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Una Mullally: Senator’s remarks show establishment does not want young people in politics

Independent senator out of step as young people help shape Ireland of tomorrow

Sometimes it feels as though there is a particular class of senators who approach the sport as pure hobbyists. This feeling – however misplaced – is given credence when a senator you haven’t heard of in a while says something silly.

Last week, it was Marie-Louise O’Donnell’s turn, a senator via the blessing of Taoiseach’s nominee, twice nominated by Enda Kenny. Both are around the same age and from the same part of Mayo, which is a coincidence. O’Donnell took to the floor to discourage young people from being involved in politics, while a public gallery full of teenagers – presumably mouths agape – looked on.

The Seanad is an interesting arena in which to observe a different kind of generation gap in Irish politics than the one we see in the Dáil, where ageing Fianna Fáil and Labour politicians glare at Leo Varadkar. It's in the Seanad that Sinn Féin senator Fintan Warfield and Independent senator Lynn Ruane were actually attempting to legislate – shocker – in stark contrast to some of their more hands-off colleagues, for whom a senatorship appears to primarily involve handshaking, trips to Marian Finucane's radio studio and obligatory attendance at opening nights at the Abbey.

Bill to reduce voting age

Senator Warfield reintroduced a Bill to reduce the voting age for local and European elections to 16. Senator Ruane seconded it. But some of the senators weren't having it.

“Four years ago some of you were 12,” O’Donnell said with a laugh, referring to the young people in the public gallery. “I’m not really interested in what happens in other countries,” she added, “I would suggest you stay away from politics.”

It is quite obvious that we need more young people in politics, not fewer

That kind of statement is an affront to what we as a nation should be encouraging, which is participation, engagement, inclusion and striving towards a more diverse political body across gender, ethnicity, class, age and so on.

I can't imagine how confusing and infuriating it was for the teenagers in the public gallery to journey to the Upper House of the Oireachtas and be greeted by that kind of rhetoric. The disconnect was profound. Senator Ruane countered: "When you come from a background like mine where political decisions that you don't have access to literally shape your environment without you being able to contribute to it, politics is very, very important."

It is quite obvious that we need more young people in politics, not fewer. Young people are disproportionately affected by the ongoing fallout of the Irish financial collapse and the faux-recovery. While the number of people out of work for more than a year in Ireland is at 2.5 per cent, the youth unemployment rate in Ireland currently sits at about 12 per cent. Our rate of child homelessness is the worst in Europe, with children accounting for more than a third of the 10,000 now homeless – 3,755. Our highest rate of self-harm is among young women aged between 15 and 19. Our teenage suicide rate is the fourth highest in the European Union.

The goal of being able to rent a flat and live independently is beyond the financial means of many young people in Ireland, who are forced to live at home, and are subsequently mocked for being over-reliant on their parents, or blamed for their own infantilisation even though it is the result of economic policies that have favoured vulture funds and international investors over our own kids and communities.

Optimism and potential

Yet still, still in the face of an overwhelming housing crisis, the psychological discombobulation of economic security being yanked away by reckless generations above them, the mass emigration of their peers, the reintroduction of college fees, a jobs market where they have to jump through multiple hoops just to secure unpaid or insecure work, the weekly slaggings from commentators about their audacity to be interested in civil rights – often the rights of people they don’t even have a vested interest in – still the optimism and potential of Ireland’s young people as political and active citizens is stunning.

Their response to being screwed over has been to change this country for the better; to campaign for marriage equality, to protest against austerity, to rally against homelessness, to mobilise for the repeal against the Eighth Amendment, to demonstrate against sexual violence. Young people need allies, not opposition.

The week the Bill on lowering the voting age was blocked in the Seanad, young people across the United States were rallying against the destructive and murderous force of guns there, advocating for gun control in a way that has never been seen before. How inspiring that must be for young people across the world to see their peers in another country take on such a fraught issue, to galvanise allies, mobilise themselves and each other and challenge one of the most extreme, powerful, and blind ideologies in the US.

Young people should be emboldened by this Bill being blocked. It means that the establishment doesn't want them to be involved, which means they should absolutely be involved. Young people should remember that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael defeated the Bill in the Seanad by refusing to support it. The political power of young people have is that they are not invested in the systems adults hide behind. The outsider perspective is always the most dangerous, because it sees things for what they are.

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