In Focus
Dec 31, 2019

Impeachments, Referendums and a Boardroom Scandal: 10 Years at The University Times

As the decade comes to an end, we look back at some of the biggest stories to rock Trinity – and higher education – in the last 10 years.

Donal MacNamee and Cormac Watson

Tonight 2019 will end and we will hurtle headlong into a new decade, after 10 years that saw the world change irrevocably in more ways than it’s possible to fathom. Life as we know it has altered in almost every aspect over the course of the 2010s, with the only constant being the regularity of a shock around every corner. It has rarely been boring.

Here in Trinity – our own little corner of the universe, with a window to the world – we’ve witnessed our own share of seismic events. Since 2010 – which began just months after this newspaper replaced its predecessor, The University Record, in 2009 – we’ve been at the frontlines of almost every aspect of student life, chronicling impeachments, referendums and boardroom drama and striving always to bring our readers inside the biggest stories that affect them.

For us, that has meant aggressively covering Trinity’s administration, and setting out to shed light on the enormous diversity of student activity – from activism to society life, and sport to campaigning – in order to keep all of those in the College community abreast of what’s going on.


Along the way, we’ve met some special people, and covered some incredibly important stories, and we’ve won our fair share of awards (including, in 2017, the prize for the best non-daily student newspaper in the world, awarded by the US-based Society of Professional Journalists). We’ve brought our readers with us: this is the fifth year in a row that The University Times has surpassed a million unique visitors to our website, proving that the principles of honest, sincere student journalism are as important as ever.

Next year, the dawn of a decade, will see a general election in which a vast number of issues are sure to come up for fresh debate. It’s hugely important that higher education gets its moment in the spotlight, and we’ll continue to place students at the centre of our coverage as we strive to hold the powerful to account.

For now, though, we’re looking backwards, at a decade’s worth of stories that saw The University Times right at the heart of the issues that mattered to students. The list below isn’t a collection of 10 of our most-read articles – it’s 10 stories that we think shaped the decade in scope and magnitude, told from start to finish. And most entries make reference to several articles in order to convey the background, context and development of the story. They’re in no particular order, and they aren’t ranked, but they’re all there. It’s been an incredible 10 years – here’s to many more.

The Repeal Referendum

Clad in their iconic black repeal jumpers and with fists raised defiantly in the air, university students stood at the forefront of the fight to repeal the eighth amendment. Alongside those students, reporters from this paper scurried along the streets every step of the way, taking photos of the marchers, interviewing their leaders and frantically counting the number of protesters. We made sure that every aspect of the fight was covered in detail, and provided reams of opinion pieces discussing the minutiae of repealing the eighth – what it meant, how it could be done and its significance. And finally on May 26th, 2018, after decades of student activism, we were able to report that the eighth amendment had been decisively repealed, and declare in an editorial the next day that “yesterday’s referendum result proved once and for all that we live in an Ireland that is no longer encumbered by the trammels of its past”.

Take Back Trinity Protests

Take Back Trinity, and the College’s attempted introduction of a flat fee of €450 for supplemental exams, has cemented itself in the College psyche and lore. The University Times was there to cover the conflagration that descended onto campus as Trinity’s students openly revolted against the College. This paper’s reporting of the various trials and tribulations of Trinity’s biggest protest movement in recent memory are among the most-read stories of the decade. From articles on the initial announcement of the fees, on the occupation of the Dining Hall and on the eventual scrapping of the fees by a cowed and embarrassed Trinity administration, students were hooked to our coverage. The protests also began just days after this newspaper’s Editorial Board called for immediate, and drastic, action against College. While the supplemental exam fee may be dead in the water, the Take Back Trinity activists have left a legacy behind them, as well as a template for future protest movements and a healthy scepticism of where the College’s interests really lie.

Scandal on the Ski Tour

In 2011, students from Trinity and University College Dublin made national headlines after an investigation by The University Times revealed that students skiing in the Les Deux Alpes resort in France had wreaked havoc on a ski trip organised by Dublin University Snowsports Club. The episode, this newspaper reported, involved a group of around 25 students and saw €50 notes burned and a swastika graffitied on a hotel wall. More troublingly still, a third-year student was allegedly assaulted by four of the group, with one masturbating at her and some “picking me up and throwing me down on the bed, just generally being rough”. It was a story that scarred Trinity’s public image, and it led to serious questions about privilege amid revelations that the students in question had attended exclusive private schools including Blackrock College and Mount Anville.

The Impeachment of Katie Ascough

The Katie Ascough impeachment scandal in 2017 drew reporters from The University Times from behind the walls of Trinity to make the intrepid journey out to Belfield. Such was the significance and the drama of the debacle. Ascough, who is pro-life, was elected president of University College Dublin Students’ Union (UCDSU) despite the union’s overwhelmingly pro-choice mandate on the abortion question. Ascough promised to remain neutral on the issue herself and delegate all issues related to abortion to her fellow sabbatical officers, in what amounted to an effort to bat aside the contradiction between her beliefs and the stance of UCDSU. She quickly broke her word, however, by removing information about abortion from the organisation’s freshers’ guide, Winging It. The new handbooks, which cost thousands of euros to reprint, sparked outrage and triggered an impeachment referendum. With Ascough’s presidency apparently no longer tenable, 69 per cent of voting students opted to impeach.

A Decade at Trinity Ball

There are few events in Trinity’s social calendar with the star power of Trinity Ball. Now over 60 years old, Trinity Ball is billed as Europe’s largest private party, and it never fails to attract thousands of students dressed to the nines for a night that sees the College transformed into a playground for patrons. Every year, The University Times has been there for all the thrills and spills involved in the ball – and it has rarely disappointed. From stars (such as George Ezra and Nina Nesbitt) inadvertently pre-empting Trinity Ents’s lineup announcements, to the increasing presence of Gardaí and sniffer dogs in recent years, there’s always been something worth writing about, and with the demand for tickets growing every year, students’ fascination with Trinity Ball shows no sign of going away. We’ve been there to advise on everything from student detainments to the best ways to sneak into the ball, and we’ll be there every step of the way into the future.

The Long Demise of Trinity’s Trees

If there is one feature of Trinity that has cemented its place in the hearts of students, it is the College’s 600 trees. It was therefore unsurprising that some of our most-read stories were about the felling – and collapse – of many of Trinity’s most beloved trees. The 2010s have not been kind to Trinity’s trees. Front Square has been left feeling unusually barren after both of its Oregon maples trees faced the chop, one collapsing after a storm and the other being felled after becoming ravaged by decay. Disease has been particularly troublesome for Trinity’s caretakers. The tree at Lincoln Gate hanging over a security hut, the cherry trees beside College Park and a New Square maple tree have all fallen victim to disease – developments that have caused heart-wrenching expressions of grief in the comment sections of this paper’s articles, and developments this paper will undoubtedly continue to cover with a heavy heart as we enter the next decade.

Boardroom Drama and a Provost Under Fire

In 2014, The University Times covered a College-wide controversy that erupted among staff and students after Trinity attempted to make changes to its branding. Much of the College was up in arms as Trinity embarked on a new “Identity Initiative”, calling proposed new logotypes everything under the sun – from “bland and insipid” to “botched” – and eventually forcing Provost Patrick Prendergast to return to the drawing board and come back with an alternative that satisfied the critics.

But even as he acquiesced, Prendergast warned naysayers that it was Trinity’s College Board, not them, that would be the “final decider”. This sentence became telling in the context of what would happen less than 12 months later. College Board, the body with responsibility for making Trinity’s biggest decisions, then represented a curtain that students had rarely seen behind. But in May 2015, this newspaper reported on a culture of division and disenfranchisement on Board, with members complaining of a lack of respect and a “dictatorial” approach from Prendergast. It was a new look inside the operations of Board, and it arguably laid the foundations for a College decision, three years later, to launch an internal review of the structures of Board – including Prendergast’s chairmanship.

Lifting the Lid on a Hazing Culture

Last year, The University Times broke new ground and for the first time uncovered hazing practices in both Dublin University Boat Club and Trinity’s all-male, elite sports society, the Knights of the Campanile. Causing disgust and outrage in equal measure, the stories – which included stories of whipping, coercion and forced butter-eating for new members trying to join the two clubs – made many take a long, hard look at sports clubs in Ireland and some of the practices that go on in them. The reporting of hazing in the Knights of the Campanile also triggered a referendum to slash this paper’s funding, prompting national journalists and the National Union of Journalists to come out backing the paper. In the end, 74 per cent of students backed the paper, the referendum was easily defeated and we got back to our jobs – covering the most important student stories – with renewed energy and purpose.

A TCDSU Impeachment Referendum

There aren’t many things you can rely on when it comes to student politics, but drama is certainly one of them. And in 2014, Tom Lenihan, then the president of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, found himself right in the thick of it, with an impeachment referendum launched just months into his tenure. The vote was called because Lenihan, the son of the late Fianna Fáil TD Brian Lenihan, had been caught cheating in a third-year law exam, and it was a controversial move. In May 2013, Lenihan had apologised for his actions, and explained that since his election as president he had been suffering with mental health issues. “None of this is to excuse my behaviour, for which I take full responsibility, but it does provide context”, he wrote. The referendum, in the end, was defeated by over 1,000 votes, with 62 per cent of students opting not to impeach him. But, as then-Education Officer Jack Leahy told The University Times years later, an impeachment referendum creates a “weird campus environment”. It certainly wasn’t a quiet time in student politics – but then it never is.

A Decade of TCDSU Elections

Few events on the campus calendar have the ability to divide students – between the captivated and the singularly uninterested – as TCDSU elections. Each February a handful of candidates in garish t-shirts descend on the Arts Block, Hamilton and anywhere that will have them to campaign for a place among the union’s sabbatical officers. For some, it’s the most important time of the year, while for others it signals a fortnight of unwanted conversations and binned leaflets. Here at The University Times, we’ve always believed that TCDSU elections are important, and that those running in them should face questions before they take on jobs that require them to look after 18,000 students. TCDSU presidents are important and they do make a difference, and they frequently go on to careers in national politics – perhaps most notably in the case of Senator Lynn Ruane. They also rarely pass without tension or turmoil emerging at some point. In 2016, we reported on the case of Caolán Maher, a candidate for ents officer who was seen by a reporter handing out cans to would-be voters. We’ve also been there for controversial candidate drop-outs, public disputes and – perhaps most enjoyably – joke candidates.

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