Recession is wake-up call to get involved in politics
POLITICS:THE YOUTH wings of political parties are boasting of a bumper crop of recruits this year, indicating that the economic crisis may have politicised the generation that was reared in the boom and grew up in the bust.
The last Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll looking at party support, carried out in the spring, found Fine Gael had more support among every age group than any other party – with the exception of 18- to 24-year-olds.
Among this group, 27 per cent plumped for Sinn Féin while 21 per cent opted for Fine Gael. Fianna Fáil was supported by 18 per cent of under-25s; 16 per cent backed Independents/others; 13 per cent were Labour supporters and 5 per cent were Greens.
Sinn Féin Senator Kathryn Reilly from Cavan, who turned 24 recently, senses growing frustration about the effects of the economic downturn among her peers but little appetite to do anything about it as yet.
“Young people are more politically aware. It took a crisis to politicise people. I hear people who’ve had no interest in politics animated about linking the household charge to grants, and the property tax,” she says. “I don’t think their actions are reflecting their emotions, but I think that’s going to change in the next few years.”
She is worried about the impact on Ireland of emigration by highly skilled and well educated members of Generation Next. “Those that might have done something in the past are the ones leaving.”
She tried to highlight the phenomenon at Sinn Féin’s ardfheis in May, when she surprised and entertained delegates by taking off two GAA club jerseys, one after the other, to reveal a London GAA jersey underneath.
Reilly says Generation Next’s attitude to politicians is totally different from that of previous generations in that they are much less likely to approach Oireachtas members’ clinics with problems.
“It’s kind of the ‘Google it’ generation. There are so many good resources online that people my age just look things up. It begs questions about the form public representation will take into the future,” Reilly says.
The Dáil’s youngest TD, Simon Harris of Fine Gael, who represents Wicklow, will leave Generation Next when he turns 26 next month. He disputes the contention that Sinn Féin or left-wing alternatives are increasingly becoming a natural home for young voters.
“I do think that’s a bit of a media sensation. Ever since I joined Young Fine Gael there’s been a media conversation about young people being attracted to Sinn Féin. I’m informed Young Fine Gael have had their best recruitment drive in UCD in years,” he says.
However, young people of his acquaintance are generally “not too impressed with the political system”. They have their own immediate worries. “They’re trying to get a job,” he says. “They’re worried about their parents’ mortgages, never mind getting their own mortgage.”
Much like Reilly, though, he is beginning to notice “much more probing questions” from friends who previously showed little interest in politics.
Harris, who has complained of “reverse ageism” in Leinster House, says it is ultimately up to young people themselves to emulate the efforts of their seniors to organise and make their voices heard. He suggests there is no reason why 18- to 25-year-olds could not prove as powerful a voting block as the so-called grey power movement.
“Older voters have traditionally had a number of representative groups doing important work in highlighting their issues, whereas young voters tend not to have such a collective voice.
“There’s no way of getting around it: young people have to engage in the political process. I never leave a school without saying: whether you’re interested in politics or not, politics will be interested in you.”
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin recently said the party had gained 1,000 new members in third-level colleges and referred to the 30 young local area representatives he has appointed in communities across the country.
One of the local area representatives for Finglas West in Dublin is medical physicist David Costello.
He signed up through the party’s website at the age of 26, rather than taking the traditional route of joining Ógra Fianna Fáil during his college years.
“I never went to Ógra at all. I had one focus when I was in college and that was getting the best education I could. I thought, you get one chance at this. I didn’t really have time,” Costello says.
He says not too many people in the 18- to 25-year-old age group are willing to get involved in politics. Facebook friends will occasionally call him “mad” when his posts reference political events. “Political parties are for an older generation: that’s what young people think.”
He is always on the lookout for potential new members, however, “It’s no picnic. It’s going to take people a while to trust Fianna Fáil again.”
Angelina Cox (21) joined Labour Youth in Freshers’ Week and is now in her third year studying law and political science at Trinity College, Dublin.
Like Costello, she is sometimes teased for her beliefs by her peers who are not interested in politics. “They think my stance on social issues is so liberal, mad and ‘leftie’. I don’t agree with them at all.
“I tend to hang out more with people who are into politics. I just feel we have more to talk about.”
She supports the Campaign for Labour Policies, a grassroots movement attempting to persuade the party to pursue alternatives to austerity.
“I’d like to see Labour pushing the social democratic agenda more, although I totally understand how constrained they are.”
Young Fine Gael had about 3,500 members last year, according to a spokeswoman who insisted college recruitment had been “very successful” so far in 2012.
Labour Youth reports about 700 members. “We’re matching last year’s figures generally and in some places such as Athlone and NUIG we had an increase on last year,” a spokesman said.
A Sinn Féin spokesman said the party’s youth wing had a membership of 1,800, and the Northern Ireland/Republic split was 60/40, while a Fianna Fáil spokesman said: “Since college recruitment began at the start of September, we have seen a dramatic increase in new members in comparison to last year.”