and other towns, before there was lockdown,” says Aliakseyeva. “People got to meet each other and make connections. We organised ourselves on a Telegram channel and tried to involve people from a Facebook group for Belarusians in Ireland.”

“All the diasporas are talking to one another now” Balenok adds, “trying to find common ways and effective ways of helping the country and helping the people.” Ireland’s Belarusian community is relatively small, the pair say, compared to those in places like Canada, the UK or Sweden. But they’re trying to build truly global solidarity – “we coordinate our ideas and actions with diasporas around the world.”

The Irish diaspora group has hoped in particular to forge connections between Irish students and their Belarusian counterparts, who’ve played a key role in the pro-democracy demonstrations. They’ve been encouraging people to send them videos with messages of support and solidarity, “to show that those who stand up against oppression and abuse are not standing alone.”

The group’s broader goals are very clear too. They want to “ensure that Ireland is part of a consolidated European front” to help enforce “effective sanctions against individuals and pro-government businesses in Belarus. We want them to play a key role in establishing the rule of law” as Balenok puts it. As part of this effort, they’ve been in contact with political figures in Ireland. “I should mention Senator Malcolm Byrne of Gorey. He spoke in the senate about Belarus, and we couldn’t be more grateful,” says Balenok. They also cite Frances Fitzgerald as an ally and advisor in their lobbying efforts.

More direct approaches are also being taken, according to Aliakseyeva. “Some of our members are helping people who’ve been fired or put in prison. We’re sending money, paying for their food.” Much of their effort has focused on camps in Poland and Ukraine where exiled Belarusians have sought refuge, many lacking basic necessities such as clothes and toiletries.

Though the community in Ireland is small, there are some unique connections between the two countries that Aliakseyeva and Balenok hope will play a part in mobilising support. Ireland hosted many Belarusians during the as part of Chernobyl Children International’s exchange programmes during the 1990s. Indeed, Tsikhanouskaya herself visited Roscrea, Co Tipperary numerous times in her youth. “Nothing is better than a personal touch” says Balenok, somewhat ruefully.

Despite a pragmatic desire for international support in achieving a transition to democracy, they reject utterly the regime’s characterisation of the uprising as a “foreign plot”. “Belarusians never wanted to side with Russia, or the EU, or America, or somehow to be against somebody” says Balenok. “What we want is to be integrated with the world community on equal terms. We don’t want to take sides.”

This pragmatism is a reflection of the seriousness of the situation. Not only are the Belarusian diaspora constantly bombarded with news of the regime’s brutality, it directly affects their own lives. “I’d love to go to Belarus for the New Year and celebrate it with my family,” says Balenok, “but at the moment I am not going to do that. I fear for my safety and my life.” Aliakseyeva nods in agreement.

But despite this steep cost being paid by the Belarusian people every day, at no point is there any question of backing down. Everyone is committed completely to seeing democracy achieved, no matter how long it takes. “It’s impossible to put a timeframe on it, although everyone would love to” Balenok goes on. “And so, we’re looking for that pressure to come from the EU in order to bring this to an end.”

 “People are scared and tired,” says Aliakseyeva, “but there’s no way back. No one knows how long it will take, but the regime will go down.”

Vote down the ballot or don’t, but know how it works: STV transfers

Ireland’s having an election tomorrow. And, as usual, it’s stressing me out a lot. One of the things that’s stressing me out is ongoing Twitter discourse about how best to use one’s ballot in an election under the STV system. In summary, people are offering competing and contradictory explanations as to why you should or shouldn’t rank candidates all the way down the ballot. The whole thing is confusing many people, many things that are being said are various combinations of misleading and outright untrue, and it’s becoming ever clearer that Ireland’s CSPE curriculum is not fit for purpose.

Like almost everything, I have a view on this, and, in the interests of disclosure, that view is that you should vote all the way down the ballot. But I’m not going to try to convince you of that, really. What I think would be more helpful is to outline, as simply as possible, how it affects an election when you do or don’t preference candidates. You can then decide for yourself how you’d like to use your vote.

This will not be an in-depth look at how STV  functions overall, how fairly it governs voting, or how it compares with other voting systems. If you’d like to learn more about STV voting as a whole, here are some good places to start.

How your vote affects things

There are two relevant things to understand about the mechanisms of STV vote transfers on this issue:

  1. It is impossible for a low preference on your ballot to count against a high preference on your ballot. For instance if you give, say, Labour your 6th preference, Labour will only get a transfer of your vote once the candidates you have ranked 1 to 5 have been either deemed elected or eliminated. So giving Labour that 6th preference can never, under any circumstances, reduce the electoral chances of your higher choices. It can only hurt ones you rank lower or do not rank.
  2. Until all seats in a constituency are filled, candidates will need to be elected. The bar to election will be lowered if no one can meet it. For example, let’s say the last seat in an election comes down to two candidates that I refused to preference, because I don’t want to “give either of them a vote”. All other candidates have been either deemed elected, or eliminated. One of those two candidates will have to be elected to fill all of the seats. Whichever of them has the most votes after transfers will be elected regardless of whether or not they meet the quota. If my vote doesn’t transfer, that just means the winner will need one fewer vote to win, because neither of them got it. I can’t hurt both, because it’s a zero sum game, so the bar is just lowered.

What this means

It does not make sense to vote only for the parties you like and not vote for the parties you dislike. As I outlined above, 1. you are never doing active harm to your preferred parties by also preferencing those you prefer less, and 2. a contest between the parties you don’t like may happen anyway, and when you don’t preference any of them, you’re simply removing the ability to influence that contest.

With all that in mind, the way your ballot works is that you stop preferencing  only when you have no preference between the remaining candidates. That is to say 1. you dislike all these candidates equally, and you dislike them all more than the ones you gave preferences to. Because the ones you refuse to rank are still competing against each other, you’ve just opted out of influencing that contest. If you care even a little bit about how that might turn out, you should express a preference.

Why I think you should vote down the ballot

So, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are terrible. Most of us agree on that. However, the various far-right parties of Ireland (Renua, ACI, IFP, NP, and I suppose Aontú) are significantly worse. They are unlikely to ever be in government, but the more votes they get, the longer they can continue existing. And if they secure even a handful of TDs, they will have a vastly bigger platform from which to spew their hateful bile. This empowers other bigots, makes hate crimes more likely, and makes marginalised groups feel unsafe in their own communities. This is the perspective I’m working from.

So let’s talk about my constituency. There are 15 candidates. One IFP, one Renua, two FG, one FF. If I give Renua and the IFP #14 and #15, and then the FF/FG block #11-13, I am ensuring that my vote does everything it can to keep fascists out of the Oireachtas. If it comes down to, say, FG versus Renua, I am helping the FG candidate win, as they’re the lesser of two evils. If the far-right candidates get eliminated, then my ballot effectively stops at the 13th preference, and FG/FF are now bottom of that ballot. I am helping literally anyone else (#1-#10) get elected over FF/FG.

On the other hand, if that nightmare scenario (one seat remaining, and it has to go to either the centre-right or the far-right) never occurs, then my ballot never helps FG/FF. Since I’ve preferenced them below everyone else (PBP, SD, G, SF, Lab, in whatever order), it is literally impossible for me to ever help them get elected over those candidates. So I am not, as people have put it, “giving Fine Gael a vote”, except in the one tiny set of circumstances when that would actually be a really good thing to do.

Given there’s at least one far-right candidate in almost every constituency, and given I think literally anyone is preferable to the far-right, I think you should vote down the ballot. Or, I suppose, vote down the ballot until you get to the fash, and then leave them blank. You don’t need to discern which fash you think is the worst, if you don’t want to.

Side note: It can actually be kind of hard to work out a full ranking when there are 10-20 candidates, since you’re not permitted to have a gap in your ranking. My strategy is to start from the top, ranking candidates I like, and also start from the bottom, ranking the terrible candidates, and then kind of work it out as I go in the middle.


I hope that clears things up. I feel both that I’m being extra-cautious and repeatedly or unnecessarily explaining things that might not need so much explanation, and that this is a counter-intuitive topic that is hard to discuss properly in words only. There is also a shocking lack of good internet content about it, and this is, as always, another argument for better civic education in schools and an independent electoral commission.

Above all: vote tomorrow, and vote left.

This SU election season, introspection is required

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on January 25th, and will probably not make much sense to you if you don’t go to Trinity College. Sorry about that.

Photo by Lauren Boland for Trinity News

As election season barrels towards us, it’s perhaps a good time to look at the state of TCDSU since this time last year. It has been an eventful twelve months for the Union. Two of the first three Council meetings of the academic year failed to reach quorum, preventing any kind of decision making. Two weighty referenda were held, but neither reached a turnout of even 13%. Perhaps most strikingly, the Union was revealed to have haemorrhaged some €70,000 in the previous academic year, leading to questions and scrutiny from council over potential mismanagement, and the role of the University Times.

These facts paint a picture of a body with deep rooted problems of both internal organisation and student engagement. At a most basic level, the Union needs to be able to balance its own budget and organise Council in such a way that class reps are aware of it and able to attend. Without funds and the direction of Council, it has neither the ability or the mandate to do any of its important work.

Indeed, mandate represents arguably the Union’s biggest problem. Far more than just lacking quorum at meetings, it is unclear how much actual democratic backing any of its actions have, including those made by sabbatical officers and directed by referenda. After the Tobacco Free Trinity vote, the headline in this very newspaper was that “70.6% of students vote[ed] in favour” of the measure. In fact, the approximately 1022 people who voted positively represent less than 7% of the overall student body. At a local or national level that would be considered farcical, and a tiny fraction of the kind of turnout needed to actually inform policy.

Sabbatical elections are no different. The turnout at last year was lauded for increasing by a fifth over the year before, but this still represented less than a quarter of students bothering to take the two minutes necessary to vote. If TCDSU were a country, it would have the second lowest voter turnout in the entire world.

But the SU isn’t a country, it’s a representative organisation. This arguably puts a significantly higher onus on it to, as the name suggests, represent its members. Short of that, it has no reason to exist. I personally don’t want the Union to stop existing, but it is therefore its responsibility to find some way to address this crippling engagement problem. It would be disingenuous to suggest the problem lies with students, given they don’t actually choose to be members of the Union, and it definitionally exists to serve them. The very point of having a student union is for it to unify students.

At the point where it continues to fail in this regard, serious questions can be asked. How can the Union justify spending the amount of students’ money that it does, and in an apparently poorly managed way? In what way can representatives of the Union, when communicating with college and the wider political world, have any claim to being the rightful representatives of Trinity students? What legitimacy does the Union have in making campus policy, such as the smoking ban?

To be clear, again; my proposal is not that we abolish the Union or that it should stop trying to do any representative work. I think it is vital to be able bargain collectively with college authorities, and to make our voices heard on the national stage. I just don’t think we can meaningfully do these things, or even straight-facedly claim to be doing them, without a solid democratic basis to the way in which the Union is run. And the hallmark of a properly run democracy is not just that you go with whatever decision or candidate happens to get the most votes on a particular day, it’s about a more general level of representation and engagement with a population. That is something we lack right now.

I lay no claim to being a political expert or to having any kind of easy answer to hand for the Union’s woes. But it is undeniable that those woes exist; that previous officers of the organisation categorically failed in some of their duties to the student body, and that a staggering majority of said student body has absolutely no interest in engaging with the Union at all. And given the existence of these woes and their extent, it is absolutely essential that all relevant candidates in the upcoming election have at least some kind of plan to address them.

This is not something that has existed at previous elections. Lip service has been paid to “unlocking the SU” and various small measures have been proposed to ensure individual officers communicate more with students. But given the problem continues to exist and has arguably gotten worse, and given the deep-rooted nature of student apathy towards the SU, it is clear these have not worked.

There will be many other issues rightly competing for attention at hustings and in manifestos this year. The country remains in the throes of a housing crisis which particularly affects students, higher education is significantly underfunded, and students report serious difficulties with the rollout of the Trinity Education Project. It should go without saying that it is vital the Union devote significant time and energy to these problems. But that does not represent an excuse to ignore the Union’s own internal strife. Far from it; it is more important than ever to have a body capable of adequately representing student concerns on these issues, and which has the money and organisational capacity to take action.

It seems likely to me that deep structural change and soul-searching will be needed to address this persistent issue. I don’t immediately have the answer, and I doubt any individual person does. But the first step is to at least acknowledge that there is something wrong, something not being done, some way in which the Union hasn’t lived up to its responsibility to students before now. Only then can we begin to have any sort of conversation about how to fix it. I dearly hope this year’s candidates will do that.

A Manifesto for Migration Activism

Ireland’s unjustifiable mistreatment of refugees and immigrants is the next frontier for social justice.

This piece was originally published in Trinity News on November 26th 2018.

Photo by Ciarán Sunderland for Trinity News

Ireland has a xenophobia problem. I think there’s something in the national conscience that makes us think we’re above that, partially or entirely. Perhaps because we’re an ex-colony that experienced oppression at the hands of an empire ourselves. Perhaps because our country was, until recently, relatively sheltered and homogeneous. Perhaps it’s just the standard ignorance of a western European nation that imagines itself to be tolerant, even in the face of all evidence. Whatever it is, it’s wrong.

The most famous example is direct provision. It was initially designed, when implemented in 2000, to be an “interim” system meant to house people for no more than six months while their asylum application was considered. The concept in itself is not the issue – asylum seekers need to be and should be housed by the state. But people spend an average of two years in the system and in that time are frequently and routinely treated horrifically. They are given an allowance that amounts to less than €1200 annually per adult, they consistently report extremely poor quality of food and accommodation, and there are numerous examples of bizarre and seemingly random restrictions on what residents are allowed to do in the centres (their de facto homes), such as bans on use of electronic devices at night.

Only this year were asylum seekers allowed to work while their applications are under review, and even then the process remains Byzantine. Among other things, permission to work only lasts 6 months, employment dozens of sectors is off limits, and any slight hiccup in any of the numerous administrative processes of the asylum application will cause the work permit to be revoked – and vice versa.

Treating anyone in state care this way would be unconscionable, but to do it to asylum seekers – people who’ve literally fled to Ireland because they fear persecution and violence – is nothing short of criminal. None of these are unfixable or even particularly complicated problems, they remain in place because successive governments don’t want to change them. They don’t care.

That’s just the beginning of the problem, however. The twin cases of Eric Xue and Shepherd Machaya last month hint at something more systemic. Both have been living in Ireland for nine years, the former since he was actually born here, the latter after fleeing torture in Zimbabwe. The logic behind forcibly removing an Irish boy to a country he has never lived in and to which he has effectively no actual connection escapes me. Similarly, an asylum seeker on his second third level degree (an incredible achievement, given those in direct provision are not entitled to free fees), who’s lived in this country for a third of his life has as much right to stay here as anyone. And yet both should, by law, have been removed.

They were lucky enough to have their cases become high profile and attract public support, but this is very much the exception. Deportation orders are routine, with approximately a thousand made each year. Indeed just a week before those two, an Offaly teenager who’d lived in Ireland since he was two narrowly avoided being sent to Nigeria – again, only because he had support from his community.

This is not the cultural persona of “a hundred thousand welcomes” that Ireland would like to imagine for itself. This is something between callousness and active hatred for those not lucky enough to have Irish parents. When considered in the context of Ireland’s centuries of history as a nation of emigrants, it’s also almost laughably hypocritical.

One arrives at that conclusion without even going into detail about, say, the pitifully small number of refugees Ireland agreed to host in 2015 (1 for every 1200 Irish people, of whom less than a third had been resettled by mid 2017), or the record-high numbers of racist incidents being reported in recent years. All this considered, several things are clear:

First, the 27th amendment needs to be repealed as soon as possible. If nothing else, a recent poll indicates 70%+ of the population want it gone, and that should be reason enough. On top of that, it is both ridiculous and disgusting that someone born in Ireland and having lived their whole life in Ireland should have no inherent right to stay in the country. Eric Xue should be the last person we have to save from exile to a place they may literally never have been to. Opponents of such a move argue birthright citizenship incentivises people to come to Ireland exclusively to give birth. Personally, I think this view comes from a xenophobic assumption that migrants must be in some way underhanded or opportunistic. Either way though, if a person is desperate enough to secure a better life for their child that they will cross borders (sometimes illegally, at great personal risk) while heavily pregnant, then we, as a ludicrously well-off country, have no excuse not to give their child that life.

Second, the direct provision system as we know it must be ended. It is an egregious stain on our national conscience and has been for 18 years now. Responsible citizens should be aggressively lobbying their representatives to take a stand, and heavily punishing those who refuse, come the next election.

Third, in the meantime, we should be aggressively resisting efforts to enforce unjust deportation orders. Anyone with a clear right to live here and/or who is being sent to a place where they face significant danger should be protected from removal by any reasonable means. Successful public campaigns as we saw in October are ideal, but direct action to stop deportations aboard aircraft is absolutely justified too. The leaflet reportedly handed out in Trinity some weeks ago with information on taking such direct action was a wonderful piece of activism. It caused a significant stir among some commentators online – they were horrified that people would endorse “illegal” forms of protest – but this is, I think, the point. When the law fails to protect the vulnerable, it is the right but more importantly the duty of citizens to act outside that law. It should shock and appal people that such things are necessary.

As a country, we’ve made genuinely incredible progress in the last few decades – the marriage referendum, Repeal, our wholehearted embrace of the EU – but there’s still so much to be done. I say that not to diminish the importance of past activism and social change, but to make clear that it’s time to turn that same energy towards things like migration and homelessness, as many people already have.

Successive referenda have shown us the resilience and the selflessness Irish activists are capable of in the face of injustice. It’s time to use those again.

Shifting the Conversation on Housing

This post was originally published in Trinity News on September 25th 2018.TakeBackTheCitySitDown12Sep2018c_large

Much of the public and media reaction to the recent occupation of city centre properties, and the subsequent law enforcement response, has been deeply and thoroughly disappointing. Commentators are too fixated on whether the protest was “legitimate”. There is inordinate scrutiny of the activists as individuals, which occasionally descends into total harassment Whether naturally or by design, this has shifted the discussion away from the actual issue at hand.

This is a time when we should be doing deep soul-searching about how a housing crisis which ruins thousands of lives daily was allowed to develop. Instead we have government ministers taking to our television screens to demand people be nicer to Gardaí, specifically those who use batons and pepper spray against peaceful protesters.

Obviously no one deserves to face threats of violence, no matter who they are or what they do for a living. But Minister Flanagan’s proposal to ban filming of Gardaí is a clear  and disgusting affront to democracy, and he deserves to be politically torn apart for it. Officers routinely disguising their identities for purposes other than counterterrorism operations is similarly dangerous. Increased scrutiny of police forces performing their duties results in less violence, not more.

Criticism of the legitimacy of protest and direct action is similarly beside the point. It’s ridiculous to demand that protests be quiet, entirely within any and all legal boundaries and totally non-disruptive. Protest is meant to disrupt; that’s the means by which it calls immediate attention to urgent issues. Otherwise it’s not a protest, it’s just a discussion. People resort to protest when they’re being ignored.

Rosa Parks, Gandhi – all social movements ever have been criticised using the exact same script. It’s an age-old tactic to discredit social movements of all kinds, and it’s despicable. Indeed, the ostracisation of Colin Kaepernick by the American right shows us that even the gentlest of demonstrations will face huge backlash. You can’t win, and it’s designed to be that way.

It’s not like the activists actually caused any real damage to anyone, either. Protests are meant to be disruptive, but as protests go this one was well-targeted and respectful. The organisers peacefully occupied a vacant, dilapidated property owned by one of the wealthiest landlords in the country in order to demand action on a devastating national crisis. For their trouble, they were forcibly removed by private security guards, whose conduct on the day violated no less than three separate laws, if we’re concerned about law breaking. These were backed up by masked Gardaí, who used force against both the protesters and against observing members of the public, several of whom were hospitalised. To engage in such a protest in the first place, and to vow continued and emboldened action after such a disproportionate and violent response, is an act of civic heroism and patriotism.

So yes, I think the point has been missed. While I can’t speak to the motivations of media figures, this is absolutely no accident on the part of the government – it’s blatant misdirection. Because when it becomes a national discussion about an individual protest or an individual activist group, and not the deep and systemic issues that made people angry enough to protest, they’re off the hook. There’s less scrutiny of the complete and utter failure of successive governments to fulfil their duty to the most vulnerable people in the country, if people are distracted by the minutiae of one incident. While I obviously have no proof, I suspect that Flanagan’s inflammatory comments were calculated in this way. They came, consciously or unconsciously, less from a place of actually wanting to implement any proposal and more jumping on the opportunity to talk about anything other than his party’s deeply rooted classism.

And yes, it is classism. The housing crisis wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t just a product of economic circumstance that no one could have foreseen or helped. This was at best horrific negligence and at worst a deliberate policy of social vandalism. We know numerous ways to ease housing crises, and Fine Gael (and to a lesser extent, Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) have chosen to use their positions of power to implement basically none of them, for reasons known only to themselves.

At no point since 2011 has construction of social housing in this country been even a quarter of what it was in 2009. The practice of providing government-run “cost rental” housing, common across Europe for decades, has been done exactly zero times in Ireland to date. The government and local authorities have time and time again chosen to sit on their hands and allow dozens of new hotels to be built and properties to be rented short-term, such as on AirBnB (effectively unregulated), in the midst of record-breaking demand for housing and skyrocketing rents. There has been absolutely nothing done to regulate the practice of leaving vacant large swathes of properties by developers or to incentivise turning said properties into accommodation, nor has there been meaningful effort to return vacant state-owned land to the housing supply.

Indeed huge amounts of NAMA properties have been sold into private hands, and the tax structure of the sales actually encouraged buyers to do nothing with their purchases except wait for them to appreciate. Even the new Land Development Agency, the government has just announced will use an abysmal 30% of its land for affordable housing and 10% for social housing. The rest will be sold no-strings-attached to private developers to use as they wish. Evidence thus far suggests they usually wish to either leave the land vacant to acquire value, build hotels, or develop “luxury student accommodation”.

So every media outlet, talking head, and political figure who tried to make this an argument about peaceful protest should be absolutely ashamed of themselves. There is something deeply and systemically broken in this country, and the people we elected to fix such things are either deliberately or through sheer stupidity doing nothing about it.

People are being evicted from rental accommodation they’ve lived in for years, students are paying €800 a month to live in literal cupboards, and the number of families without homes has increased by a factor of five in the last four years alone. But sure, tell me more about how the protesters were “trespassing”.