Although ostensibly marking the start of spring, February is a month of cold weather and rainfall, dark evenings and biting winds.
Yet in spite of the dismal weather, students still brave the elements year after year to stand outside for one of the most significant events of the Trinity Calendar: the Dining Hall Hustings. This is when students take to the steps of the Dining Hall to launch their campaign for a role in Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), with a crowd below watching on.
The Dining Hall Hustings have been a feature of Trinity life for decades now, and a central part of the students’ union elections season. They mark the start of what is an often intense, and always exciting, period of campaign and debate. Promises are made, votes are cast, flyers are distributed and gaps in knowledge are exposed in what is surely one of the most vibrant and busy times in the academic year.
The history of hustings is a long and varied one, with the word originally used to refer to a court in the City of London. This court was formerly the county court for the purpose of hearing pleas of land, common pleas and appeals from the sheriffs. The question of whether or not the issues facing the students running for office are of equal importance is open to debate.
From there, hustings was used to describe temporary platforms erected at the place of an election, where those running for office could stand and address the assembled voters. This model has not changed much from 18th-century England to 21st-century Trinity, with the purpose and structure remaining remarkably similar – although the steps of the Dining Hall may be rightly accused of having slightly more stability.
The term “hustings” is now used across the UK and Ireland in relation to student elections. The structure appears relatively similar across countries and universities, consisting of candidates giving an overview of their manifesto points and campaign promises, with time allocated for questions from students.
The location of the hustings on the steps of the Dining Hall is unique to Trinity, however. Lecture theatres seem to be the most ubiquitous setting throughout, with University College Dublin (UCD) and Dublin City University (DCU) choosing to hold their hustings there. Other colleges and universities, such as Vanbrugh College, University of York and King’s College, Cambridge, hold their hustings in the College Dining Hall. None venture outside, however, signalling that this time-honoured tradition in Trinity has not spread beyond the campus walls.
With the Dining Hall hustings firing the starting gun on the campaign period, it is unsurprising that they are a source of fond memories for past successful candidates. Joe Duffy, broadcaster, author and TCDSU President in 1979, told Trinity News in 2015 that he was surprised at the many changes in the students’ union since his time, including the absence of “tickets” – when candidates run alongside each other for various positions within the union – as well as the newfound ease of communication with the student body.
As communication tools, email and social media are positively trivial in comparison with the House Six printing press utilised in Duffy’s time to print leaflets for distribution to students at Front Gate and in lecture theatres. However, the Dining Hall Hustings have remained a constant and Duffy holds fond memories of conducting speeches and debates with other students on the Dining Hall steps, which took place regularly in addition to usual TCDSU council meetings.
Duffy holds fond memories of conducting speeches and debates with other students on the Dining Hall steps
Despite their long tradition in students’ union politics, this year will mark the welcome return of the Dining Hall Hustings, after the Electoral Commission (EC) decided last year to omit them from the campaign period. This reversal, along with the return to a longer campaign period of the two-week span of previous years, will restore a more “regular” air to proceedings.
The absence of Dining Hall Hustings during last year’s campaign period meant that the TCDSU elections were launched at council instead. Speaking to The University Times in November, current TCDSU Education Officer Alice MacPherson welcomed the return of the Dining Hall hustings as the first proper introduction and showcase of candidates, saying she felt last year’s layout made them feel more “closed”.
Such was the candidates’ dissatisfaction at the lack of Dining Hall hustings last year that they considered and discussed organising “guerilla” Dining Hall Hustings. MacPherson was one of the candidates involved in the discussion and said that the group felt the Dining Hall Hustings provided a unique opportunity for students to “ask us those tough questions”. She again cited the importance of the hustings in student engagement and participation, saying, “I think the candidates wanted students to have a chance to engage”.
The tradition of Dining Hall Hustings for TCDSU elections began in Trinity in the 1970s. Prior to that, however, the Dining Hall steps were still a focal point in college life, with discussion, debate, entertainment and protest at the forefront.
In February 1970, the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) held mass democracy sessions on the Dining Hall steps at lunchtimes and called for an immediate increase in the agitation to remove a Trinity professor from College by “whatever means possible”. This was following the alleged assault of the same professor by ex-chairman of the AFC, David Vipond, and the subsequent discussions of the Disciplinary Committee about whether to forfeit his scholar status.
Later that year, in April 1970, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) decided to campaign against Minister for Education, Padraig Faulkner’s, proposals to increase university fees by 25 per cent. One hundred and fifty UCD students marched to Trinity following a meeting in Earlsfort Terrace. Various speakers addressed a “disappointingly attended” meeting on the Dining Hall steps which resulted in a decision “to express dissatisfaction with the proposals by attempting to jam the Department’s telephone lines with complaints”.
The steps have even been used in romantic context, albeit somewhat dubiously. In February 1969, a Trinity News journalist proclaimed that he did not have a “particular physical type”, discussing the difference between a “fair-haired nymphette in levis and a sloppy pullover” and the “tweedy horselover with a jaw like the Dining Hall steps”.
The steps have even been used in romantic context, albeit somewhat dubiously
But it appears that the affinity with the Dining Hall steps began with DU Players society in 1966, when the society held a crowd rapt with an open-air staging of Sophocles’s Antigone. This tradition continued for many years, with 1969 seeing the production of Louis MacNeice’s translation of Agamemnon for one night only.
The Dining Hall Hustings are a vital part of the campaign period. For candidates, they mark the first chance to present ideas, manifestos and promises for change to students, and to adjust accordingly depending on the reception they receive. It may signal out an early frontrunner in contested races, or rule out a candidate when their campaign has barely started. It is where joke candidates first make their presence known – perhaps the most notable example being 2013 Presidential candidate Cameron Macauley, who slowly and shakily made his way up the steps in a pair of rollerblades before explaining to the crowd “why my rise to the top will be inevitable and ruthless”.
Although various other hustings are held throughout the campaign period, it is on the steps of the Dining Hall that candidates nervously wait with bated breath as they prepare to deliver the first oration of their campaign.
Candidates line up, one by one, eager to impress upon students their suitability for their role, over and beyond their competitors. This year’s candidates will be itching to show their passion, motivation and the breadth of their ideas. But with increasingly low levels of student engagement in TCDSU politics, it remains to be seen whether there will be many there to listen.