IRELAND’S MAIN POLITICAL parties are set to battle it out in the local and general elections this summer and their youth branches will be out in force campaigning for them.
This week TheJournal.ie spoke to the presidents of Young Fine Gael, Labour Youth and Ógra Fianna Fáil to find out what drove them to enter party politics and to get their views on issues like political reform, unemployment, gender quotas, abortion and marriage equality.
Dale McDermott, Young Fine Gael
Dale McDermott celebrated his 21st birthday with a trip to Rome last month – to attend the council of presidents meeting of YEPP: the Youth of the European People’s Party. The Templelogue native first became interested in party politics when Brian Hayes, currently a Fine Gael MEP candidate for Dublin, knocked on his door while canvassing in the run up to 2007 General Election.
He thought Hayes “seemed like a very decent guy” and decided to get involved with Fine Gael as he agreed with their economic and social policies. He became chair of Young Fine Gael last November.
“Fine Gael has always been the party that has championed liberal ideas. There’s this perception that Fine Gael and Young Fine Gael are socially conservative, which just isn’t true. The Taoiseach himself has said that he’s going to campaign tooth and nail for this [Marriage Equality] referendum next year,” McDermott noted.
One topic on which he disagrees with the senior party’s stance is that of abortion, saying last year’s Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act should be extended to legislate for abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.
He said Fine Gael “shouldn’t have lost a person like Lucinda Creighton” over the issue and called for a reform of the parliamentary whip system. “The whip needs to be reformed if we’re to have any real, meaningful reform to the Dáil,” he added.
McDermott, a second year accounting and finance student in DIT, admitted that there is “a big disconnect between young people and elections in general” but said that people like Kenneth Egan, a Fine Gael local election candidate in Clondalkin, will help change this by tackling youth-related issues such as drugs and alcohol. “He is someone who has a wealth of experience in [Clondalkin]. He wants to keep it real … I don’t see him as being ‘token’ celebrity candidate.”
The 21-year-old noted that in the past YFG had “a finger in every pie” as they focused on too many issues. With this in mind, the group decided to pinpoint three areas on which to “develop big policies over the coming year”: mental health, third level funding and youth unemployment.
In terms of the latter, McDermott views the Youth Guarantee Scheme, a European Commission-backed initiative to provide work, training or an apprenticeship to all young people aged between 18 and 24, as “the solution”.
YFG is also “fully” behind a graduate tax. “We’ve seen over the years Irish universities slip and slip with respect to the league tables across the world, so if you want free education that’s fine but you’ll have poor quality education,” McDermott said.
He describes the coalition government’s performance to date as “fantastic”. “Some mistakes have been made, of course, but people are only human, you know … There’s a lot more to do. Complacency isn’t something that should creep into the government either, I fully accept that.”
Ciaran Garrett, Labour Youth
Ciaran Garrett became the president of Labour Youth in October 2013. The 22-year-old Galway man is a final year politics and sociology student in UCD.
“I see the Labour party in Ireland as the only party that’s committed to delivering a fairer and more equal Irish society, both in terms of the economy and how we work to reduce income inequality and create economic fairness,” Garrett said.
Labour Youth was opposed to the senior party entering into government with Fine Gael. “Naturally we would have rather we didn’t go into coalition with Fine Gael because we saw the Programme for Government as one which wasn’t in accordance with Labour values.”
Garrett said it has been “massively disappointing” to see Labour making concessions on a number of policies.
“The country is in a very bizarre circumstance where we do have such huge economic restraints and Labour’s in coalition with a really viciously right-wing government so it’s really hard for Labour to get their policies through, but we’re doing our best in Labour Youth to articulate a progressive alternative,” he stated.
“Now the Troika’s left, there is a national conversations about what type of society we want Ireland to be like post-bailout. I think that’s a good opportunity now for Labour to up the pressure in government.” With this mind, Labour Youth is championing ‘Beyond the Bailout’ – an initiative focused on the introduction of a living wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts.
Garrett said the Youth Guarantee Scheme is “a stepping stone in the right direction” in terms of youth unemployment. Labour Youth are playing an “observer role” in the YGS pilot project in Ballymun. In terms of JobBridge, Garrett said there “needs to be far more regulation to avoid exploitation” as it “provides incentive for some employers to have free labour when in fact they could be employing people”.
The young Galway man views nepotism as a “huge” problem in Irish politics. “When you look at the Irish political system objectively there’s so many people who are politicians who have been selected basically because they’re someone’s mate in a high enough place.”
He said that the reputation of the Dáil as “an old boys’ club” does little to attract politically underrepresented groups such as women and migrants into the Oireachtas.
Garrett is in favour of gender quotas but thinks a similar initiative for migrants should only be looked at after other issues within community are dealt with, such as ending the “barbaric practices” of Direct Provision. “It traps so many potential new members of our community in prison-like conditions rather than welcoming them into the vibrant, multicultural republic we should be striving towards,” he stated.
As for pursuing a political career in the future, Garrett said he is uncertain. “I’m not sure if the Leinster House lifestyle would suit me, but you never know!”
“I think with quite a few of the youth political parties there is an attitude that it is a stepping stone, that it is a careerist type path to take, but I think it’s different with Labour Youth in that people are genuinely motivated about campaigning for a better society and aren’t afraid to criticise the senior party.”
Kate Feeney, President of Ógra Fianna Fáil
Kate Feeney has been surrounded by politics for most of her life. Her mother is Geraldine Feeney – a “lifelong Fianna Fáil member” who was nominated to the Labour panel in the Seanad from 2002-2011.
“I grew up in a house where politics was always talked about. It was kind of hard to not take it in so I was always aware of what was going on in politics nationally,” Feeney recalled.
The 28-year-old is from Sligo, but is now based in Dublin, where she works as an an accountant. She has been involved in Ógra for a decade and was elected their first-ever female president in February 2013.
Feeney is currently running as a local election candidate in Blackrock. She believes her role in Ógra, which will continue until the autumn, will “complement” her work as a Councillor, if elected.
Having a family member in politics has been “a help and a hindrance” in her political career. She admits that her mother is “a great asset to the [local election] campaign” but that most of the people she meets while canvassing aren’t “worried about your surname or where you come from”.
Regardless of background, Feeney believes that there is “an onus on anyone who put their name on the ticket to prove themselves”.
“More than anything, people are happy to see a young candidate knocking on their front door, a young woman.”
She noted that the public are “disenfranchised with the political system as a whole” and are “one hundred per cent” ready to vote for Fianna Fáil again, following their disastrous 2011 General Election.
“Since then the party has gone under a massive change internally,” Feeney stated.
The issues that come up most frequently during canvassing are the local property tax and water charges, two issues that she said are surrounded by “fear” and “uncertainty” in the eyes of voters.
One of Ógra’s main focus points is youth unemployment. Feeney said that the level of funding for the Youth Guarantee Scheme is “not sufficient to do what we need to do”. Ógra has proposed that every government department and public body should offer a 12-18 month paid placement to a recent graduate. Feeney said this initiative would create 10,000 jobs at a cost of €50 million annually.
Feeney admits that young women can often be “apprehensive” about getting involved in politics. She thinks that gender quotas are “necessary for where we are now” but insists that “as a stand alone measure they’re certainly not sufficient”. She also thinks shared parental leave, an issue currently being examined by Equality Minister Kathleen Lynch, should be an option to parents working in every sector.
On the issue of abortion, Feeney admits that members of Ógra are “very torn”, but her personal opinion is that the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act does not go far enough. “We’re in a situation where we have thousands of Irish women travelling to the UK every year. I think if the UK wasn’t as close and as accessible to us as it is, this issue would have been addressed a long time ago,” she said.
Ógra membership is united on the issue of same-sex marriage, it was the first branch of Fianna Fáil to publicly support it.
Feeney believes that a number of reforms within the Irish political system are necessary, including the introduction of a “lighter version of the [parliamentary] whip” and the extension of voting rights to emigrants for presidential and Seanad elections.
She added: “There’s a huge appetite for change in how politics is done.”
Note: A representative of Sinn Féin Republican Youth was asked to participate in the interview but declined.