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Column: Insinuating that young people ‘aren’t bothered’ with politics is insulting and false

Various political scandals and our current economic woes have increased levels of mistrust in politicians among young people. This does not mean we are apathetic, we just need to be engaged, writes Órla Ryan.

Órla Ryan

“YOU GUYS NEVER protest, if this was France people would be out on the streets in their thousands.” Perhaps my French friend had a point – his country puts us to shame when it comes to a good old-fashioned protest. That said, it’s not as if we don’t pound the pavement when we feel the need.

The recent abortion demonstrations (on both sides of the argument) and marches highlighting the third-level grant debacle are two recent examples of young people putting their money where their megaphone is. Our protests may be less frequent than our Gallic counterparts, but perhaps that’s a sign of our cultural differences as much as anything else.

Young people have not taken to the streets

Activist and journalist Orla Tinsley recently wrote about the seeming absence of the protest gene in Irish young people, saying: “lack of protest does not mean lack of engagement”. Tinsley said this generation’s “sphere of political action is shifting” and now encompasses work with lobby groups, NGOs and online activism as well as more traditional forms of participation such as involvement in student unions and youth divisions of political parties.

As with many issues, a generation gap is also evident. Young people can at times feel politics is a game almost solely played by older, out-of-touch people.

This disconnect was accentuated by the SpunOut.ie ‘threesome scandal’. When Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin questioned the fact that a website partially funded by the HSE gave information to young people about threesomes, the Minister of Health James Reilly ordered a review of the site. The comments from the website were taken out of context and the ensuing negative publicity could have easily damaged what is an unparalleled resource for young people in terms of their overall health and wellbeing.

Having our voices heard

Some of our politicians are actively trying to bridge this type of gap. Our president Michael D Higgins attempted just that when he invited Ireland’s youth community to share their opinions as part of the ‘Being Young and Irish 2012’ project.

The subsequent report was the result of four regional dialogues and incorporated the views of almost 800 contributors ranging in age from 17-26 years. Concerns regarding political reform and accountability, mental health and suicide, the economy, education and equality (particularly in terms of gay marriage and the gender pay divide) all featured.

Initiatives such as this prove that young people want to have their voices heard. It’s also encouraging to see our Head of State take such a proactive role in this regard.

Regional dialogues are a major element of the European Year of Citizens and Ireland’s Presidency of the Council of the EU. A recurring shortcoming at such events has been the lack of young people attending.

Efforts are being made – but it’s a two-way street

When I questioned the Minister for European Affairs Lucinda Creighton about this at the Galway-based dialogue, she said that “every effort is bring made” to get young people interested and partaking.

“I think people often feel that events like this are for politicians or professional lobbyists. It’s difficult to attract people to take the discussion from their living room or local pub to an organised structure like this, but we’re trying,” Minister Creighton stressed. She also noted that young people often don’t attend such events as they feel “less connected” to politics than others.

Minister Creighton insists it can’t all be one-way traffic, though. She feels the Irish Government and EU are creating an environment for the public to share opinions with politicians and it’s up to them to capitalise on that. She said:

“Citizens also have to accept responsibility, you know, we’re not living in a nanny state… You can bring a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink.”

Losing trust in our representatives

Various political scandals and our current economic woes have increased levels of mistrust in politicians among young people. This does not mean we are apathetic, however.

If anything, the age at which people become politically engaged is decreasing. Many organisations recognise this and are trying to act accordingly. A month ago, the Constitutional Convention recommended the voting age be lowered from 18 years to 16.

Ireland is not the only country debating such a move. Last month, proposed legislation that would reduce the voting age in the Scottish independence referendum to 16 years was formally lodged. Proposals to allow 16 and 17-year-olds vote in EU Parliamentary elections are also currently being considered.

The National Union of Students – Union of Students in Ireland, which represents over 200,000 students in Northern Ireland, called for a reduction in the voting age across the border.

“Grossly unfair” that 16-year-olds cannot vote

Speaking at the group’s annual conference in Fermanagh, NUS-USI President Adrianne Peltz said it was “grossly unfair” that 16-year-olds could pay taxes but not have a say on how this money is spent. “There is so much disenchantment and disengagement with politics and it is crucial that politics and decision-making reconnects with young people. Delivering the vote at 16 is a key way to do this,” Peltz emphasised.

The National Youth Council of Ireland backs up this view. The organisation believes that lowering the voting age would promote political participation among young people and ensure youth issues are firmly placed on the country’s political agenda.

Unfair judgement on today’s youth

The insinuation that young people just ‘aren’t bothered’ about politics is insulting and false. True, some young people don’t care what their public representatives are up to – that’s if they even know who they are, but the same could be said for any social grouping.

Austria and certain states in Germany have reduced the voting age to 16. In these places, voter turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds is equal to older age groups.

So to answer that age-old question, do young people care about politics? YES. Our generation has never been more politically aware and engaged. How we choose to involve ourselves may be changing, but we are here – trying to make a difference and have our voices heard.

The horse is at the water and it’s thirsty.

Órla Ryan is an MA Journalism student in NUI Galway. She is one of 25 citizen journalists covering Ireland’s presidency of the EU Council through Youth Media and the Irish Presidency. This article was first published on  the YMIP blog.

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