Head to Head: To the polling station?

 
 

As the 2011 general election looms, Marianne Madden and Kate Rothwell ask whether it will bring about a change in political activism among students

Students for change

Everyone accepts that a momentous task lies before the next government. They must choose which benefits are to be cut and which policies implemented, and more importantly decide upon whom the resulting financial burden will fall. The outcome of the general election is set to have a huge impact on students because it will determine their future. Graduate unemployment, grant cutbacks and the reintroduction of college fees are all points of contention; they are of interest to the student population and this will mobilise them to action.

The University Observer recently carried out a survey that questioned UCD students about their views on and level of participation in Irish politics. The results testified to a strong student engagement in politics in general, and in particular with regard to the upcoming general election, with 80 per cent of students stating that they will be voting in the upcoming election and 81 per cent maintaining that the state’s recent financial troubles will make them more likely to vote.

If these suggested participation levels materialise, they will bring student turnout to a level well above that of the 2007 general election, which according to The Irish Times was 67.3 per cent.

The survey results also indicate that only 12 per cent of students consider themselves “heavily politically engaged”. Would it not be interesting to compare this to the percentage of the general public who consider themselves highly involved in politics? One student greatly involved in politics is Cónán Ó Broin, who recently resigned from his position as deputy president of the Union of Students of Ireland (USI) in order to campaign full-time for a Labour Party councillor.

Political societies are well established in UCD. Labour Youth is the favourite among UCD students, with 24 per cent of those surveyed stating that they will be voting for Labour. Labour Youth boasts on their website that “the number of Labour Youth societies in colleges has tripled” in recent years.

Moreover, Colm Taylor, policy officer for Young Fine Gael, has said that the organisation has about 4,000 members across the country. Ógra Fianna Fáil, Ógra Sinn Féin and the UCD Greens are also present on campus. Can it therefore really be argued that students are uninvolved in the political process?

Debate, often politically-oriented, forms part of the fabric of college life. University is usually about finding yourself and where your strengths lie. Third-level education not only permits but also obliges a high level of interaction between students through which they develop opinions, identify their values and discover others who think as they do. Indeed, for many students this general election is the first time they can exercise the right to vote – a vehicle of expression they are unlikely not to seize.

Students have always been politically involved, the first to remonstrate and the most demanding of the political process. This was illustrated in recent times by the emotive student protests late last year. The reason for this high level of involvement is that idealism is at its most emphatic in the student populace.

The make-up of the new government will not lessen the hardship of the bleak times that lie ahead. However, politicians can do something that will have just a huge impact on students – give them hope. This potential for hope was also reflected in the survey results whereby 72 per cent of students said that they feel that the election will have a positive effect on Ireland’s future.

This election affects and interests the Irish people who are disappointed and disillusioned by the political process, and students are no exception. But doom and gloom are tiresome and students have had enough of political crises following each other in rapid succession. If nothing else, fresh faces, newly drafted policies and alternative voices will at least be a diversion from the rising costs of third-level education and graduate unemployment.

To argue that students are indifferent to the upcoming election would be contradictory. If that were true, would we be having this argument, would you be reading this article, would I be writing it? Is this in essence a political debate? What remains certain is that transport routes promise to be busy the weekend of the general election. A word of advice to all UCD students – arrange your transport home in plenty of time.

The general election may be as much a cosmetic procedure to boost the confidence of this nation as a change in policy direction. The election offers hope to help students ride out the grim years that await us. It gives students the chance to distance themselves from the past mistakes of voters, to say never again and to embrace the future. It was through politics that the crisis was created; let us hope that it is through politics that it will be resolved.

– Marianne Madden

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Students against change

The 2011 general election will, without a shadow of a doubt, be a turning point in Irish politics. Disillusioned voters, many of them students, will travel to polling booths countrywide in order to ensure that the failed political make-up of our current government does not have the opportunity to do further damage to our economy and global reputation.

That the majority of students will use their chance to keep the present coalition parties out of power is obvious. Rising registration fees, cuts to an already minimal grant system and dwindling employment prospects have hit the student body hard, and both Fianna Fáil and the Green Party will quite rightly suffer for these failings come February 25th.

Yet just because most students have ceased to hold any faith in the present government does not mean that they are now rallying behind other alternatives. Many votes will be cast in the sheer hope that whoever is elected can’t possibly be as corrupt and incompetent as those who have been leading the country for the past four years.

The most likely result of this election appears to be a coalition between Fine Gael and Labour. Labour have found a certain amount of favour among the student population, as a recent poll carried out by The University Observer revealed that 24 per cent of UCD students surveyed planned on voting for the party. Yet Labour doesn’t offer remarkably groundbreaking policies or boast an outstandingly charismatic leader; much of their recent popularity stems from the simple fact that they have not yet been given the chance to let us down.

Their probable coalition partner’s popularity has to have been hampered by the recent blunders of its leader Enda Kenny, who refused to take part in the campaign’s first televised party leader debate because it would be hosted by presenter Vincent Browne. Kenny’s claim that he would not participate because of Browne previously commenting that he should “go into a dark room with a gun and bottle of whiskey” seems a rather poor cop-out on the potential Taoiseach’s part.

Browne’s remark was perhaps unduly harsh, but surely the best way to combat such commentary is to face your critics and prove them wrong, not hide from further confrontation.  It is incidents such as this that lessen the faith and lose the votes of the many undecided first and second-time student voters.

Kenny’s recent admission that Fine Gael’s proposed cutting of public service numbers could cost one billion euro will also not have helped his party’s case. Grand proposals aiming to increase tourism, curb emigration, cut and increase various taxes and abolish the Seanad are being flaunted by all involved in this election, but voters have not forgotten that no wave of any political wand will solve the disastrous problem that is our economy.

Numerous long-standing Ministers have bailed out shamelessly while their seven-figure pensions were still theirs to claim. They have stepped down well-paid but with a tarnished reputation, and it therefore comes as no surprise that 85 per cent of students who took part in the above-mentioned survey are keen to see more youthful politicians in the Dáil.

However, it is difficult to imagine that many young political enthusiasts will be tempted to step up to the challenge. The plush perks of a job in politics will no doubt have to suffer recessionary cutbacks, and such a position will from now on involve the bearing of much bad news, plenty of difficult decision making and an increased wealth of continual criticism.

A new wave of candidates have been inspired to run as independents, but this only goes to show the distrust of the existing political parties even among budding politicians. Their dedication is of course admirable and their reluctance to associate themselves with any particular party is more than understandable. Yet as popular as the independent vote will no doubt be in the coming election, such stand-alone candidates have relatively little clout in comparison to fully formed parties.

It’s hard for any students to have faith in the faces on garish posters or bland manifestos when it’s obvious that no dream coalition can improve the economy soon enough. No matter what promises are made and broken, those currently attending or entering third level education will not be able to feel confident of securing a good job when they graduate, and many will be concerned as to whether they can even finance the three or four years that may only bring them to an employment dead end.

Who knows, perhaps the incoming Government will prove be inspirational, efficient and capable of cleaning up the mess that its disgraced predecessors have left behind. But regardless of how Irish politics develops over the next couple of years, there won’t be too many students hanging around to see how long it takes for things to improve. Come the next general election, many of those who are now disheartened by the hopelessness of Irish politics will have already left for pastures new.

Kate Rothwell

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