Una Mullally: #MarRef effect will blindside big parties
It is incredible how no party has capitalised on young people's political involvement in referendum
In Fiach Kelly’s piece on ‘Bertie’s Children’ in The Irish Times in January, eight 18-year-olds were interviewed, and when asked the question “Are you interested in politics?” seven out of the eight cited the marriage equality referendum. The impact of the marriage referendum on mobilising young people, engaging young people, and inspiring young people is obvious, but it’s also nuanced, something that the media and political establishment doesn’t seem to grasp.
The cynicism within the media about the true impact of marriage referendum on the political engagement of young people comes from a lack of lateral thinking. Just because a load of 18-year-olds didn’t sign up to run for a party the day after the referendum result, doesn’t mean that nothing shifted. The inability to grasp this is compounded by the fact that when the media talks about politics, it’s talking about party politics and politicians, not the bigger picture. Who is it serving to doubt the impact of a referendum that was based on people power, DIY activism, a grassroots movement, a movement based on idealism and a desire for an egalitarian society? With another election campaign now upon us, the coverage will inevitably veer into a micro-view of politics in Ireland, but young people have a tendency to go macro.
In engaging with politics, young people seem more likely to engage with issues. The traditional political party structure tends to engage young people who grow up to be the type of political thinkers their parents were. But issue-based politics is about how we more broadly envisage society. There has already been a small shift in Ireland towards activist politics in recent years, and it’s that type of politics where many young people see their ideas and ideals fitting, across marriage equality, protesting Irish Water, the Repeal The 8th movement, the secularisation of the education system, housing, and more local issues such as student fees. It’s no wonder that independents and Sinn Féin appeal to young people, because they have a tendency to talk more about issues and society, not the tug of war that typifies contemporary party politics in Ireland.
What is incredible is how not one political party has capitalised on the groundswell of political involvement from young people in the marriage referendum. Yet this outcome - or rather lack thereof - also illustrates the disconnect between party politics and young people. Crucially, how Labour has not managed to capitalise on what was a generation-defining moment, illustrates their own rudderless communicating and lack of understanding of a potential base, a catastrophic failure to own even their own message, not to mention competing with the messages of others. The failure to communicate the ideals for which they stand has left them out in the cold when it comes to the youth vote.
For Labour, their main mistake in failing to capitalise on the groundswell of support for this social justice issue, was personalising it to key Labour figures. Pushing Eamon Gilmore to the fore became part of the narrative of his swan song. Yet Gilmore wasn’t a key figure for the thousands of young LGBT people who marched and canvassed on this issue. Labour wanted to say “he did this”, but everyone else knew “we did this”. People at Dublin Castle on the day of the referendum result cheered loudest for David Norris, for Panti, for Colm O’Gorman, for Katherine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, for Grainne Healy, for Andrew Hyland, for Moninne Griffith, for Brian Sheehan, for Jerry Buttimer, for John Lyons, for Ailbhe Smyth. The appearance of party leaders was taken with a pinch of salt, most notably the eye-rolling that greeted Gerry Adams’ appearance. Like the Green Party and civil partnership, Labour wanted to claim something for themselves, when it was all of ours to claim, although canvassers will remember their work on the ground. In that atmosphere of idealism and triumph, one wonders how Labour could have benefited from the youth vote if they had properly articulated themselves as a party of ideals in the wake of the referendum.
One of the other reasons that the media doesn’t seem to grasp the impact of the referendum is due to its own behaviour during it. Although the impact of the marriage referendum on Irish society is widely recognised as “big”, the reporting during the campaign covered a story and missed a movement. The reasons the diversity of the Yes vote and a grassroots movement of people power wasn’t properly explored are numerous. One of those reasons was because because of a slavish dedication to “balance”. The support and opposition for and to marriage equality was not 50/50, yet that’s what the media covered. The No vote and people who held anti-marriage equality attitudes were given a disproportionate amount of coverage relative to the number of people who actually were going to vote No. As a result, the No side’s influence was not just blown out of proportion, but also covered on a scale that was to the detriment of stories from the Yes campaign that should have been covered yet were squeezed for space. While the reporting of minority view points, such as anti-LGBT equality ones, is important, disproportionately representing those points of view as if it was a reflection of how a very large chunk of public felt and thought was inaccurate, and it came at the expense of coverage that should have been more representative of what was actually going on.
Another reason the media missed the bigger picture was its insatiable need for conflict throughout the campaign, especially in the final stages. Instead of reporting what was actually happening on the ground, unfounded scare stories about the potential of the referendum not carrying were given far more credence that was totally mismatched with the reality on the ground and in the polls. Yet another reason, is a general distrust of anything that goes against traditional thinking or questions the status quo. Throughout the campaign, there was a repetitive mantra that the young ones wouldn’t turn out. Then they did. Even after the youth vote proved the establishment wrong, now the mantra is that the young ones won’t continue to turn out. Why has this become the consensus?
Ask any canvasser, and they’ll tell you that during the marriage equality canvassing drives all across the country, the biggest support came from working class areas and from young people. That’s not to do a disservice to the broad range of support from all demographics the Yes Equality campaign secured. Why doesn’t the Irish media and Irish political system recognise and represent the political capital and points of view of young people or working class people? Probably because both institutions are for the most part neither young nor working class. It is easier for the media and the political establishment to reflect the viewpoints that they most identify with; middle-aged, heterosexual, conservative (both the big ‘C’ and the little ‘c’), relatively wealthy, mostly male, middle-class, monocultural in ethnicity, and so on.
So when young people actually did come out, when they mobilised and canvassed and in many ways went to huge personal expense to come home to vote, it struck at the hearts of the Irish people. We should be bursting with pride, and we were. For a moment. How annoying for young people now, that even when they did do everything within their powers to fight for what they believe in and inspired a nation, that their political capital is being diminished and disregarded. The media and politicians said they wouldn’t come out to vote and they did. Now, the media and politicians say that was a one-off, that the energy will dissipate, where are they now? Well, where aren’t they?
The marriage referendum cracked open conversations and attitudes and movements in Irish society. There has been a domino effect, one that gives people who view equality as a core ideal of a republic the confidence to continue various campaigns. The marriage referendum directly inspired the #WakingTheFeminists movement. Women sharing their stories about abortion are taking their cues from the conversations LGBT people had about their personal lives.
When it comes to this general election, people seemed to be talking down the impact of young people before the thing had even been called. But on what basis? I personally know people who canvassed for the first time during the marriage referendum now canvassing for candidates in this general election. I personally know people who were hugely mobilised during the campaign to the point that they are now working for candidates in the general election. I know people who are talking about politics more, who probably wouldn’t have bothered voting in this election had they not voted in the referendum. I know young candidates taking their cues from the messaging and ideals of the marriage referendum. I know people who are considering running in the future because of the marriage referendum. I know young people who were too young to vote who were inspired by the referendum sparking an interest in activism, social justice, and politics. I know people in their thirties who voted for the first time during the referendum and will be voting again in the general election. The demographic of the Irish electorate has already been changed by the numbers who registered to vote in the referendum. Student politics has also changed because of it - moving slightly away from a mini-politician/party facsimile to more driven by activism and egalitarian viewpoints.
The disconnect between the political establishment - of which the media is often a part - and the people is profound. When it comes to how elections are covered, you’d often swear politicians are the only ones who vote. Journalists don’t want to hear this, because there is a belief, and sometimes an arrogance, that they have the expertise and the inside track. But what qualifies as an inside track on Kildare Street doesn’t necessarily mean anything to the average voter. Many people want politics of idealism and principles. They want to talk about the issues that impact on them and on their country. But the media and political establishment is obsessed with the politics of points and power struggles. It’s harder to cover the more abstract and nuanced things, but deciding that young people don’t now have a much bigger role in our political landscape because it doesn’t suit a pessimistic narrative is not just misguided, it’s wrong.