Political battle for youth vote grows ever fiercer

Voting by young people significantly lower in Ireland than European Union average


As the country prepares to go the polls tomorrow for the local and European of elections, the political battle for the hearts and minds of this country’s younger generations has never been fiercer.

A conundrum for political establishments the world over, the issue of youth engagement has proven particularly problematic in Ireland over recent decades, with statistics consistently indicating a more dysfunctional relationship here than elsewhere in Europe.

The turnout for the 18-24 age group in the 2011 general election was 20 per cent below the national average, according to Central Statistics Office figures. This is in keeping with the findings of a European Social Survey three years previously, which showed young Irish voters were among the least likely to vote in Europe, falling 10 per cent below the EU average for youth electoral participation.

However, there are tentative signs this dynamic may be changing.

The 2011 figures revealed a marginal increase over the number of young people voting in the 2002 general election, and a recent EuroBarometer report found a fifth of 15 to 30 year-olds in this country would consider standing for election at some point in their lives.

Indeed, latest estimates indicate about one in six candidates contesting the local elections are 35 or under.

Nowhere exudes this newfound vibrancy quite like the Killiney-Shankill area of south Dublin. Although experience is usually regarded as a desirable trait, candidates for the constituency have made a virtue of clean slates and fresh ideas, with seven candidates under 35 vying for the six seats on offer.

“I think young people just lost interest in the political establishment, but getting them involved will change that,” says Jennifer Cuffe (27), a first-time election hopeful for Fianna Fáil. She believes her party is in a prime position to mobilise young support in the area.

“When I go to the doors and meet a young person, I will always talk to them first rather than asking to talk to their mum or dad as happened to me at the last general election when I was 24.

“There are plenty of young people who have been looking for new candidates to come forward, it’s just about getting them out to vote so that it’s representative of our whole area,” she says.

While their parties may be diametrically opposed in ideological terms, People Before Profit’s Cillian Doyle sympathises with Cuffe’s view that younger people need more representation to encourage them to become engaged.

“There’s a disconnect in the sense that young people don’t tend to vote, politics seems to be a distant thing that they externalise and can’t relate to,” says 27-year-old Doyle, who got involved with PBP upon his return from Australia in 2011. “You can change things, but you have to get involved and vote for candidates with your best interests at heart.”

Although just three years his senior, Doyle’s running mate Hugh Lewis is a veteran compared to his colleague, having originally been elected to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in 2009.

It’s a similar story in west Dublin, where Sinn Féin novice Jonathan Graham is hoping to beat heavyweight Olympian Kenny Egan of Fine Gael in the Clondalkin constituency. The 20-year-old’s rousing address at the party Ardfheis in February elicited raucous applause from the gathered faithful, no doubt further boosting the self belief which led him to run in the first place.

“I was always confident in my own politics and my own ability so I was never particularly fazed about putting my name forward,” says Graham, a student at Trinity College. “Many young people are coming to Sinn Féin based on the context of what we’ve experienced in the last couple of years.

“ I think part of the problem is that Government officials speaking on youth issues don’t connect with younger generations or have an appetite for what they really want.”

While youthful zeal abounds in a rejuvenated Sinn Féin, former Labour Youth national chairwoman Aideen Carberry, a candidate in Rathfarnham, acknowledges serious difficulties in persuading younger people to represent the party. But the 25-year-old is confident her age and relative inexperience can act as an advantage rather than an impediment when attempting to sway voters.

“Even though you can understand people being less than enthusiastic to talk to a Labour candidate, the electorate are still delighted to see younger people going forward regardless of what party you’re from,” she says. “My age is a definite advantage in this election as there’s a need for younger faces who can bring a different voice.”

Similarly, the Green Party is keen to rehabilitate its tarnished image with enthusiastic new recruits. At 21, Cormac Ó Mainnín is one such candidate who has made the leap from junior ranks to contest the Cork constituency of Ballincollig-Carrigaline.

“It was when I started college that I joined the Young Greens because I thought things needed to be changed, and we needed people to change them,” says Ó Mainnín, a student at University College Cork.

“The main thing people ask about is ‘do you have experience?’ or, more to the point, ‘are you lacking in experience?’ indicating that they’d prefer someone who is 20 years older. But it’s important that our elected representatives give a representative range of different experiences.

“We have a lot of middle-aged men like teachers and lawyers, there’s nothing wrong with them but they have one particular background and it’s better to be more diverse.”

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