Election 2020: Candidates born half a century apart share concerns for future

‘There are radicals and conservatives in all ages, I only regret there aren’t enough radicals’

With more than half a century between their birth dates, general election candidates Emmet Stagg and Tate Donnelly were each born into a very different Ireland. The Labour Party veteran and the Green Party first time candidate are among the youngest and oldest to appear on Saturday's ballot papers

Stagg (75), running in Kildare North , was reared along with 12 siblings in a two-up two-down with no running water nor electricity in rural Co Mayo.

Inside, a picture of Éamon De Valera hung on the wall . Outside, the grip of the Catholic Church was all pervading.

Green Party hopeful Donnelly (21), running in Cavan Monaghan, was born the same year the 1998 Belfast Agreement was signed and raised, along with two brothers, by their mother on Mullyash Mountain in Co Monaghan , right on the Border.

His is a seemingly prosperous, peaceful, socially liberal Ireland, that has repealed the Eighth Amendment and voted for same-sex marriage equality.

‘Ireland was dreadful’

But despite their vastly different experiences of Irish life, some of their most deeply-felt concerns for the country’s future are shared.

Born in 1944 on a 14 acre farm, Stagg says Ireland existed in the shadow of De Valera and the Catholic church.

“People were afraid to speak out, to say anything.”

There was widespread poverty, families wiped out by TB and it was no country for women.

“The drudgery of very large families. Constant daily chores. There was no spare money at all.”

The Staggs walked barefoot to school other than the coldest winter months. His mother was a strong believer in education as a way out of poverty, which generally meant out of Ireland too.

The older siblings went to England. His brothers worked on the buses, his sisters as nurses. They all sent money back.

“Ireland was dreadful,” says Stagg.

The church losing its power, the coming in of television – the BBC opening up the outside world, making a mockery of clerical censorship – and joining the European Union in particular unshackled the country, he believes.

Although developments since have been “dramatically positive”, people are still allowed to “fall through the net”.

“Ireland is a very rich country now and there are a lot of people quite comfortable, and there are other people that need assistance and they need it directly from the State, whether it is medical treatment, housing or a proper public transport system like every other European state.”

A “crash programme of house building” for people who cannot afford to buy their own is the only answer to that crisis.

“We did it before, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”

The “bottleneck at door of health system is the other big issue”. Building hospitals and ending an effective embargo on recruitment is his solution.

Stagg would also like to see “Ireland doing what it can for the environment”.

“We are not the biggest culprit in the world because we are so small but I would like to see us do our bit — properly.”

His biggest fear is that “we will continue to have conservative governments who won’t take action in all these areas”.

Government should be a mixture of youth and experience and wisdom, he says, adding that he finds no divergence in political outlooks between young and older.

“There are radicals and conservatives in all ages. I only regret there aren’t enough radicals.”

‘Potential for so much more’

Born in 1998, Tate was brought up "in the last house before the Border" on his road, not far from Castleblayney, Co Monaghan.

“Like a lot of people in rural Ireland, I was brought up by my community and the neighbours around me as well as my family,” he says.

“I wouldn’t change that for the world. But we had our difficult times as well. My mother was unemployed for a portion of it and it was difficult.”

Joblessness looms large around the border, and the “difficult patches” gave him an understanding of “the vulnerability of life and the vulnerability of people”.

“We always had a dinner on the table, a school uniform, school books and a bed to sleep in and I learned to count myself lucky, looking around me.”

His was quite a political house, but diverse. There was support for Sinn Féin and Fine Gael as well as the Greens, which made for lively dinner table debates.

Donnelly became increasingly aware of the “neglect” in his community.

“It seemed a place that had the potential for so much more, but that was being forgotten about. I felt part of Ireland was prosperous but it wasn’t our neck of the woods, and there was no intention of it coming to our neck of the woods.

“We all grew up with stories of bustling main streets, buzzing markets, you couldn’t get a car parking space in Castleblayney. They are just stories to me. It’s a shame now that the young people have to move away.”

Those a few years older than him mostly headed to Australia and the US. His friends moved to Galway, Letterkenny, Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Belfast.

Walking through the gates of Trinity College Dublin in 2017, where he is studying maths and economics, was like walking into a new world.

“It introduced me to a whole new section of society, I’ll call them. I met a lot of people living in a different world to the one I had grown up in. I met a lot of brilliant people but also a lot of people with a lack of understanding.”

The housing crisis, the climate, growing inequality and divisiveness as well as mental health are among Donnelly’s chief concerns.

Homelessness is getting worse while people who go to college and get well paid jobs can’t even afford a home, he says.

As a Green, he gets asked on the doorsteps if he’s into the environment.

“I wouldn’t call myself into the environment,” he always responds. “I’m into survival.”

Donnelly is “genuinely afraid” of the looming threat of droughts, rising sea levels, hunger and the fall out of a predicted 200 million climate refugees moving to the west over the next 30 years.

“I fear there is going to be a lot of trouble to come. I fear for food, how we are going to eat. All my peers are worried and anxious about climate change.

“Young people want us to live in a sustainable way, to give us a future and give us something to look forward to.”

There is anger too towards the political establishment for not acting.

Donnelly detects that younger people are increasingly more open to voting for parties outside "civil war politics" and predicts an eventual merger — never mind a coalition — of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

“I hope so anyway. I can’t tell the difference between them.”