Do local student sabbatical election winners go on to pursue political life post college?

With all this talk of Irish general elections and cricket victories, Slugger missed the chance to look at one of Belfast’s annual electoral events – the campaign leading up to the election of QUB Student Union sabbatical officers.

The Gown has been following the process in detail with some great coverage in a series of blog posts looking at hustings, debates, interviews, turnout and the results. As often is the case, the campaign was brutal and emotional, and involved claims of broken manifesto pledges and canvas irregularities!

Jason O’Neill, who has no previous sabbatical experience but was President of the Law Society, was elected President.

I wonder whether any of our current local politicians went through the sabbatical elections at their universities and colleges? Is it a path into politics … or just a way of students becoming disillusioned with the election process and never returning to it once student days are over?

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  • Big Boss

    Well i know that Both Alex and Tim Attwood were president of Queens SU..

    The current Welfare Officer Adam McGibbon was a candidate for the Green Party last year in South Belfast

    IM not sure about other places like Jordanstown or St Marys, though i know people in both SUs who were very involved in politics while in office there, not sure what has happened to them now.

  • Turgon

    Interesting thread Alan and I immediately thought of the people mentioned above.

    It is 20 years out of date now but when I went to QUB the sabbatical officers were practically without exception nationalists. Indeed most were on the ultra hard line wing of nationalism: several of them ended up being gaoled for IRA terrorist offences. Unionists regularly stood and were always defeated.

    Only 10% of students (at most) voted and republicans were always over represented in terms of voting. So few actually voted that had all the Malaysian Students voted they could easily have elected a Malaysian officer team.

    Despite the significant number of international students and there being an international students officer the students union refused to revise the bilingual policy even when a multilingual policy (including Irish) was proposed. The reason I clearly remember was that the SU executive said that foreign students coming here should use our language.

    As an aside I did once suggest that some form of power sharing / responsibility sharing be introduced and it was voted down by the nationalists / republicans.

  • Fifteen years ago I remember a couple of years when people associated with the Christian Union stood for various offices. The more political candidates were annoyed and perceived that it was unfair that the CU – the largest SU society at that time (and perhaps still) – was interfering in SU affairs and (ab)using their block vote power.

    Some of the candidates had success both in winning their posts and bringing a less “angry” approach to SU exec. If only those complaining had realised that their efforts to engage in the SU weren’t always appreciated by the CU at large …

  • South Belfast Hack

    Alex Attwood President – Queens
    Mark Durkan Deputy President – Queens
    Jim Wells Sabbatical Officer (forget which post) – Queens

    Mark Hill (Lagan Valley UUP candidate) was Cultural Affairs Officer at Queens

    There’s lots who have contested Queens elections including:

    Peter Weir, Cllr Christopher Stalford, Simon Hamilton, I’m sure Arlene Foster must have run for something, likewise for Jim Allister

  • oracle

    The student elections are complex and departmentalized there are lots of positions for Student Liaison Assistants for Greater Sabbaticals or SLAG for short, there is the Department for Rural University Graduate Sabbaticals or DRUGS for short, the department for rural university graduate sabbaticals oversee the Department of Internal Revision and Tutoring or DIRT for short.

    The last 3 years have been spent bolstering the numbers in the Departmental Representatives in the University’s Neoclassical Karaoke Societies or DRUNKS for short, all of the groupings and societies take their directive from the Students Committee for University Management or SCUM for short.
    Many believe that student education must be upgraded but that can only happen with greater numbers participating in the Forum for Elevated Educational Status.

    **** SO TO SUMMERISE *****

    The students union is full of DIRT under the influence of DRUGS with far too much time being spent on getting DRUNK, the place is coming down with SLAGS and they all come under the umbrella of SCUM and what’s really needed is an increase on FEES.

  • South Belfast Hack

    “As an aside I did once suggest that some form of power sharing / responsibility sharing be introduced and it was voted down by the nationalists / republicans.”

    Powersharing! I’m shocked at you Turgon, I had a very well written constitutional amendment of my own to similar effect during my time – I almost persuaded the SDLP to back it. Oh well.

  • Former Alliance leader John Cushnahan was Vice-President of the National Union of Students (and I suppose must at least have been on the executive of QUBSU).

    Former NUS/USI convenor Shauneen Armstrong is now a press officer for the Irish Labour Party.

    I myself, for what it’s worth, served on QUBSU as postgraduate students officer in (I think) 1994-95.

    And who can forget the battle between John Taylor’s son and Bernadette McAliskey’s daughter? (They both lost; the winner went on to be a Presbyterian deaconess.)

  • Sadly, electronic elections must now mean that you don’t have to get a hole punched through the corner of your student card to prevent voting too often !

  • JH

    4200 turned out to vote this year, second highest ever with last year (4500) being the highest. Lots of candidates although one was withdrawn due to “academic underperformance” and gave a free re-election to Fiona Kidd. No bother though, Fiona seems to have done a good job in the last year.

    I don’t know if what Turgon is saying is true or just his own perception but that’s definitely not the case anymore. While it’s been said the University is ‘majority Catholic’ or whatever the Sabbatical Officers are diverse. Last year we had a Malaysian girl on Equality, and English lad on Community and a Scot on Campaigns. Of the remaining four I think the split would be 50/50.

    Not sure about the candidates this year although I know the new Equality officer is from a Law background and Derry civil rights stock so that’s good. I didn’t vote for McGibbon this time round since his first action last year was to look for another job, i.e. MP for the Green party. Can only assume he’ll do the same this year in the local/assembly elections.

  • JH


    You can only vote once. You have to log in to your student account to vote.

  • “And who can forget the battle between John Taylor’s son and Bernadette McAliskey’s daughter? (They both lost; the winner went on to be a Presbyterian deaconess.)”

    If they hadn’t gone and split their vote, the agreed candidate would have got in:)

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I think the list should include John Houston who was a UUP person in South Belfast. Kate Fearon of the Womens Coalition (I think) was a Union President. Mark Langhammer springs to mind at UUJ. Am I right?
    Some of the names on the Board may not be immediately well known to younger folks.
    Claire Bailey recently selected for the Greens in South Belfast was certainly on the Union Exec but not I think as a “sabbatical”.
    It seems to me that the Union has become more politicised recently .I suppose a reflection that political/media/campaigning/PR careers are now available.

    The Nats/Unionists nonsense of the 1980s has returned to some extent. I think its a reflection that thru social networking sites like Facebook, the political leanings of union people are more easy to discern and people move to block them….or support them.
    Im rather hopeful some recent officers I came across at various meetings choose politics…..Ciarnán Halferty certainly, Laura Hawthorne, Shane Boylan for example.

    But ultimately anyone passing QUB at election time (and elections are very much a minority sport there) would be surprised at how amateurish the elections actually are.
    No-one is so crass as to be obviously republican or loyalist……but the fáinne/GAA shirt…..or Ulster Rugby shirt/NI footy tracksuit ….are the subliminal clues……that the candidate is one of them or one of us.

  • granni trixie

    I suppose Vincent McKenna counts as someone who was a student officer who may be regarded as ‘political’ (around same time as Deirdre McAlliskey, 1996?). Prior to when his life went pear shaped (went to jail).

  • SethS

    Of the sabbatical officers in Trinity 1986-1990 I can only point to Ivana Bacik as one who is involved in politics and even she was impeached for failing to vote for the agreed candidate at the USI elections – pointlessly too as no-one other than the trinity delegates voted for him. Someone may remind me of who he was – Shane somethingorother.

    Mark Little is the only other one I can recall being in the public eye though obviously as a journalist not a politician.

  • John Ó Néill

    I must have been around QUB at the same time as Turgon. He is right. there were a lot of nationalist SU officers, but that reflected the demographics at the time to some extent (I think Dundee or somewhere had a Unionist SU President). I thought JT and Lee Reynolds both were elected to the odd thing (maybe non-sabbatical posts, though). Certainly Taylor once stood for multiple posts in the one election. That was around the time that Kate Fearon was President as well and Peter Weir was a fixture at SU meetings.

  • 2 frys 2 teas

    Coleraine didn’t have any political groupings at the time – back in 1997….

    I was there the day Tony visited though by helicopter… to push the referendum over the line….

    and i wonder if the ‘Blair promises’ still hang above the library entrance in the main building???

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    The thing that would surprise me is that people so young are already planning ahead to that degree (no pun intended).
    Certainly I was not like that.

  • ben_w

    Peter Fitzgerald — TCD SU President at one point in my day, about 1993 or so — was a very active Labour Party member before his untimely death a few years ago.

  • splinter

    SDLP’s newest Assembly member Pól Callaghan, or Pol Pot as Sammy Wilson prefers to call him, was education officer at Queens and subsequently elected president in 1999-2000, beating the DUP’s Simon Hamilton

  • feismother

    Eamon Gilmore was president of USI when I was at Trinity in the seventies. He was SU President at UCG before that. Mary Harney was a TCD sabbatical officer the year before I went.

    The only SU president I can really remember at Trinity was the fabulous Ian Wilson who went on to be Dave Fanning’s producer on RTE 2FM. No idea what he’s doing now.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Pat Rabbitte, ex Labour leader (and former official SF / WP) was USI president in the early 1970s.

  • TheDoherty

    fitzjameshorse1745 (profile) says:
    3 March 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Im rather hopeful some recent officers I came across at various meetings choose politics…..Ciarnán Halferty certainly, Laura Hawthorne, Shane Boylan for example.

    *Think you meant Shane Brogan last year’s president?

  • Outside Northern Ireland, I was at Edinburgh when the former sabbatical students union president was elected as Rector of Edinburgh University. His name? Gordon Brown.

  • Frontier Vulpine

    I voted for Kate Fearon in QUBSU elections and as she was a friend of a friend I helped with the campaign. That means I was there same time as Turgon and John Ó Néill. I certainly remember Peter Weir being about. Another political person but not a politician who was in my year was Darwin Templeton editor of the Newsletter.