Political Disengagement

With Irish students seemingly more apathetic toward politics than ever before, Pat de Brún considers some of the factors behind this trend and the evolving role of students’ unionsThey say that as you get older, you steadily become more right wing. Part of the reasoning behind this truism is the traditional stereotype of students as a heavily politicised, radical and left-leaning sector of society; a group who are not afraid to fight for their rights and to tackle social injustice around the world.Certainly, that was the case in years gone by and most of us will have heard anecdotes about radical student activism in the sixties and seventies. These were times where the average student not only took an interest in areas affecting their own education, but also a much broader range of social issues. For the majority of students in Ireland today however, this image no longer rings true.Nowadays, only a very small percentage of Irish students would consider themselves as politically active.  Even stirring interest among the student body regarding struggles as fundamentally personal as grants and fees presents a serious challenge. In times of severe austerity, with budget cuts seriously effecting all sectors of society, it would be fair to assume that this would be a time when students would be most likely to engage and to organise. The reality is, however, that for the most part this has not happened. The sad truth is that we belong to a generation that has been massively depoliticised.Some would argue that students’ unions (SUs) have a role to play in engaging students with political activity. The SUs of yesteryear were undoubtedly much more radical institutions than they are today. They campaigned on issues of social justice and international human rights much more frequently than they do now. These students’ unions were however also characterised by party-political control, endless infighting and a perceived disconnect from the issues genuinely affecting their student membership. It was expected that one political party would run them or another and this eventually led to dissatisfaction among the student body. The result of this dissatisfaction in turn meant that the SUs morphed from primarily being campaign-driven to more service-driven, with most campaigning being reserved for issues of particular educational relevance to students.Today, it is seen as electoral suicide for SU candidates to nail themselves to a particular political flag. Those that do rarely get elected, and the minority who do are likely to be accused throughout the year of either furthering party interests or just plain old political careerism. The day-to-day focuses of most modern SUs are student welfare, educational issues and entertainment. This is not a criticism of students’ unions, but rather an observation of how they have changed to meet the demands and interests of the membership over time. Whether the depoliticisation of students led to this change, or vice-versa, is something of a chicken and egg argument.Modern SUs are stuck between the ‘rock’ of remaining depoliticised, and the ‘hard place’ of being more radical, which would only serve to further detach them from their membership. The most fundamental goal of an SU is to represent the views of a majority of students, and it has no choice but to stick to that principle, even if it means spending less time and resources on the traditional campaigning associated with SUs. Additionally, the highly sensitive nature of some of the work of the SU, such as Welfare services, means that if the organisation is seen as too radical, it risks scaring off some students in need, who may have otherwise come forward for help.Leaving the role of SUs aside, the bigger question remains unanswered. Why is it that so many students in Ireland have lost interest in politics? To a certain extent it is valid to say that the Irish as a whole are relatively politically disengaged. Our voter turnout in national elections and referenda is low, and we are notoriously reluctant to take to the streets in meaningful protest. Regardless of this observation however, we should still expect students to be among the most politicised of all sectors in society and that is certainly not the case. Both farmers and pensioners, for example, are both much more politically engaged as a whole than we are. So what is it that is depoliticising our generation?A huge factor is many people’s sense of a real lack of choice. Right now in Ireland, the three main political parties (Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil) are very difficult to distinguish from one another in terms of their actions in government. The only significant party that isn’t firmly in the middle of the political spectrum is Sinn Féin, whose republican agenda alienates many would-be supporters. Finally there are the parties under the United Left Alliance banner; the type of parties that would have traditionally garnered huge support from the student body.  Today, these parties are seen as even more disconnected from students than those in the centre, and there is a widely held view that instead of offering credible solutions, they are purely parties of protest against whatever the government is doing.There is a real lack of a firm right-left divide in Irish politics. This bipolar system has been the traditional basis for political argument and discourse throughout modern history. With that in mind, it is hardly surprising that students are so disengaged. In Ireland, rather than choosing a party because of a particular school of political thought, the differentiation comes down to an incoherent set of individual policies. It could be argued that the burden of responsibility here has to fall upon those on the Left. The Right is already an established force in Irish politics, and in order to improve political discourse in the country, there is a need for a strong, principled and coherent Left, that will offer genuine alternatives.Recently, both Labour’s readiness to enter into coalition with Fine Gael, and their subsequent support of right-wing economic and taxation policies, have cost them much of their credibility as a left-wing alternative. This will only serve to turn even more young people off politics, although it is somewhat refreshing see UCD Labour opposing the party’s actions in government.Just why exactly this process of political disengagement has occurred is one question with a hundred potential answers. It remains the choice of each individual to either engage with politics or to ignore it, but if young people ignore politics, we can be certain that politics will ignore young people, too. Regardless of whether it’s right or left, engagement of any sort can only benefit us as individuals as well as society.University is the perfect environment in which to develop political opinions, offering us the freedom to flirt with various different schools of thought before we have such ‘real-world’ constraints as a particular career, which can serve to make our minds up for us. Going through college offers us a wealth of experiences and in many ways shapes the friendships and values that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. Almost as important however is the formation of our opinions and political beliefs, and we should genuinely fear for a future where this no longer occurs.