With Local and European elections due to be held in May, Nicole Casey speaks to three young candidates about their campaigns and the importance of getting politically active

On May 23rd of this year, local and European elections will be held at polling stations around the country. For most young people, and students in particular, this is not an event that will give rise to anticipation or a huge amount of interest. Politics and students have never before gone exactly hand in hand, but that may be set to change.

This year’s election will see a number of younger candidates put themselves forward, including two past UCD students: Jane Horgan Jones and Karl Gill.

Horgan Jones is a Labour party candidate for the 2014 local election and has been a member of the party since 2004. Currently in her fourth year of practice as a criminal barrister, Horgan Jones initially studied Arts in UCD, after which she attended the Honorable Society of the King’s Inns.

In 2011, she began representing the Clontarf Local Electoral Area in Dublin City Council. It was here that she became aware of just how important the City Council truly is to the Irish public.

“I think it matters to be involved in how our city is run and in decisions that affect our communities. I’ve campaigned on issues of equality and social justice since I was in school and I now work as a criminal barrister defending some of the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our society.

“It’s no accident that those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and underfunded communities become involved in destructive behaviour. The City Council is fundamentally important for supporting communities, creating opportunities for people and building a city that we can be proud of.”

Karl Gill is a People Before Profit candidate for the 2014 local election in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Electoral Area, and has been active with People Before Profit in Dún Laoghaire since 2008. He graduated from UCD with a degree in Social Science, which he has put to great use during his election campaign.

It was an issue at local level which affected Gill directly that initially motivated him to get involved in politics. “About five years ago, I was in Sallynoggin College, and there was a small library attached to the college that the council were going to shut down.

“I wanted to do something about it, so I contacted my local People Before Profit Group, and began collecting petitions and organising small protests. We weren’t successful in saving the library, but we did manage to set up a community-run library. I saw that something could actually be done if people wanted to get involved in politics.”

Gill believes People Before Profit bring a different style of politics to the election, the likes of which other political parties cannot attempt to replicate. He explains, “We’re not just about asking people to come and vote for us, we’re about people actually getting involved in the political process themselves.

“We’re about encouraging mass participation in activism, because that’s the only way that things are actually going to change, because ultimately that’s how change comes about.”

In the past, politicians have been slammed for being more talk than substance, and for failing to follow through on their political promises. Horgan Jones believes this is an area that needs to be directly addressed to see growth and prosperity in the future.

“We had a lot of very prosperous years in this country but we didn’t end up with a more equal society even though there was more to go around. Trust in politics has been damaged but I feel that it’s up to our generation to restore it if we can; it’s a difficult task but through honest and effective representation I think it’s possible. People don’t feel like their vote matters… and I want to change that.“

Both Gill and Horgan Jones have many aspirations they would like to see turned into reality should they be successful in the election in May. For Horgan Jones, the allocation of City Council revenue is of paramount importance.

“The City Council budget involves about €800 million of public money every year. I want to ensure that the money is spent equitably and that resources are directed at the root cause of the many problems that affect our communities.”

But true to her word of providing honest and effective representation, Horgan Jones has already begun working on allocating the Council budget in a way that better benefits those minority sectors of our communities.

“I already have experience of fighting against regressive policies that hurt our city and our local areas. This year, the City Manager proposed to cut the homelessness budget by almost €6 million.

“I was part of the Labour negotiating team that flatly refused to go along with… any budget that contained such a cut. We eventually managed to reverse the proposed cut, and put more money directly into fighting homelessness than at any stage over the past five years instead.”

For Gill, his campaign is twofold, focusing on both local and national issues. At a local level, Gill believes housing is a major issue that needs to be addressed efficiently. “There is a housing crisis starting. Last week alone, there were four families made homeless in Dún Laoghaire and there was nowhere for them to go. And it is normally younger people, under the age of 30, with kids that are affected by the houses crises.”

Gill believes People Before Profit can address national issues more effectively than their political opponents, and want to bring local issues to levels of national importance.

“Looking at other local candidates, they’re purposefully concentrating on very localised issues because they are members of political organisations that have done very unpopular things at national level. Our priority is to make the water charges and housing national issues; to make sure that local politics isn’t just about local issues.”

But these young politicians aren’t just using their youth to garner the student vote. Rather, they want to encourage young people to become involved in the political arena as early as possible, leading by example and encouragement.

No candidate embodies this more than 20-year-old Ellen O’Connor, who is currently in her second year of studying history in Trinity College. O’Connor will represent Fine Gael in the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Electoral Area, the same as Gill, for May’s elections. She will be one of the youngest candidates contesting the local elections, and will have to split her time between study and canvassing for the coming months.

In 2011, O’Connor helped with the election campaign for Fine Gael’s Mary Mitchell-O’Connor, and this spurred her desire to get involved in politics. “As I canvassed door to door for Mary, I got to meet so many people from all walks of life and hear the challenges they faced and what issues really mattered to them.

So when the opportunity came up to run in the local elections, I saw it as a chance to make sure that those people’s concerns and ideas would be listened to and acted upon,” she explains.

And the people in her community remain at the heart of O’Connor’s campaign goals. “If I were elected to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, I hope to ensure that every member of the community feels that their views and concerns are heard and recognised.”

All three candidates believe it is imperative for young people to be involved with politics, and insist that the political world we have come to know is changing rapidly.

According to Horgan Jones, “There is a perception out there that politics is mostly about older men in grey suits, and from watching most political media coverage you’d think that was true.”

Gill echoes this sentiment, commenting, “A lot of young people look at the political establishment and they’ll see it as boring, old fashioned, corrupt, not interesting, and very bland. But when you look around… you’ll see a different style of politics altogether.”

Although the political world is changing, it still has a long way to go. “We have one of the oldest average ages of politicians in Europe and I think its critically important that young people become involved in decision making that affects them; all the way from the smallest community group right up to the Dáil,” says Horgan Jones.

Politics is not an area that has been exceedingly enticing for students and young people in the past, but O’Connor opposes this continuing for the future. She says, “The decisions made by both local and national politicians matter as much to young people as they do to any other age group, either immediately or in the future. At the moment, Irish politics is missing out on many new and innovative ideas from young people… the system needs to do a better job of engaging with young people.”

Of course, in a country where the political system has traditionally been dominated by older politicians, there will always be an element of ageism associated with the incoming of younger political candidates. Gill made the personal decision not to include his age on any of his literature for fear of people assuming he is inexperienced and deciding not to vote for him.

For Horgan Jones, ageism comes in the form of countless “good girl” affirmations, which she finds to be frustrating considering she works a professional job in tandem with her City Council work. O’Connor, however, has had only positive experiences, and believes people are happy to see new, young candidates putting themselves forward for the Council.

Getting involved in politics can be a daunting prospect, especially for those still attending university. But all three young candidates running in May’s election believe university is the perfect time to explore your political beliefs and get involved with a political party.

As Horgan Jones explains, “University is a great place to figure out where you stand politically. I found that my own views evolved pretty rapidly during my four years in UCD, and there’s no harm in opinions changing and adapting over time.”

For Gill, the strong campus presence of many political parties makes university the ideal time to get involved. “Students should get involved in anything that they see going. Amnesty International are quite active in colleges, as are St Vincent de Paul, and even People Before Profit. Go on to our website, type in your email address, and you can join in.”

O’Connor, who is an obvious example of a student exceedingly involved with politics, believes that now is the perfect time to get involved with a political party. “With the Local and European elections coming up in May, it’s a great time to get involved in a campaign, whether its canvassing door to door or using social media.”

With the number of young people choosing to emigrate continuing to grow, Ireland is experiencing a brain drain, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1980s. Young people are losing their voice rapidly, so it is essential for those of us remaining to ensure our views are heard, and to take a proactive role in shaping how we come out of the current economic crisis.

You can still register for the local and European elections on May 23rd, 2014. Just visit www.checktheregister.ie and make sure you use your right to vote.