“I’m just kind of tired of middle-aged men pissing away my future all the time” is what Lorna Bogue, 23, former chairperson of the Young Greens and candidate in Cork South Central for the next general election told The Journal in March last year.
Traditionally young people do not engage with politics. As Irish Times journalist Una Mullally once put it “Government generally avoids interacting with young people, viewing them with suspicion and treating them with disdain when it comes to policy.” The young people of Ireland have frequently not fared well from the policies and decisions made by the government, Ruairí Quinn’s decision to backtrack on third level fees is one of the main and most painful examples of this. The youth of Ireland who remain here are also seeing their friends and loved ones forced to emigrate in search of a better life. Traditionally young people and politics do not mix.
I spoke to four young people who have already joined political parties in an attempt to understand why they decided to engage with Irish politics when so many other have not. All in their early 20’s, from different political parties I asked them why they decided to get involved in politics and if they thought there was a place for young people in politics. Shane Folan is a member of the Labour Party and has acted as Chair of UCD Labour. Jack Power has recently joined the Social Democrats. Mark Holt is the current Chair of Kevin Barry Cumann, a youth wing of Fianna Fail, in UCD. Diarmuid Burke is the current Chair of the Young Greens.
When asked why they decided to get into politics both Holt and Folan spoke about the atmosphere surrounding election times. Both interests date back from being younger and going canvassing or to a polling station and being enthralled from the beginning. “One of my earliest memories is my Mam bringing me into the polling station in the 1997 Presidential election, I loved the buzz in the place and that always stayed with me.” said Folan.
Both Burke’s and Power’s reasons for joining are entirely different. Both joined parties which would not be considered one of the main political parties in Ireland after becoming disillusioned with what the bigger parties had to offer. “I had previously felt totally alienated from any of the existing parties and just felt the Social Democrats offered something newer, more genuine, with a bit of moral authority and credibility.” Power tells us. Burke also felt this way, bridging the gap that so many young people find difficult to do, “I mostly joined a party because I was sick of just complaining about how things were done in Ireland without doing anything about it. At least that way I could influence the conversation on a national level rather than just staying within myself.”
I feel young people have a lot of opinions on important issues, it’s just that the political parties aren’t the best at aggregating those interests or listening to them.
All four men believe there is a place in party politics for young people but not all agree that this place is as open or as respected as it should be. Mark Holt, Chair of UCD Kevin Barry Cumann, believes that young people are now “considered essential to a party’s appeal and its image” and that opportunities for aspiring young politicians are now part of the “Irish political culture.” While a greatly increased number of young people have put themselves forward for the upcoming general election, 65 candidates under the age of 35, Burke, Folan and Power all agree that this journey into politics is extremely difficult.
Power puts this down to the political parties not engaging with the youth, “I feel young people have a lot of opinions on important issues, it’s just that the political parties aren’t the best at aggregating those interests or listening to them. So there’s a disconnect that can be hard to bridge … I think there is a place for young people in politics who are passionate”. While Burke believes it is something which young people have to fight for, “it’s something that has to be fought for, rather than just there like there is with older people. A lot of politicians and the wider public don’t respect young people’s ability to make decisions, just look at the results of the presidential age referendum, so young people do have to fight to be heard, especially in the larger parties.”
Folan, a Labour party member, acknowledges that the road of young people into politics can be tough but claims he does not believe it is impossible, “the energy and ideas young people have can change a campaign, or change government policy as long as it is directed in the right way. There are barriers of course, but if enough people decide to get involved, those barriers will be quickly removed.” These barriers have to be knocked down by those young people who make the decision to attempt to engage with politics and political parties. Those already involved acknowledge the difficulties faced by other young people who wish to engage.
I also think people don’t want to be compromised, and politics does that to you. It’s easier to stay outside and fight the power than go inside and have to make deals
The question remains, why don’t young people engage with politics? While it could be answered with the acknowledgments of the difficulties faced by those who do endeavour to engage, Diarmuid Burke, Chair of the Young Greens, added his own answer to this question. “Young people are turned off by the system in my view, and parties sort of embody the system … I also think people don’t want to be compromised, and politics does that to you. It’s easier to stay outside and fight the power than go inside and have to make deals.”
The recent flame of hope in this dark relationship between the youth and the political parties of Ireland came during the Marriage Equality referendum. Thousands upon thousands of young people registered to vote, having maybe not been bothered to do so before. They turned out to vote, some travelling miles just to do so, and celebrated in Dublin Castle when the results came in. All four men that I spoke to believed that the referendum had a positive affect on young people in politics with Jack Power, a member of the Social Democrats, stating he believes it “was a moment when young people bridged that disconnect from politics and took action, with or without the political parties”.
Folan hopes that more young people will get involved in party politics following the referendum. “I think it certainly has led to more young people becoming aware of politics and how the system works, and I hope more young people get involved in party politics” he said. While Burke, although he would like to think it will lead to change, remains unsure if one referendum can change the minds of the youth. “The apathy that’s there is pretty ingrained and I don’t know if it can all be wiped away by one result. I certainly think it’ll make people more aware of what’s going on around them, and hopefully it will get them to vote. But a lot of young people have been let down by politics and might not want to reengage with party politics, where things happen gradually, as opposed to referendums where change seems to occur instantaneously.”
While some young people such as Folan, Holt, Power and Burke decided to bridge the gap and engage with party politics so many other young people do not. Is this the fault of the young people or the fault of the parties themselves? Who does not engage with whom? The question still remains if young people will continue to engage with politics post-referendum, or if they will return to relinquishing their democratic right to vote. Will the young people of Ireland turn out and vote in the upcoming general election? We will find out on the 26th February.