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Constitutional Confusion Surrounds Election of SU President

In recent days, the University Express has been made aware of news in relation to the election of Ben Dunlea as President of the Students’ Union. Mr Dunlea claimed victory over Bea McCarthy in last month’s SU elections, however, the legitimacy of Ben’s candidacy has now been called into question, as it has now emerged that the Computer Science student will be undergoing work placement during the first two months of his term.

The President-elect is expected to start his term from July 1st which may cause a conflict with his course placement. The work done by the Students’ Union over the months of July and August are of vital importance, as a lot of prep work for the year ahead is done during the summer months. Many crucial University committees meet during the summer, and to miss these meetings may cost the SU chances to raise student issues with University management and staff. If Dunlea were to miss these meetings it could lead to the SU being in a weaker position within the University organisational structure itself throughout the year.

The issue, in this case, surrounds the definition of the term ‘Sabbatical Year’. The term ‘Sabbatical year’ is not defined in the constitution and therefore left to interpretation as to when it begins. This means that while some may see the sabbatical year starting on July 1st, others may see it as starting in September, at the start of term. As this term is not defined in the constitution, it is unclear which of the two interpretations of the same term is correct, or which is legally binding.

This matter was highlighted at the last Student Council of the year, which was held on March 20th, two weeks after the elections. A question from the floor addressed the fact that the President-elect would be missing for a six-week period during the summer, and the Council was asked if Mr Dunlea would: 1. Collect two concurrent wages (Students’ Union and his college placement), and 2:  Create a Constitutional crisis by being absent from office. The latter of the two points has become the most serious. Article 6.1.5 of the SU Constitution declares that the President of the Union “must take a sabbatical year of leave,” meaning that sabbatical officers must take a year out of their studies (or a year out of their careers post-graduation). The Constitution states that the ‘Union’ year begins on July 1st and ends on June 30th.

According to witnesses, the point was raised at Council by a former SU Officer and member of Bea McCarthy’s campaign team. These claims were confirmed to the Express by Ms. McCarthy, who stated that the points were raised out of concern for the potential negative impact the absence could have on the SU.

In 2015 a situation occurred when President-elect Aidan Coffey missed the first three weeks of his Presidency as he was volunteering abroad. On that occasion, Coffey asked the then incumbent President, Mark Stanton, if he would consider staying on in the role for a period until his return. Stanton obliged but the University Express understands that such an issue was not raised at the time as Officers are entitled to four weeks annual leave. It has been revealed that members of the Students’ Union were aware that Mr Dunlea would be on work placement and according to sources close to the situation, private discussions between the President-elect and members of the outgoing SU took place prior to the elections. Dunlea reportedly told those involved that he hoped his work placement would not affect his role if elected, but there was a general consensus of “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”.

The incumbent  Students’ Union have now realised, following the questions put forward at the Council meeting, that the situation is potentially unconstitutional under article 6.1.5 of the current SU Constitution. At the time of writing, the Students’ Union’s legal teams are assessing the constitution, and article 6.1.5 in particular, to determine whether Dunlea can take office without deferring his placement. The matter is potentially very serious and could possibly lead to the Presidential election being re-opened for nominations if Dunlea cannot take office.

Speaking to the University Express on this matter, UCC SU President Alan Hayes said, “maybe the Students’ Union should have investigated it more but at the same time the responsibility of the elections is up to the Returning Officer and candidates would usually tell the Returning Officer if they had any issues. However, I don’t blame Ben, I don’t blame our Returning Officer and I think I should have been better on this one to be honest…. I really want to make sure that we get this one right and protect the Students’ Union and I am seeking legal advice.”

President-Elect, Ben Dunlea also spoke to the Express when approached, saying, “I didn’t put myself forward for election without great consideration for the effect that my work placement may have on my capability to fulfill the role of President. In doing so I spoke with Alan Hayes prior to submitting my nomination forms and continued discussions after the election to propose solutions and workarounds to the matter. I am confident that any of the potential solutions that Alan and I discussed are more than adequate”. Dunlea notes that “The matter of the actual constitutional interpretation of Article 6.1.5 is now with the SU’s legal representation for counsel. I feel it may not be appropriate for me to speculate currently on what their decision may be; however I hope with all my heart this matter becomes more of a discussion around how best to ensure that the will of the student body is adhered to. The margin by which I was elected was significant and I hope that the voice of the student body is reflected in the outcome of this matter”. Ben concludes his statement by saying that “Every year when a new Students’ Union is elected they face new challenges. I believe that what’s happening now will be a demonstration of unity between the Student’s Union and the student body, and of the power we have as a team to overcome any challenges we may face”. “I spoke with my elected SU with regards to this and am incredibly grateful for their unified support”.