Upon registration to study at UCD, students automatically become members of UCDSU. Therefore, it seems rather strange that the Union’s history remains a mystery for many students who seem to know relatively little about the origins of the student organisation.
Founded in 1975, UCDSU was formed as a successor to the Student Representative Council (SRC). UCD students established the SRC in the early 1900s to represent student interests; it only had one full time officer, the SRC President. In 1975, it was replaced by UCDSU and three full time officer positions were created; the Students’ Union President, the Education Officer and the Social, Cultural, Welfare and Travel Officer.
The first SU President was Enda Connolly, who is now Chief Executive Officer of the Health Research Board, while the first Education Officer was Joe Little, RTÉ’s current Religious and Social Affairs correspondent. Billy McGrath was the first Social, Cultural, Welfare and Travel Officer and went on the become RTÉ’s Commissioning Editor for Entertainment in 2000 and Executive Producer of Programming at Midas Productions in 2003.
The Union endeavoured to champion the cause of UCD students, founding facilities such as “The Trap” in the late 1970s when student services on campus were limited: the Students’ Club [Student Bar] was in a prefab behind the old Number 10 bus stop and the only social event held weekly on campus was a Saturday night dance in the restaurant building.
In an interview published in the online blog, The Hidden History of UCD, Billy McGrath explains that the Students’ Union believed that students would be apathetic about the Union when there were “such miserable and non-existent facilities to congregate and meet”.
UCDSU formally requested and petitioned the university for a games room but when the request went unanswered the Union sourced three pool tables and smuggled them into the large room beside LG1 in the Arts Block, McGrath claims. When the tables were not removed, the Union had posters printed advertising the new facility. McGrath states that the university almost immediately contacted the Union, informing them that the room could be used as a games room provided that they ensured that a supervisor was employed.
Union campaigns in the late 1970s sparked controversy in the Irish press. The Irish Times published an article in February 1976 detailing the events of Rag Week, as UCD students ran ‘riot’ through Dublin city centre. The article highlighted a claim made to the Irish Independent that students from Bolton Street College of Technology (now part of DIT) had kidnapped Billy McGrath in retaliation for UCD students’ “attack on Bolton Street”.
Following further unrest during Rag Week in 1977, the Union voted to fundamentally re-structure Rag Week. In an article published in the Irish Independent in February 1977, then-SU President Charles Connolly stated that in future, UCD Rag Week would be a week “devoted to helping the community”.
It was only in recent decades that the Students’ Union began to take its current form: the current Student Centre is only eleven years old. The Social, Cultural, Welfare and Travel Office was divided into separate Welfare and Entertainments Offices and for decades, there were four Sabbatical Officers.
In 2001-2002 a fifth Sabbatical position, Deputy President of the Union, was created. This was replaced three years later by the current Campaigns and Communications Officer position in 2008. The last decade also witnessed the rebranding of the Sabbatical Officers as Vice-Presidents.
The ten non-Sabbatical Executive Officer positions have only been in existence for ten years, whilst the Mature Students’ Rights Officer has only had an exclusive portfolio since 2008. In the latest Sabbatical Election, a referendum to rebrand the Women’s Officer as Gender Equality Officer was passed.
In 2006, the Union witnessed the creation of seven Programme Officer positions: a further four PRO positions were created in 2008 when the Business and Law and Agricultural Science and Veterinary Medicine faculties were awarded separate representation.
Of course, student dissatisfaction and apathy has often led to questioning of the real impact of UCDSU on student life: low voter turnout in numerous Sabbatical elections has arguably reflected this. During the recent Sabbatical election race, Campaigns and Communications candidate Suzanne Lee stated her belief that “not everyone should have to be a member” of the Students’ Union and that an “opt-out” clause should be provided for unsatisfied students.
With Constitutional Review on the cards and a new government in office, 2012 could prove an interesting year for UCDSU and its newly elected Sabbatical team.