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State of the union

The Interview
Kieran O'Malley sits at his desk

Young union man

The interview
Edwin McGreal

Western Area Officer for the USI, Bonniconlon man Kieran O’Malley is an influential player in college politics.

As a callow first year student entering the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) in Galway in September, 2000, Kieran O’Malley never envisaged being involved in college politics.
The young man from Bonniconlon near Ballina, didn’t see himself making it past third year of his four year Business Studies degree.
Yet seven college years later he is still immersed in college life. A degree in tow, which he completed in 2004, he is now into his third year working full-time in the maelstrom that is the life of student unions and college politics.
Now aged 25 he is the Western Area Officer for the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), an area encompassing 25,000 students. The USI employ eight full-time officers, and Kieran is one of four area officers.
Last June he completed a successful term as President of the GMIT Students Union (SU), with responsibility for 4,500 students. The previous year he served as Vice-President (Welfare Officer) for the SU.
His achievement is not bad going for a raw teenager who entered college after completing his Leaving Cert. in St Muredach’s  College in Ballina.
“When I started I was in awe of the Students Union and how these young people only a couple of years older than me could be so confident. When I started college I was actually very quiet and not very confident in myself,” he said.
But Kieran prospered in college, a place he calls ‘the ultimate transition years’ and while he is currently USI Western Area Officer, he is still based in GMIT where he is also doing a research Masters in Enterprise in the West of Ireland.
He admits, with a laugh, that it is hard to believe he is based in the same college for seven years now.
“I did think I would be doing well to get to third year of my degree. Niamh, my younger sister, started college two years after me and she is out working as a teacher already.
“Even this week I met a girl in the college and she looked at me and remarked ‘what are you still doing here?’ I just told her I had got a job as a caretaker! It’s never been boring though, every year has been different and there’s never a dull moment,” added O’Malley.
Besides covering the big two Galway colleges, Kieran is responsible for students in Castlebar, Athlone Sligo and Letterkenny. When we caught up with him he was just preparing to go into Sligo IT and from the to Letterkenny. It can be arduous but O’Malley says a healthy relationship with all the SU’s is key.
“I get on well with all the student unions and that is a big help. At the start of the year I organised a team building weekend in Killary where I brought all the student unions from the seven colleges in and we worked well together. They know I will help then whenever I can and I know most of their problems too, having being involved with the GMIT student union for two years,” he said.
He has a blank canvass to work on in his role and is doing what he can to improve various aspects of student life.
“One area I try to address is giving the IT’s (Institutes of Technology) a voice. Normally IT student unions are quieter in Ireland than Universities so it is important that their issues are heard. I’d be trying to do other work like with the Irish Drivers Federation and the Road Safety Authority to run driving training courses through the colleges which the colleges would subsidise.
”We’ll be running political constituency nights too in each college area to try to generate an interest among students in the general election. We’ll be inviting people who are running for general election from each party to speak,” continued O’Malley.
Success depends a lot on the co-operation and the goodwill of the college admininistration.
He praises Marion Coy in GMIT and Richard Thorn in Sligo IT.
“They are student focused and everything they do is geared towards trying to improve students’ lives,” he said.
One thing he is well versed in at this stage is how to get things done. He recalls one time when he was able to help a foreign student attain funding she had previously been denied. He says third level colleges can be a nightmare when it comes to red tape but he has learned to get around much of this rigmarole involved.
“It’s brilliant to be in a position to help others. People are coming to you with a problem and you are in a position to help them. It can sometimes be so simple but it is so enjoyable to help them. You can get things done if you know the right people,” said Kieran.
He feels the one thing that disappointed him during his time were cases of student disinterest.
“There was a debate in Dundalk recently and there were more politicians there than students and it was really beneficial for the students to be there. I don’t think there is necessarily student apathy, just students could be more pro-active in looking out for themselves,” he said.
He values the experience he has obtained working in student politics as something he could never have attained at the outset of his college life.
“It’s been an amazing time. You really get a broad experience at a relatively young age. It’s a huge responsibility but I consider myself very lucky to have been given the chance. I’ve made mistakes but I’ve always tried to learn from them,” admitted O’Malley,