During the Dublin Bay South by-election, students from UCD’s political party societies canvassed for their party’s candidates. Nathan Young attended some of these canvasses to figure out what motivated young activists.
With the resignation of Eoghan Murphy, his constituency of Dublin Bay South saw a by-election, and the first foray into campaigning since the pandemic began. The media focuses a lot more intensely on a single constituency during a By-Election, and parties call on their more active members from across the land to come aid with the canvassing, leafleting, and postering. With all the hubbub and wild exaggerations claiming that this was a referendum on the Government’s handling of the pandemic, and it being my own constituency, I decided to attend one canvass with each party with a UCD branch, primarily with the aim of figuring out what makes a student join a party, and more importantly why do they join their party over any other.
Ógra Fianna Fáil (ÓFF)
Canvassing Rathgar on a sunny morning, ÓFF was the first canvas I attended. Arriving as I did before the main contingent arrived, I got stuck into questioning the first two chaps I saw.
I challenged them on the perception of FF being a party whose whole ideology is “parish pump” politics, where attendance at communions and funerals and promises to have local pot holes filled or local schools being given extra funding. The perspective I was offered in response was pretty cohesive. “If you wanted politics to be only about national issues, you wouldn’t want local representatives,” one man said. He explained that while general elections may seem like the wrong way to resolve local issues, for most people their understanding of the government is in their day to day dealings with government services, such as the schools and roads I had cited. Why should the opinions of people who don’t read 5 news articles a day and read policy papers on hot button issues not be listened to? They are still voters. “Giving a community what they want is just good politics,” he added.
“Micheál Martin has never been to the States, but he’s seen me in a few of them”
This worldview makes sense. Most voters probably understand most political issues based on their own, or their friends and families' experiences, rather than from reading policy analyses. In fact, ÓFF members pointed out that the lack of ideological stringency was the point of FF.
The lack of a shared ideology is apparent at times. I asked the same man who I questioned about parish pump politics about the party being seen as socially quite conservative, and where young people fit in to a party with so many pro-life elected representatives, and he told me that he himself is pro-life. Another young man also told me that, while he was adamantly in favour of LGBT rights and a number of other progressive issues, he too was pro-life, and felt more at home in FF than in any other youth wing. Later, during a conversation about the FF candidate Deirdre Conroy’s perception in the media, a young man told me that Conroy’s taking the Irish Government to court in the famous “D v Ireland” made her “very admirable, very brave”.
The social aspect of the party is a major motivating factor for many ÓFF members. Speaking about an Ardfheis after party, one man commented “Micheál Martin has never been to the States, but he’s seen me in a few of them”. A good line, to be sure, but undoubtedly one that had been used before.
With a poll released earlier that day declaring Ivana Bacik the betting man’s candidate, Labour Youth were pretty confident during their evening canvass in Portobello.
Several canvassers had joined while in college. One member listed the reasons they couldn’t have joined any other party, saying that it was a process of elimination from among the left of centre parties. Another member highlighted that the party has a long tradition, and manages to have roots in both communities and trade unions, saying “I think having those links with the unions, if you’re a party for working people is very important”. I asked about the rumour-cum-meme that the Social Democrats and Labour were planning on merging. I got a laugh, and then a serious answer. Having (mostly) good policies without the links to unions and communities isn’t enough.
There was also a lot of admiration among the members for individual politicians and historical moments. Labour’s involvement in social issues such as the battle for abortion rights, same sex marrige, the legalisation of condoms, and a myrriad of similar political stuggles were cited to me by young members. Bacik’s own activism was also cited as especially impactful for members.
“When you look at the criticisms we get on like housing from the other parties, and then you see their proposals, it’s either not costed properly, or it delivers the homes slower”
When I asked about Labour’s time in coalition with Fine Gael, the austerity of the 2011-’16 years, and the supposed left wing values of these members, I received a comprehensive but rehearsed answer. Essentially while there were some dire decisions made, it was the 2010 IMF Bailout and the savings needed to be made to save the economy.
Young Fine Gael (YFG)
YFG were out in force for their candidate, Cllr James Geoghegan. Having agreed to meet outside the office from which the campaign was being fought, I was surprised to see the single largest team of canvassers I had encountered. Turns out they had already door knocked every street in the constituency, and this was a last rally to put a leaflet through each letter box to remind people to vote FG. Accommodating my request to stick with youth members, I was driven to Ringsend with a small cohort and a large box of flyers.
A number of young members I spoke to came from Fine Gael families. Not necessarily dynasties, moreso the kind where you vote the same way as your grandfather did. I met one man whose family are all active SF supporters, and found his perception of the party enlightening. Given where Ireland has been in regards to the financial crash, for example, Fine Gael did a fine job leading us out of “Fianna Fáil’s mess”. Sinn Féin would be even worse. “When you look at the criticisms we get on like housing from the other parties, and then you see their proposals, it’s either not costed properly, or it delivers the homes slower”.
I questioned one member on the perceived ultra-conservativeness of YFG, with the former president of the youth wing Killian Foley Walsh having attended the Young America Conference back in 2019, which caused a stir. I was told to “just look at the policies and the principles of most members of the party”; that “Fine Gael is the party of the progressive centre”. Heck, Simon Harris became something of a poster boy for the Repeal Campaign in the final days of that referendum.
YFG members are, at their core, conservative. FG governments have, in their view, done a good job steering Ireland relatively peacefully and, on social issues, progressively over the past few years.
Ógra Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin invited me to a canvass in the Iveagh Trust flats, home turf for the party. Given the ridiculous effort I had had to put into getting their press officer to give me a time and a place to show up, I can guarantee that it was not intentional that I was at such a receptive canvas. Still, it was nice seeing children running around while Mary Lou Mac Donald and Lynn Boylan met local residents.
I asked one youth member where he would fit politically, were he to be picked up and dropped into another country with no “National Question” at stake. “Well, I suppose I’d join someone on the left who was good on housing” he said, before continuing “For me though it's the same thing, wanting a united Ireland and all these other things you want from a left wing party”. For him, Irish reunification is as much a social and political justice issue as anything on the agenda anywhere else, and his understanding of fighting injustice comes largely from veteran activists he met who lived through the troubles.
Speaking to another activist about the accusations of untoward aggression (There was accusations on Twitter earlier that week of ÓSF members yelling abuse at activists from other parties), I got a relatively frank answer “I’m not condoning this behaviour, and you see it on social media as well from people who might not be in the party but who are supporters. The thing is there’s a lot of anger out there, with the homelessness, with the economy, with working people being left behind, and you have to understand where that anger is coming from”.
Across the board, ÓSF activists seemed ready for change, and unlike some of the other parties on the left of the spectrum, they can see themselves wielding power in the near future. That promise has emboldened them, as it promises to be the change they want to see in the country.
“other than the Debenhams thing a lot of people have been really isolated from doing politics during Covid”
Meeting me for a canvas in Portobello, the Young Greens were younger than most. Given the hype which had evolved shortly before the last general election around the popularisation of “ecosocialism” as an idea, and Extinction Rebellion as a movement, green politics saw itself make huge gains among young people, many of whom left shortly after the party entered into a coalition with FF and FG.
Keenly aware of the issues at play with this exodus of members, I didn’t need to ask the question. “You need to be putting environmentalism front and centre no matter what...There’s things that the government are doing that I don’t agree with but [keeping the environment on the agenda] comes first.” The basic pitch is that the far left will never be in power, and the centre right parties will only care if someone makes them. Everyone I spoke to has the attitude of the GP being this Young Turk organisation, who will change things from the inside.
There was also a fair amount of that attitude from within the cohort I was canvassing with. Far more 18 and 19 year olds, and far fewer 23 and 24 year olds than the other parties, more than one person told me that their place in the party over the next few years is to push the organisation to the left on economic issues while keeping environmentalism at its core. Not one of them fully backed the Programme For Government.
People Before Profit
Unlike almost every other party, People Before Profit does not have a youth branch. Attending a canvass for their candidate Bridget Purcell, I was warned that there was “no guarantee” that there would be younger members there. Thankfully, and due in no small part to active college branches in UCD and TCD, as well as the popularity of socialist politics among young people, there were plenty of under 30s for me to pick the brains of. When I asked one young person why there was no youth wing, and if there was a case to be made for one, I was told “Workers are workers, it doesn’t matter if you’re being exploited at 19 or 50”. Fair enough.
The canvass itself was through some of the more up-market neighbourhoods around Harold's Cross, and so there were plenty of voters decidedly against PBP, or anything left of the current government. When not directly answering questions put by myself, most of the conversation focused on tactics. The issue wasn’t that no one working class lived in the area, but that they were predominantly renters who hadn’t registered to vote there. I asked one woman what the point of canvassing such neighborhoods was. “It’s about bringing your politics to the street, it’s about actually engaging with people”.
This whole attitude of bringing politics to the streets was a huge motivator for most of the party's young activists I met. One man, who graduated UCD a year or two ago, said he signed up in college because “PBP were the only ones who were at every protest and every campaign I got involved in while I was in college”. Several other people had similar stories, citing everything from “UCD Fair and Free” to Palestine Solidarity demonstrations as being places where PBP just seemed to be omnipresent, making joining the party an obvious next step.
I asked about the possibility of PBP becoming a coalition partner in a left wing government, and if it was really possible that such a small contingent could shape the country. Winning enough seats in the Dáil to pass their own legislation is not a real possibility for the party, but elections are apparently just one part of having an alternative, left wing politics to confront establishment politics. “It’s good to be out canvassing” one member told me, because “other than the Debenhams thing, a lot of people have been really isolated from doing politics during Covid”. People Before Profit members volunteered to help man the pickets during the 406 day dispute between former workers and Debenhams liquidators KPMG.
The Social Democrats
Much like PBP, the Social Democrats do not have a youth wing, and also like PBP, that was not an issue as a large number of young people showed up to canvas the day I met them, starting in Rathmines.
The first canvasser I spoke to had a fair amount of political experience under her belt, having been heavily involved in Together for Yes and Yes Equality. She told me she became involved in the party through a friend, but having gotten stuck into one campaign, she’s now in the deep end so to speak. Most of the people I spoke to said that the SD’s policies were as watertight as a party's policies can be, and it was as easy as that to join the party. With admittedly slightly less experience as activists as some of the other opposition parties on the trail, they were nevertheless adamant that the SocDems best managed the balance between big, radical ideas, and thorough and thoughtful examination of policy.
The activists I spoke to were serious about bringing genuine change to Irish politics. Unlike Labour, they didn’t have a history of backing FF and FG, and the young activists seemed confident that wasn’t going to change.
Having spent several hours with each of the parties described above, I’ve learned a number of things, but most importantly I’ve learned to trust the stereotypes that exist in Irish political discourse. While having learned a great deal about how certain groups think about and conceptualise politics, absolutely no one surprised me, or changed how I think about their party. I guess some stereotypes exist for a reason.