It has often been said, perhaps unfairly, that the students of today are largely politically apathetic. Yet many students in UCD are involved in political parties and every week the Literary & Historical Society or the Law Society host debates on political issues, which often result in heated discussion even after the speakers have gone home. Indeed, in light of the recent Presidential election, it seems almost impossible not come into contact with politics on campus.
What most people might not know is that a number of students are not only involved in student politics or political discussion on campus, but also represent communities off-campus. Somewhat surprisingly, a number of councillors are simultaneously attending university. Among them is Labour Town Councillor Stephen Stokes, who was elected to Greystones Town Council in 2009, and Labour County Councillor Chris Bond, recently co-opted onto the South Dublin County Council after a position was filled when Eamonn Maloney was elected to the Dáil.
“It’s definitely caused me to be a bit more withdrawn from the extra-curricular stuff that’s on in UCD. At the moment I’m purely focusing on my studies,” explains final year Politics and Sociology student Bond. “But … I’d have to say it’s quite a manageable thing to juggle both my studies and my duties as a councillor. The good thing about being a county councillor is that there are no fixed hours so a lot of casework can be resolved on the go.”
Stokes agreed but did point out some drawbacks of combing the two roles. “The difficult thing is that I’m usually left with very little time to study except in exam periods … and sometimes I’m called away about emergency issues. It could be anything at all. Then sometimes I have to suddenly stop what I’m doing. I remember last year during the exam period I had to take a day out a week before the exams to do constituency work and visit one or two people. It can be a challenge but I enjoy it overall, it’s a good balance.”
When asked whether being a politician helped with his History and Politics degree, Stokes maintained that it had. “It’s certainly given me a lot of insight into the political structures and how politics works on the ground, and it’s helped me broaden my expertise in writing history or politics essays.”
Bond felt it was his time in the SU that had more of an impact on his work as a councillor than his studies. “It was in the Students’ Union where I learned how to campaign on political issues, where I learned how people tend to behave in a political environment. I learned things like how to deal with the media. I learned how to engage with people about their concerns too.”
Many politicians started their political careers in college. Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore was president of the Union of Students Ireland (USI) as was Minister Pat Rabitte. Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin both became heavily involved in the youth wings of their parties, namely Young Fine Gael and Ógra Fianna Fáil. However, not many politicians have taken political office while in college, making Stokes and Bond a rare breed.
Bond puts this down to the increase in mature students. “I think the college environment has become a lot more diverse now than it was twenty years ago. There’s … a lot more people who wouldn’t start until a lot older who would have to juggle their work commitments with college work too.”
Stokes is looking to become the Deputy Mayor of Greystones next June and he is hoping to use his position to campaign for reform of local government as well as raise other issues. “I’d try to use the office as best I can to highlight, even more so, some key issues in Greystones for all kinds of things, be it dog littering or sports facilities or just working with community groups.”
There are many different ways to become involved in politics. Being involved can mean as little as discussing the issues of the day with friends or as much as joining local organisations and political parties. As Bond quite rightly explains, “Politics is quite a simple business. All you need is to get together with a bunch of likeminded people who share the same concerns. The most important thing is to get involved in a political campaign because you see it as an important issue, not because you see it as a stepping stone. If a position in politics is meant for you, the opportunity will arise at some point.”