Brig talks to Union President candidate Séarlas Mac Thoirdealbhaigh

20 mins read
Searlas at Thursday’s Alternative Hustings. Photo Credit: Stuart Graham

Séarlas Mac Thoirdealbhaigh (yes, I asked: it’s pronounced ‘Sharlas MacHurlavee’) knows what he’s doing. Complete faith in your own ideas is a surprisingly easy thing to fake, but not when you talk as quickly as Séarlas.

On the Union President campaign trail, he’s managed to carve out a decent image of himself – fiery, passionate, and loquacious. He certainly demonstrated the latter quality during our chat in Refresh on Thursday. We talked for about forty minutes, although Séarlas managed to fit into that what most people would take an hour and a half to say.

In the chat, he also hinted at the origins of those first two qualities. He grew up in Belfast, in the shadow of the enormous ‘peace walls’ (“it’s an absolute joke how they call them these”) that were intended to separate Catholics and Protestants.

“You will not meet someone from the other faith for the first time til you’re maybe 15, 16 years old. And the problem is, you’re hearing all these negative thoughts, negative opinions, this football sort of talk.

“You might not take it seriously the first time you hear it, the second time you hear it, but this keeps getting pushed into you and bred into you as a young kid.”

He became a community worker, mainly working on relations. This, he says, got him political. He was elected vice chairman of the Belfast City Youth Council, a position that led him to give speeches in front of the German youth parliament and took him across Cambodia.

His father was a trade unionist: “One of the first men to actually take on Walmart when they came into Northern Ireland”, a fact that Séarlas is very proud to point out.

Among the other snippets that come up when I ask him to introduce himself: he is a fluent Gaelic speaker; he was a student delegate for the NUS; he used to do muay thai, and started a mixed martial arts club; he plays the guitar, and used to have his own band, although none of their videos are up on Youtube; and he works as a bar supervisor at Fubar, which means he’s “seen some bad states” – “If ever someone’s going to critique me in the future,” he says, “I’m pretty sure I already have dirt on them from working at Fubar!”

It’s likely that most of the people who have been following the elections will mainly associate Séarlas with one policy: his plan to hold a referendum on the issue of forming a union alliance between the Students’ Union and the university staff’s trade unions.

This doesn’t bother him at all. In fact, when I ask Séarlas what he’d choose as his most vital idea, he goes straight for the referendum.

“I want to give the students a say, and I want to unionise our union.

“What’ll that do? It’ll create an alliance between the trade unions in our university. Rather than us fighting the dean for independent deals, the teaching unions will fight for deals with the student union. We will work in coalition and have a far stronger freehold to hopefully take on El Deano when he comes asking.”

This, he says, will put the Union in a better position to fight the cuts that are inevitably coming after the summer due to the University’s £7 million deficit, and their £17 million redevelopment programme at the Gannochy.

“There will be cuts on every level next year, and it’s going to come from rent, more and more different schemes we have going in the university will be getting cut back, and all of this is just trying to get stronger before it happens.”

He has strong words on the current state of Stirling’s Students’ Union.

“Personally, I think the Students’ Union is turning more into the student’s association in many ways. It’s there, but it’s there for legal purposes. It has to be there. It’s against the law to take it away.

“It’s PR, it’s a marketing scheme now. It’s not a union, it doesn’t really represent us. The only time it really represented us as students was when the CND scandal happened, that’s the first time they actually had a political stance of sorts.”

This brings us to the other thing people notice about Séarlas – he is unashamedly political, and under his guidance, the Union would become unashamedly political too.

This is made all the more blatant in comparison to his opponent in the election, Astrid Smallenbroek, who, in Séarlas’s words, has a “pretty identical” manifesto (“It’s just two different approaches to these different styles”), but who is a bit quieter on the political side of things.

In fact, in Craig Paton’s interview with her last week, she described him as “being a bit ‘AAAARGH’ about it”.

I ask Séarlas about the wee red star that he decided to put on his posters, and whether people might be put off by the hard approach that suggests.

“I think they just need to talk to me for two minutes. I mean, I’m not running for prime minister, I’m running for a student body, and I’m not going to start some Communist revolution if that’s what they believe!

“The reason I put the red star up was for symbolism. That was for people who are part of politics, part of journalism, part of history. Because in our university, we generally are on the left. I didn’t want to exclude them, I wanted to show them they had a candidate in the running, and that’s the reason I put that up.

“When it comes to the themes of equality, and my general opposition to xenophobia and general opposition to racism, these aren’t hard-line views, and I think these are the views that our university has. And I have these values, so if I ignore these values… if these values are important to us then they’re worth fighting for.”

It’s not like there isn’t a precedent for it, though. When the current Union President, Dave Keenan, ran last year, his campaign was similarly loud and proud about politics. In fact, for what it’s worth, he had five red stars on his poster, and he didn’t do too badly.

So, if he acknowledges cuts are inevitable, where would he draw the line as Union President? What areas would he not allow the university to cut? In a move that would probably shock the girl who asked him at Thursday’s alt-hustings if he was prioritising his referendum over mental health, Séarlas firstly goes for…

“Mental health. I’m trying to increase that. So to talk about cutting that is a no-go.”

His other major area of non-compromise is “lectures and seminars”, an area with issues he has experienced himself.

“One thing that’s getting quite desperate is our teaching facilities. The seminars increasing from ten students to twenty – I thought that was completely ridiculous. Beforehand, I think there was six minutes of talking per person in the class, now I had three minutes per person, if each person speaks and has their opportunity.”

While Séarlas argues that “I don’t think there’s any area where I necessarily will be able to agree to a cut”, he also says “there will be areas where students will be more happy to vote for cuts”.

“At the moment, they’re doing a £17 million project in Gannochy, but I also think the students have shown quite a heavy opposition towards it, because it’s not met the agenda of many students.

“I think that should potentially be held back. If that was held back a year or two, bring ourselves back to normal, the money could be used to benefit students directly, rather than overlook them and showcase the new building.”

At the alt-hustings on Thursday night, the two candidates for VP Education were asked whether clubs and societies should be allowed to endorse candidates. Both Matt Adie and Natalie Smith firmly held up the red card for ‘no’.

A few hours before, I had put the same question to Séarlas. There was a reason for this: the previous day, Stirling’s Conservative Society had issued a statement decrying the Union’s “utter hypocrisy” over society neutrality. Despite the fact that the Conservatives would be quite unlikely to endorse him, Séarlas had a different view to the VP Education candidates:

“You can see problems with it in general. I know societies could endorse me and would endorse me if they were able to, and that would obviously help my support. I know lots of societies would endorse Astrid, and that would help Astrid.

“I think that should be allowed, but it should be quite open. What we’ve had is a lot of grey area over the last week. We had society endorsing in the background. I think the grey area caused a lot of mischief.

“It’s just politics, man! It can get dirty, and student politics is no exception to that. I think the Tories are right to show some opposition towards it when Sabbs can give a political opinion, but societies can’t give a political opinion. You’d expect some societies to be political in nature.”

An alliance between Séarlas Mac Thoirdealbhaigh and the Stirling Conservative Society might seem unlikely, but hey, it’s a crazy electoral season.

At this point in the interview, we’d been chatting for about half an hour, and Séarlas had almost finished his caramel latte. The sound system in the café had wound through Take My Breath Away, a bit of Cher and a bit of Razorlight. I thought it was about time to wind it up, so I asked Séarlas the final question in my notebook: what does your first 100 days look like?

As it turns out, he intends to get quite a lot done. And, in a move that would totally dismay Donald Trump, he is quite happy to talk through his ‘secret tactics’.

He kicks things off by discussing his idea for saving the university money by getting sports, clubs and societies to do the jobs that they would usually hire independent contractors for.

“We have a budget in our union, money to hand away in that budget that is allocated to that area. Then, rather than giving to independents outside our university we could be giving them to clubs and societies in our university.

“Because what’s happening is we’re going out, we’re paying high-end contractors to come into our place to do certain shows, certain fun days which some people believe aid the students, and it is costing a fortune. But the budget’s there, and that budget is separate from the budget we already have for sports and societies.”

He then turns to an issue that has plagued the Union for a while – the inadequacies of the local bus services. Séarlas has a clear plan to sort this out.

“I understand how my opponent wants to go to the council about buses. Myself, I want to talk directly to First Buses to get more bus routes. Why do I want to do that? Because First Buses’ core interest is money. I can show them statistics: so, Tuesday night, 800 people go out. Thursday night, 1200 students go out. Saturday night, 600 students go out.

“I can show them the statistics that the clubs actually take, for every person using a student card on their door. I can show them how many people leave these clubs at certain times of the night, and each bus will be full. That’s profit in their pocket.”

Maybe working at Fubar does have its advantages, after all.

He continues with his plan to build a children’s playpark on campus. This won’t come out of the strained Union budget, he says, as he has a plan for this as well.

“I don’t want to do that inside the Union budget – I don’t want to push the Union to use the budget on this. What I want to do is I want to fundraise it. I want to get a project for the students, a few quiz nights in aid of it, a few clubs and societies come together.

“It’s something to say that our year’s done. This whole thing ‘Leave Your Legacy’ right now, let’s leave a legacy for this year, let’s leave a few things. This park will be here in fifty years’ time. I’ll be bringing my children down one day, know what I mean?”

At this point, I’m pretty surprised. When I asked James Fitzsimons the 100 days question, he said he’d spend the first ten days getting used to the role, then he’d begin setting up meetings. Séarlas seems to have planned this all out in advance. He carries on, talking about how he will represent Stirling in protests.

“I want to go out, and I want to fight for you. So, for example, this Saturday the Scottish Defence League is marching in Alloa. I, along with many others, are going down to counter-protest. It is dangerous, especially with extreme people like them. There’s no nice way to describe them. But if I did not protest this, that would be accepting. That would be saying it’s OK for them to be there.”

Wow. It feels like he’s gathering momentum for a heartfelt defence of the university’s core values. But surely not, not 35 minutes in? He must be getting tired at this point?

“As student president, I cannot ignore such views – that’s being accepting of racism and accepting of xenophobia, and that’s me not representing the student population. The reason our university’s so great is the mix of the races, and the mix of the people. It’s one of the first things people notice when they come to the uni.

“It’s just great to have so many cultures, so much food, so much music. It’s a complete eye-opener. That needs to be respected, but it also needs to be fought for, which is something I intend to do.”

Well, there we are. He essentially handed the dramatic, climactic ending to my article to me on a plate. Thanks, Séarlas.

If you were intending to go and see the hustings, you’re too late. You’ve missed both. You can still watch all the candidates for every position on the sabbatical team give their main manifesto points on the Air TV Youtube page, though, and I recommend you do.

Voting begins on Monday, March 13, at 9am, and closes the next day at 6.15pm. Please do vote. It gives you the right to complain about whatever happens. And remember to keep checking Brig for the latest events and results.

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