On its own, the Union of Students in Ireland’s (USI) decision to boycott former presidential candidate Peter Casey’s new Newstalk show is hardly anomalous.
Ahead of the October election, USI took an uncompromisingly strong stance against Casey, following his fusty, foul remarks about the Travelling community. It is only right that the union’s representatives should steer well clear of his show.
On the other hand, the decision is striking in the context of the union’s recent proclivity for all manner of media appearances.
USI President Síona Cahill has appeared relatively routinely on national radio, daytime talk shows, RTÉ’s Six One News, and even at conferences as far flung as New York and Leipzig in Germany.
It’s hard to criticise USI for that kind of accomplishment: it is, after all, a political organisation and a lot of what it does depends on being heard.
But, in this context, the hoo-ha about the Peter Casey show points to a kind of obsession with the media, far and above what is required of our national union. Appearing in the warm spotlight of good publicity may be an obligatory part of our 21st century media environment, but it is no substitute for the kinds of activities that were once considered the union’s raison d’etre, like campaigning on third-level funding.
Only recently, Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union President Shane De Rís lambasted USI for its response to the budget, saying that the national union was treating the funding crisis as “an afterthought”. Its media appearances, meanwhile, are more focused on the kinds of issues that already thankfully get plenty of airtime, like the housing crisis and mental health – and that see the union submit itself to friendly questioning rather than the type that would hold it to account.
It is also fair to say that Newstalk’s decision to give Casey a show was greeted with more than enough criticism, to the point that USI’s move has an air of bandwagon-jumping. This is no cardinal sin, but rather symptomatic of a union that thinks the message is more important than the means.