Political Accountability: The Youth Perspective

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Caoilfhinn Hegarty speaks to key figures of the Irish youth politics scene to get their thoughts on accountability for politicians who have breached Covid-19 regulations.

The Oireachtas Golf Society Scandal, colloquially known as Golfgate, threw the Irish political sphere into crisis when news of the private society dinner was broken by the Irish Examiner on the 20th of August. Hosted in Clifden’s Station House Hotel in Co.Galway and attended by eighty-one people, the dinner (held on August 19th) took place only a day after the government announced a re-tightening of lockdown restrictions in order to combat rising case numbers. From the 29th of June the country had been in phase three of the government’s planned roadmap to the full re-opening of society, but on the 18th of August, Taoiseach Micheál Martin declared stricter regulations would now be in place until September the 13th. Among these restrictions was a ban on social gatherings of more than six people indoors (with exceptions for weddings and some religious and cultural celebrations). Despite this, the golf society’s dinner went ahead with a host of TD’s, ministers, and senators in attendance, including many from Martin’s own party.

Once the country became aware of the dinner, the backlash from both the general public and other political figures was strong and immediate. As information emerged about which figures had been in attendance, and the lack of social-distancing measures at the event, TD and joint party leader of the Social-Democrats, Catherine Murphy, stated in Leinster House that “there has been a huge loss in public confidence”. The Labour party leader Alan Kelly declared that he had “rarely ever seen such public anger”. Opposition leader, Mary-Lou McDonald of Sinn Féin, took to Twitter to say that  “The government is increasingly chaotic, confused, with no direction. They must be held to account.”. McDonald herself had come under fire on both sides of the border earlier that summer when she had attended the funeral of Bobby Storey, who had been a Sinn Féin member and prominent Republican. Storey’s funeral had been held in Belfast on the 30th of June and was attended by over 1,500 people, at a time when Northern Irish Covid-19 guidelines only allowed for thirty people at funeral services. Although McDonald defended herself, saying she had been invited to the mass as one of the official thirty mourners and did not apologise for attending, she acknowledged that "looking at the images of very busy pathways in west Belfast and taking all of that in obviously has jolted and has caused some hurt [...]and for that I am very sorry.”. 

In spite of severely curtailed activity this year, the youth of Ireland has remained engaged with the political and social landscape. Marches and protests by their nature receive high coverage, as do viral hashtags or trends, but young people with political aspirations also become involved through the traditional routes, such as party youth wings. All major Irish political parties have a youth wing, with Ógra Fianna Fáil being the largest. They generally accept members from sixteen to thirty years of age, and exist to advocate for the interests of young people. Because of this, sometimes their goals can be at odds with their senior branch. When the programme for the new coalition government passed there was such dissatisfaction among members of the Young Greens that it led to a mass resignation of committee members from the UCD Young Greens.

Lawler says it was FitzGerald’s intention that Young Fine Gael ‘should be the conscience of the party

When it comes to the breaching of Covid-19 regulations by party members, such as with Golfgate, Daire Lawler - the president of Young Fine Gael - turns to the words of the youth wing’s founder, Gareth FitzGerald. Lawler says it was FitzGerald’s intention that Young Fine Gael “should be the conscience of the party”. With this in mind the youth organisation “issued a statement very quickly” expressing their dismay, and Lawler describes members as being “extremely disappointed” in the conduct of party members, “particularly when so many people across the country have made so many sacrifices”. Fine Gael was a party to come under increasing scrutiny during the fallout from Golfgate, as it was revealed that high-profile member Phil Hogan had been at the gala dinner. Hogan stepped down from his post as EU Commissioner for Trade when it emerged that not only had he been present at the dinner, but had also broken his fourteen-day isolation period after arriving in the country from Belgium, had been travelling in and out of locked-down Kildare for unessential business, and had been caught on his phone while driving by An Garda Síochána. In light of this Lawler asserted that this was “the correct decision” for Hogan to resign, and he also commended Tánaiste Leo Vardker, the party leader, for removing the whip from several Fine Gael members who had been present.

When asked if he thought the attendance of a funeral, such as Bobby Storey’s, was comparable with participating in a private dinner, Lawler was of the opinion that “we get into sort of dangerous territory once we start quantifying what public health breaches are more significant or less significant than others”. On this matter he differed from Thomas Maher, the president of YFG’s UCD chapter, who felt that the two events were “not completely comparable”. Despite the recent scandal both Lawler and Maher are confident in their commitment to Fine Gael, with Maher citing the parties pro-Europe stance and liberal economic and social policies as strong pull factors.

Jenning’s felt strongly that there was ‘no comparison between attending a funeral of a friend and attending a weekend long elite golf junket

Ryan Jennings sits on Ógra Shinn Féin’s Coiste Náisiúnta Óige (National Youth Committee). As far as he is concerned, Golfgate was not only a flagrant disregard for public health regulations, but also “a continuing example of upper class business people and politicians that believe they are above the law”. Regarding the earlier criticism of McDonald, Jenning’s felt strongly that there was “no comparison between attending a funeral of a friend and attending a weekend long elite golf junket”, and cited the “covid measures taken at Bobby’s funeral [included] social distancing and masks in church, wardens lining the route, etc”. Jenning’s continued by asserting that McDonald’s critics were aware that the Storey funeral was not comparable to Golfgate, arguing that “their keyboards melted with the speed and volume of their columns on the actions of the Sinn Féin associated funeral for Bobby Storey, yet fell silent to any condemnations of the funeral for the tragic passing of Garda Colm Horkan”. Unlike his Young Fine Gael peers, he concluded that the government in general did not have the solutions for the crisis, saying  “sé le modh uile-Éireann agus comhoibre idirnáisúinta a bhuafaimid le haigheadh an pandéim” [It is with an All-Ireland method and international cooperation that we will win against this pandemic]