Young People in Politics – Is There Any Hope?
I once robbed an election poster of Joan Burton from a lamp-post for a friend of mine who wanted it for no other reason than to have an enlarged image of her face in her room and to put a picture, of it and her, up on Facebook. Not for any sort of shrine-making sense at all, no, more so an ironic reaction to a women she once slightly admired but, like most of us, never really understood.
There’s a high chance that your Facebook and Twitter homepages have become incredibly excited recently on issues that you thought had been unanimously deemed un-exciting. Be it via Russel Brand, Chanel’s fashionable feminists or our very own Irish Water protests; your responsibility as a citizen has never been harder to avoid, and political activism hasn’t been this sexy since the Sex Pistols. Though we still exist in a paradox of political apathy and rampant keyboard activism, our generation of millennials are looking to make a difference but is there any hope for that here?
I chat with the 22 year old ‘Gay’ Mayor of South Dublin, Laura Harmon of the Union of Students in Ireland, the president of Young Fine Gael and 3 more of Ireland’s most interesting voices on our generation’s current situation.
With 30% of people aged between 18-25 not registered to vote and then with just 53% of those that are registered, actually going out and voting in May’s local and European elections, it’s safe to say that faith in Irish politics is at an all time low. “I’ll be honest, I think people are pissed off”- is Dale McDermott’s reasoning behind it, president of Young Fine Gael, the youth wing of the current majority party in government and the enactors of third-level student fees. “They’ve seen their friends leave, they’ve seen their student fees increase and the grant being cut. The system failed them essentially. We saw a massive economic crisis be allowed to develop and destroy the lives of many people in this country. The challenge from our perspective and YFG’s perspective is to give young people an idea that there is actually hope”.
The most recent elections had Fine Gael with the some of the lowest votes from young people. McDermott attributes this to a perception that the system is corrupt, “I do know at the same time there are bad people in politics, and there has been bad people in politics”. The main way he wants to combat youth disengagement is by attempting to reassure people that “the system is not corrupt and that the vast majority of people who are in politics are doing it for the public good and public service. It’s not for self interest.”
The current coalition in power has a habit of speaking in the past tense when discussing economic hardships and when pointing the blame, but the massive student protests of 2010, which ended in violence, were against the Fine Gael-Labour proposals of increasing university registration fees, furthering cuts to the student maintenance grant and leading to an increase in graduate unemployment and emigration levels. “It’s all well and good to oppose everything,” he replied, when I asked why the young should trust the party that has so clearly attacked them, “you also have to propose solutions and we propose solutions. We proposed a graduate tax, which we believe is the fairest way of funding education and it’s our job to lobby government to make that change.”
Although McDermott says “young people not voting is actually what doesn’t allow them to have an effective, I suppose, voice to be listened to”; Ciarán Flood of the Connolly Youth Movement believes that with “the leading parties especially, it’s almost like they’re at war with young people” and the CYM have some interesting points to base that belief on.
30% of young people are unemployed. Ireland has one of the highest rates of under-employment in Europe: 7%. Youth under-employment is at 11%. 89,000 people emigrated from the Republic last year. 397,500 people emigrated since the crash of 2008. To put that into perspective, that’s 1 out of every 11 people leaving families, friends and lives to look for a better life abroad. It would be rare if you didn’t know someone close who has left in the past few years.
“There’s a culture of emigration and of youth free-employment schemes. There’s a certain train of thought, especially in Ireland, that emigration is a certain type of safety valve to stem protests and dissent in the country” says Flood. He feels emigration is encouraged with the likes of RDS working abroad events. “You went to these things and you sign in with your email and the next day you’re getting job adverts from Australia, Canada. There’s full page print outs in newspapers telling you to emigrate, young people are bombarded by this everywhere you go.”
Jack Eustace is on the same page. “If we extend the vote to those who have emigrated, politicians can’t get away with promoting emigration” says the recently elected Chairperson of Labour Youth.
Part of the International Union of Socialist Youth; Labour Youth seems to have retained the left wing ideals and a radicalism that the main party seems to have lost in the current coalition. “We didn’t win the last election” states Eustace. Labour Youth staunchly opposed the Fine Gael – Labour alliance in 2011 and recently got into some trouble for actively campaigning against a Fianna Fáil candidate running in the European elections earlier this yeah. Posters were put up with phrases like ‘FFECKERS’, ‘WTFF’ and ‘FFS’. Consciously breaking the law didn’t bother the previous Chairperson nor does it affect the current. “It’s important to use any avenues” says Eustace in regards to political activism, “breaking the rules can be justified”.
While youth wings of parties can sometimes find themselves making newspaper headlines, the current Mayor of South Dublin and Sinn Féin Councillor never saw much of a point in them. “You see with the likes of Young Fine Gael that it’s more of a social thing than an interest in politics or politicising people.” 12.7% of the total number of candidates in the 2014 local elections were aged between 18-35 and Fintan Warfield was one of those successful candidates.
In regards to youth disengagement in politics, the ‘Irish Electorate Rides Tumblr‘ star says “I think they’re drained. I think they’re drained by a civil war kind of break down in Irish politics and I would hope that Sinn Féin, Labour even, standing young people in elections will open that door a little more.” He also hopes to have the referendum to lower the voting age on the same day as the marriage equality referendum next year to encourage young people to get more involved in politics.
Warfield, like YFG’s McDermott, worries about the upcoming Marriage Equality referendum. “70% in favour? That’s only going to go down, down, down. Bombs are going to be dropped in that last week. Definitely be concerned.” Young people and LGBT are separated from politics by a canyon of world viewpoints. “They’re growing up in a completely accepting environment, schools are so diverse and it’s so refreshing and amazing. And then you come back to the chamber and there’s someone opposing a motion on marriage equality or on section 37 of the employment equality act and they’re wondering why we’re having these debates. They’re moving towards social change and the political system has always been behind.”
“It’s easy to see how your vote will translate in a referendum,” says Laura Harmon, President of the the Union of Students in Ireland, “whereas often times when you vote for a political candidate or a political party, you know what they stand for on their manifestos but you don’t really know what that is going to translate to in real terms. We’ve seen in the past politicians breaking their promises. I mean, Ruairi Quinn [previous] Minister for Education, he signed a USI pledge saying he wouldn’t increase student fees and then one of the things he did in government was to increase student fees by a large amount.”
Harmon believes that the main way of getting young people involved in politics is through education. “There’s a huge lack of eduction when you look at primary and secondary level in terms of civic engagement and civic duties and what it is to be a citizen. What it means to be part of a society. The responsibilities people have.”
Shane Finnan of the Socialist Party in NUI Maynooth agrees that education is the best course of action but from the standpoint that our society is deeply flawed. “There is a divide is society and gradually people are going to see that the divide lies between different classes. The ruling elite is sucking society dry”.
Finnan sees little point in the current system of the USI and claims they’re not radicals and so accomplish very little as a union. “It’s suppose to be an organisation that represents the needs of a given body. What are they doing? They have careerist layers and then those who aren’t radicals, who want to help out a little bit, but aren’t willing to rock the boat.”
Although he calls the comments of the previous Labour leader, Eamon Gilmore, about young people choosing to stay home on the dole and watch their ‘flat screen TVs’ as “divide and rule tactics”, he remains optimistic about youth political engagement. “The unjust system that the governments maintained to repay the debts of a ruling elite has a consequence and the way they’re doing that is they’re taking from ordinary people. You’re seeing this emergence of a fresh layer of young people that have never been politically active”.
Words and photos: Azzy O’Connor (@AzzyOC)
Illustrations: Austin O’ Hanlon