Anne Harris: Why the young are drawn to Sinn Féin

Trinity students falling for Sinn Féin’s charms? One-quarter are on Susi grants

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald:  There are words she is not afraid of. Words like Denis O’Brien. And whether they articulate it or not, that strikes young people as very refreshing. Photograph:	 Stephen Collins

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald: There are words she is not afraid of. Words like Denis O’Brien. And whether they articulate it or not, that strikes young people as very refreshing. Photograph: Stephen Collins

 

Mixed signals, the psychologists tell us, are a recipe for disaster. But that is precisely what our 18-24 year olds have always received. The discreet objects of desire for marketing departments, they were traditionally a turn-off for politicians.

Anyone with something to sell believed, like the Jesuits, that if you got them young enough, you’d keep their brand loyalty forever. But to the politician they were fickle; too self-absorbed to see, too hungover to vote. And to add insult to invisibility, their numbers fell between the last two census.

All that is changing. Young people are becoming more politicised. And the surprise is that Sinn Féin is by far the leading party among that age group.

The 18-24 year old’s passion for Sinn Féin is hardly based on that party’s troubling history or pre-occupation with a united Ireland – those that were born at all were barely out of nappies for the Belfast Agreement. It stems from a political strategy so simple, it’s genius.

Sinn Féin sets out to meet them. At march and meeting place, no matter how micro.

Our 18-24 year olds have no intimations of mortality so health is not their issue. But they are intensely aware the Irish dream of owning your home eludes them

Their banners dominated the pop-up “I Believe Her” marches all over Ireland after the Belfast rape trial, which morphed into rape anger marches and were peopled by huge numbers of young people of all genders. Yes, Ruth Coppinger of Solidarity was a prime mover and Minister for Justice and Equality Charlie Flanagan responded promptly, but Sinn Féin left an after-image.

At the “Oppose the Resit Fee” student agitation in Trinity College, they were the first to address the students and offer solidarity (apart from Senator Ivana Bacik).

Sinn Féin and the posh kids? Well wake up – nearly a quarter of Trinity students are on Susi grants and the compelling argument against the Catch 22 cruelty of the €450 exam resit fee was that it would cost many of them 50 hours of minimum wage work to pay it, thus leaving little chance to study.

Youth concerns

Sexual violence and conditions for students are young people’s concerns, but they are all also mainstream concerns. The lack of interest shown by mainstream parties is all the more astounding when you consider that this sizeable chunk of the electorate is actually one of the more cohesive groups.

Wednesday’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows that a massive majority of them, 78 per cent, are in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment. Yet Government stagnation on that issue must surely feed their sense of the futility of politics. As well as ensuring that the binary narrative – that older people are greatly exercised by the rights of the foetus, while young people see the rights of a woman as paramount – recreates the cycle of divisiveness.

Are politicians aware of the generation gaps in Irish life? Of the hopelessness arising out of the hydra heads of politics – health and housing? Our 18-24 year olds have no intimations of mortality so health is not their issue: that’s for old people. But they are intensely aware that the Irish dream of owning your home eludes them. And even the poor relation – renting your own home – is evaporating.

Their own shelf in the collective fridge is the most those 18-24 year olds who don’t live at home can hope for.

Sinn Féin is up with all this.

But there’s more to 18-24 year olds than sectional interests. There’s idealism, curiosity about power and leadership. Mary Lou McDonald’s performance in the Dáil this week shows that a leader absorbs from everywhere. Perhaps it was from Catherine Murphy (who said it on RTÉ) she learned that as well as wanting to talk about health and housing, the electorate wanted to talk about Denis O’Brien. Or perhaps she always knew and waited to become leader.

Surreal universe

In our surreal universe, there seems always to be a new, fresh Denis O’Brien issue to galvanise the body politic. In the 2016 election, it was Denis and Siteserv. In the next, it may be Denis and the (alleged) Data Breaches. Or Denis and The Media.

And while many young people were between Holy Communion and Confirmation at the time of the Moriarty tribunal, and media doesn’t turn them either, something guaranteed to give them a eureka moment, is social media and the words “data breach”.

The badness of that the Facebook cognoscenti can get their heads around.

There are words McDonald is not afraid of. Words like Denis O’Brien. And whether they articulate it or not, that strikes young people as very refreshing. Unlike other party leaders she didn’t offer euphemisms as she wondered about the alleged breach at INM – and how INM’s Denis O’Brien is accusing the Office of the Director Enforcement of deliberately leaking details of the data affair.

There is one unique quality about politicised young people: the ability to learn from mistakes. In England they were complacent in the Brexit referendum. In the 2017 election, they changed that. And with their support for Corbyn, they showed “cool” doesn’t count for much.

In Ireland, the ability not to feel “the chill” is what counts. Especially when meeting the vivid faces of the 18-24 year olds?

Anne Harris is a writer and commentator. She is a former editor of the Sunday Independent

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