Citing a desire to represent “all 17,000” students in Trinity, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) President-elect, Kevin Keane, has justified his decision to speak against a motion calling on the union to support an academic and economic boycott of Israel in Trinity despite stating that he did not intend to do so.
It was concerns over the position’s implications for the union and messages from students that caused him to change his mind “40 seconds” before speaking against a motion calling on the union to support an academic and economic boycott, Kevin Keane has told The University Times. This follows online criticism of his decision to oppose the motion despite stating support for the campaign during his election campaign.
The motion put to TCDSU’s council on Tuesday, which would have mandated the union to lobby for an economic and academic boycott of Israel by Trinity, was defeated after a long and divided debate on the issue.
Numerous speakers spoke for and against the motion, with many on the pro-boycott side referencing the union’s support for boycotts of South Africa’s apartheid regime and pointing to experiences of living under the Israeli state. Keane, who was elected in February with 52.9 per cent of first-preference votes, was one of numerous speakers who opposed the motion, stating that the union “should exist to affect the community we have right here”, focusing on the issues affecting students.
TCDSU President, Kieran McNulty; TCDSU Communications Officer, Glen Byrne; and TCDSU Welfare Officer, Aoibhinn Loughlin, all spoke against the motion. Keane received significant criticism online, including from members of the Students for Justice in Palestine group, for speaking against the motion, while McNulty’s decision to oppose it was also criticised.
Comments online criticised Keane online for being careerist and questioned his motivations for speaking against the motion. In a statement on their Facebook page following the vote, Students for Justice in Palestine-Dublin said that on February 16th, following a hustings hosted by The University Times and Trinity News, Keane had “pledged to the [Students for Justice in Palestine] movement to advocate for academic and economic boycott in Trinity” if elected.
When asked at the hustings by an audience member if he would support the group’s push for College to take on a “full academic boycott” of Israel, Keane responded that he would do so “without a shadow of a doubt”. Speaking to The University Times, Keane said he was under the impression the pledge he signed, following the question, was to “support and advise this campaign”.
“I didn’t sign a blank cheque. I didn’t say that I’d put on a t-shirt and be their number one advocate”, he said. “I do support and I have supported Students for Justice in Palestine.” Keane said he was not yet able to support an academic boycott of Israel in Trinity.
Keane confirmed that he had told the group on April 3rd, the day before the union’s council, that he did not intend to speak against the motion. “I said to them that I intended not to at that meeting, and that was the case until about 40 seconds before I stood up to speak. And the reason I suppose that I changed my mind on that was just the volume of messages and emails that myself and Kieran [McNulty] were receiving from people in college, the overwhelming majority of them saying not necessarily that BDS was wrong or that BDS was right, but that this is not something that they thought that their SU should be speaking on.”
“That’s not the same as saying that I oppose BDS or anything else. It was on Monday I intended not to and then on Tuesday evening I decided that it was frankly, as a mandated officer of the union-elect, it was my duty to stand up and give my two cents”, he added. Keane, who served as President of SUAS Trinity this year, referenced an information event about Palestine that the society held with Students for Justice in Palestine.
In a statement to The University Times, Conor Reddy, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine and TCDSU’s science convenor, who proposed the motion, said that there were between 10 and 12 members of Students for Justice in Palestine present at the meeting with Keane at the meeting on April 3rd.
At this meeting, Reddy said, Keane had promised he would not speak against the motion. “Kevin was asked several times if he would speak against our motion. He answered that he would not and he went as far as to promise he would not speak against it, saying he would be happy to work with us if we did, indeed, pass the motion”, Reddy said.
At the meeting, Keane told the group that he couldn’t support the motion as it was written.
The motion, if passed, would have mandated the union to “inform students of the background to the situation in Israel/Palestine” and to set up a student-led solidarity campaign group through TCDSU. The motion also called on the union to “support a college wide boycott of the state of Israel on anti-apartheid grounds” and “lobby for the divestment of university funds from Israel and termination of any contracts with companies complicit in the occupation of Palestinian Territories and violation of Palestinian Human Rights”. The union would also have affiliated with the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, if the motion had passed.
Commenting on Monday’s meeting, Keane said, “I didn’t support everything in the motion, but I attempted to support them, in as far as I was comfortable”, adding that he supported the awareness campaign and the setting up of a solidarity group, but not the idea of a college-wide boycott or a divestment campaign, and “advised caution” for the group going to the union’s council.
His opposition to the final aspects of the motion, Keane said, wasn’t because of any personal view. “Because we’re not a political party, we’re a representative body, we have to be cautious. And so I advocated for caution”, he added.
“I do not believe that at this point in time we can say that there’s a consensus in the 17,000 that the 17,000 want BDS. I don’t think that consensus exists.”
Reddy said the group, at Monday’s meeting, refused to drop the motion’s call for an academic and economic boycott. Keane had suggested that the group instead try and seek a council-approved campaign group. “We were not prepared to drop BDS as it was core to what we were seeking”, Reddy said.
One of speakers for the motion at TCDSU’s council, Ciarán O’Rourke, speaking to The University Times over email, said he had “little faith in [Keane’s] leadership or in his commitment to addressing the range of issues which students no doubt will be campaigning on next year”.
“We agreed unanimously to plough ahead with the motion as it stood”, Reddy added. Reddy added that Keane offered to allow the group to request that TCDSU shops boycott products coming directly from Israel. This was refused by the group.
A screenshot from a conversation between a pro-boycott supporter and Kevin Keane’s TCDSU election campaign page, which was circulated on Facebook, showed Keane stating: “I actively support Students for Justice in Palestine-TCD’s work and I think the SU should too.” The message continues: “I think an academic and import boycott is something the union should definitely look at supporting.”
In the message, Keane proposes, if elected, to meet experts and activists to see “what it is specifically they would like to see done”. Keane, speaking to The University Times, pointed to the fact that the screenshot showed him admitting not to be an expert on the College’s ties to Israel.
Commenting on this message, Keane said he had met the group: “I kept an open mind and I will argue that I did support them, and I do support them, maybe not to the degree that maybe they hope.”
“My primary responsibility is not to my campaign or to the Students for Justice in Palestine, it’s to everybody, and it’s to the SU, and that’s what I’m conscious of”, he said.
Reddy accused the union’s sabbatical officers of “closing ranks” during the meeting of TCDSU’s council on Tuesday. He also said that McNulty had told him he didn’t plan to speak. Speaking to The University Times, McNulty confirmed that he hadn’t planned to speak. “I said I wasn’t planning to. And I wasn’t planning to. But Kevin [Keane] and I were talking about it, and we felt because it was a mandate that would obviously significantly affect the president’s brief that we would. So I said I wasn’t planning to speak, and I genuinely wasn’t.”
Keane stated that he would be “more than happy to work with Students for Justice in Palestine, or anybody else, to be honest, who wants my help, or who wants the SU’s support”.
“But I’m not going to just sign a blank cheque of support to anybody who wants it. I’ll advise and I’ll support in as far as I think is appropriate.”