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Column Youth politics isn't about the sins of the past - it's about the needs of the future

Citizens – and especially young people – should take more control of the system by involving themselves in political parties, writes Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh.

I CANNOT SAY how many student societies I joined during my first week in Trinity College – it seemed like several hundred. Yet there is one society which I will never forget joining: the Theobald Wolfe Tone Cumann, better known to most as Trinity Ógra Fianna Fáil.

In the year-and-a-half since I signed my name and email address on that white paper form on that freezing cold day, I have never been allowed to forget that choice. Through everything from puzzled looks to vitriolic rants, it is fairly clear that many ordinary non-aligned citizens have taken a personal affront to what I considered to be part of my civic duty.

A problem for society as a whole

Back in September 2011, I assumed that these reactions were a product of the economic crisis – not to mention the various corruption scandals -and that, once the necessary political reforms were made, it would die down. Indeed over the course of the year, I began to hear less and less criticism of the personal variety, but the amount of politically-charged ‘critique’ remained steady. I also learned that members of Labour Youth, Young Fine Gael and Sinn Féin Republican Youth suffered similar attacks from the public, albeit for different reasons.

The more I heard, the more convinced I became that this was a problem – not just for youth politics, but for Irish society as a whole. Simply put, it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what youth politics is, what its aims are, and what it has accomplished.

Bizarre as it may seem to some, Ógra Fianna Fáil are not interested in defending the various corruption scandals, the lack of banking regulations and the out-of-control fiscal policy of the boom years. Equally Labour Youth and Young Fine Gael aren’t interested in defending the broken promises that their senior party made prior to the 2011 election, and Republican Youth would never dream of defending Aongus Ó Snódaigh’s inordinate use of ink cartridges or Pearse Doherty’s expenses claims.

Keeping politics in tune with society

This is not an excuse for dodging responsibility, but instead meant to highlight an important fact: youth politics shouldn’t be about defending the sins of the past or even the present. Rather it should focus on the needs of the future. It should be about developing new thoughts and ideas and keeping politics in tune with the ever-changing needs and values of our society.

For a party to accomplish this goal, it needs a large and diverse membership from all walks of life. Contrary opinions should be allowed – and even encouraged – for only that way can there be proper discussion and debate over policy direction.

This crucial fact is all too often forgotten – in that we often expect party members to defend the party line even on issues which they strongly disagree. The net result of this is that few young people are willing to affiliate themselves, which in turn brings negative repercussions of its own. All political parties in this country hold democratic votes on major policy decisions, which effectively make the grass roots the agenda setters. Every election manifesto, every programme for government has its origins in motions workshops that take place all over Ireland.

In a country where the dominance of parties over the political system is absolute, this vote afforded to party members is a very powerful one – one which unfortunately is only wielded by a fraction of the electorate. The smaller the number of individuals that draft policies and vote at Conferences and Ard Fheiseanna, the more likely that these individuals will not represent the sections of the community whom their policies will affect, and that in turn these policies – however well-intended – will be defective, socially unjust or politically unworkable.

Politics has never been so uncool

Everyone deplores that governments break the promises that get them elected – yet few ask why more citizens do not take part in deciding what those promises should have been in the first place. Even fewer question why the young people who decide to take responsibility for their future, by affiliating themselves to political parties and exercising their vote on policy decision, should suffer the vilification that they do.

For although we are living in an era of rising education costs, youth unemployment and mass emigration, it has never been less “cool” to be a student politician. Does this not seem completely illogical?

The fact is that Irish society badly needs more young people to join and get involved in political parties. Those that choose to stand up and make their voices heard ought to be applauded, not demonised. They are simply carrying out what they rightly perceive to be their civic duty, and this country would be in a much better place now, had more done the same.

And though it would be easy for me to use this comment piece as an advertisement (“go and join Ógra, be part of the comeback”), I will be honest and admit that what suits me may not suit others. I would rather young people join any political party, or create one that suits their own needs, rather than remain unrepresented and voiceless in our party-dominated political system.

The needs of our generation are too great to be silenced by cynicism and political opportunism, and we must stand up and refuse to be overwhelmed by it.

Fiachra Ó Raghallaigh is a Trinity College Dublin student, member of Trinity Ógra Fianna Fáil, and blogger at TheReillyWriter.

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