Comment & Analysis
Mar 21, 2018

The Opt-Out Referendum is a Matter of Basic Rights

TCDSU is valuable for students, but so is students' freedom to choose, writes James Martin.

James MartinOp-Ed Contributor

This week at Trinity, we are faced with voting on two very important issues: the right for students to leave Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU) and whether or not to boycott Israel.

I would like to take this opportunity to make some general points about the students’ union opt-out campaign. We are not advocating that everyone leaves TCDSU. We are advocating that students are given the choice to leave if they want to.

If you are in a political party or workers’ union, you are able to leave whenever you want for whatever reason you want. Why should TCDSU be any different? Are they not bound by the same laws as any other institution in the country?


I believe unions are very important. I also believe individual rights are important. It is a contradiction in terms to have forced membership of any union, as a union is defined as a group of voluntarily associated individuals who consent to being there.

It is a contradiction in terms to have forced membership of any union

On what grounds does TCDSU have the right to claim that it’s able to represent all 17,000 students in Trinity if we’re all forced to be members?

The question that concerns us is: does TCDSU have a right to impose mandatory membership on students? We’d argue that the answer is no. Article 40 of the Irish Constitution protects an individual’s right to freedom of association. The right to freedom of association implies the right to disassociation or at least the Supreme Court thinks so anyway.

Which brings me to the following point. The same part of the constitution that protects TCDSU’s right to form a union also protects a student’s right to leave the union. The two rights are intertwined. I have no interest in violating your right to form a union. However, you must respect my right to leave if I wish.

This might be a somewhat novel concept in House Six but the Irish constitution surely outranks the TCDSU constitution. I myself find it funny that an organisation that dedicates itself to fighting for students’ rights so flagrantly ignores them when they become inconvenient.

The point that the opposition make about us not wanting to engage in the democratic process is an irrelevant tangent. We are under no obligation to engage with the TCDSU if we do not want to, the same way we are under no obligation to take an interest in the inner workings of a political party.

Ultimately if a student doesn’t wish to be a member if TCDSU, then that’s none of the TCDSU’s business. The fact that all Trinity students are automatically members makes about as much sense as all students automatically being made members of Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin.

The fact that all Trinity students are automatically members makes about as much sense as all students automatically being made members of Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin

The vote to boycott Israel is a good example of why a student may wish to leave TCDSU. If the majority of the students vote for TCDSU to boycott Israel, that’s their right. TCDSU can take whatever political stances on whatever issues it wishes. But consider Israeli students. Is it moral to demand money from them to support an institution that has taken a hostile attitude to their country? Should students be forced to violate their conscience?

The point is further generalisable to any moral objection. I’m pro-choice, but I don’t expect any pro-life students to fund TCDSU’s campaign to repeal the eighth amendment. TCDSU, it seems, is pro-choice on everything but its own membership.

I would similarly object to a students’ union forcing me to be a member and funding the pro-life agenda with my mandatory subscription fee. TCDSU has a right to campaign for whatever they wish, but it doesn’t have the right to force someone to violate their conscience by funding causes they are fundamentally morally opposed to.

Is this the price we must pay for the TCDSU? Forfeiting our constitutional right to freedom of association and forcing students to contribute money to causes they are diametrically opposed to? TCDSU believe itself to be entitled to money from all students, but the last time I checked, TCDSU wasn’t a nation state.

If you want to be in a union, it’s your right. If you don’t want to be in a union, that’s your right. I urge all students to go out on Thursday to make their voices heard.

James Martin is a member of the op-out campaign.

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