Una Mullally: New political engagement by young people

Government generally avoids interacting with youth, viewing them with suspicion

It’s rare that you come across a quote from a political party member that cuts through the guff and resonates so much you want to run to where its author is and high-five them with Oprah- audience enthusiasm levels. Lorna Bogue is 23 and Young Greens chairwoman.

In an interview with the Journal last month, she said: "I'm just kind of tired of middle-aged men pissing away my future all the time." Thank you, Lorna.

While the new political alliances getting most of the attention these days are centre-right outfits trying to get votes from supporters of the other centre-right outfits, there are signs of a new type of engagement happening among young Irish people. Bring it on.

Government generally avoids interacting with young people, viewing them with suspicion and treating them with disdain when it comes to policy.


Until recently, the most visible upper echelons of Labour – a party that tries to make a song and dance about how down with the kids it is – was run by people’s dads. Young people have been colossally screwed over by this Government. The referendum on the age of presidential candidates is tokenistic and largely irrelevant among issues facing young people. So what have the youngsters got?

Absolute mess

Ruairí Quinn’s promise not to touch third-level fees came back to haunt him. JobBridge is an absolute mess, a bad idea executed terribly, which assumes poverty and insecurity is a good baseline for phoney employment. Many young parents can’t afford childcare. Child poverty in Ireland rose by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2012. Renters – a demographic that is disproportionately young – are completely left out in the cold, with terrifying rises in rent being met with shrugging shoulders from the policymakers.

A lack of student accommodation means borderline homelessness for many rural students moving to Dublin. Central Bank changes to mortgage-lending practices means that many young couples who were scrimping and saving for a deposit will now find it impossible to buy a home. Tens of thousands of young people gave the nation the two fingers and jumped on planes and boats. Well done everyone!


There is little done to engage young people in politics because the establishment knows it would be to their detriment. Little is done even to register people to vote, a task the USI recently took upon itself, registering 24,000 new voters between the end of October and the end of November last year alone.

As much as the Government has disenfranchised young people politically, there is a new simmering of sorts of political engagement happening. Let’s hope it starts boiling. When I was in college, the students who got involved in party politics were just miniature versions of the people who were in the Dáil. They were the people who wanted to carry on a family legacy in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael and, for some reason, were always bizarrely conservative for their age. So young people in politics doesn’t automatically mean new ideas or different thinking. But of course, politics isn’t just about parties.

Abroad, recently emigrated young people at least appear to be more engaged than previous generations, with rumblings about the new diaspora being neglected and occasional calls for voting rights from a distance.

The referendum on marriage equality is also politically engaging thousands of young people for the first time. I’ve been out canvassing for a Yes vote and it is amazing to see young LGBT people and their allies knocking on doors, fundraising and conversing with their peers.

It’s hard to access power, or even know where to start, without both mentors and role models. Youth: Elect, a programme by Future Voices (a charity that works with young people from marginalised backgrounds), launched last week. It aims to empower people under 30 to run in the next general election. It’s a good start.

Our political system needs to take young politicised people seriously. Two of the most inspiring people I’ve come across recently come from the student movement. I would happily vote for Laura Harmon, USI president, and Lynn Ruane, president of Trinity Students Union. Outside of student politics, I would happily vote for a young man I chatted to recently, Gary Gannon, a city councillor for Dublin’s north inner city, whose enthusiasm for change is matched only by his intelligence. All three share one characteristic frequently dismissed by the jaded establishment: idealism.


Oh, how terrible to be idealistic! How awful to have aspirations beyond clinging on to a seat! If we’re now up for a quota of women running for parties in the next election, then we have to talk about how young people are represented – or rather, under-represented.

The Dáil still looks like only one demographic – male, white, middle-class, middle-aged, conservative. Nothing will change in this country if the same people run, the same people are elected, the same people make decisions on our behalf. Twitter: @UnaMullally