The power of young people in politics in Ireland
Following the Marriage Equality and 8th Amendment referendum, it's clear to see the impact young people can have in politics
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Democracy is defined as ‘a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members, typically through elected representatives’. The first few months of this year have been politically turbulent in Ireland and abroad, with people becoming even more disillusioned by both the political system and the litany of scandals that have emerged. There has never been a better time for young people in Ireland to get involved in politics. The success of the Marriage Referendum in 2015 proved that when young people become politically engaged, the results can be seen in the high turnout at the polling stations. Social media, canvassing and help from college organisations empowered the youth to stand up and have their voices heard. The referendum on the Eighth Amendment has further demonstrated that there is a generation of educated, creative and politically conscious young people, who are ready for change.
Consequently, the sentiments of Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell contrast sharply with the positive inclusivity these campaigns have fostered. On the 21st of March 2018, she strongly opposed Sinn Féin senator Fintan Warfield’s reintroduction of a bill to reduce the voting age to 16. The proposed bill would enable up to 120,000 young people to vote in the local and European elections in 2019. She stated that young people should ‘stay away from politics’ and advised them to focus on their hobbies. She reiterated her position as a senator in “the upper legislative house of the Oireachtas, the senate” and that it was “not a students’ union.” These remarks demonstrate an outdated, closed and elitist way of thinking as well as a fundamental lack of awareness of the reality of life in Ireland for young people. Perhaps if the Seanad implemented some of the values such as inclusivity and equality that the Student Unions of Ireland tirelessly promote, they would be viewed as more accessible instead of pushing young people to the periphery of society.
The influence and power of young people has been integral throughout history. In Ireland, many young men and women fought and sacrificed their lives for our independence and their idealism lives on today. The anti-war movement, demonstrations and protests that began on college campuses in the United States in the 1960’s had a massive impact in ending the Vietnam War. More recently, the activism of the survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida have brought global attention to gun control laws in America. The teenagers organised a student led demonstration ‘March for Our Lives’ in Washington D.C and their lobbying for stricter control laws resulted in a number of U.S corporations severing ties with the National Rifle Association.
On Friday, May 25th we faced a once in a generation opportunity and the youth came out in force, resulting in a landslide victory for the Yes side with the country voting 66.4% to 33.6% in favour of repealing the eighth amendment. Interestingly, in an RTE exit poll when 18-24 and 25-34 year olds were combined it resulted in an 86.1% Yes vote, an astounding figure. Irish women had been overlooked and cast aside for long enough. The Eighth Amendment has caused harm and unimaginable distress to women and girls in every county of Ireland. By voting yes, we supported an end to the secrecy, shame and stigma that these women were forced to endure and voted for a more caring and compassionate way forward. We had the power to change the lives of women in this country by giving them the right to choice, the right to bodily autonomy and the right to healthcare. On May 3rd, the Union of Students in Ireland reported that almost 27,000 students had registered to vote in preparation. The turnout for the Eighth Amendment (64.13%) even surpassed the referendum for same-sex marriage (61%).
When young people participate in our democracy, it enriches our communities and protects our future. The young people that mobilised and assembled community groups that canvassed in towns and villages throughout Ireland to repeal the eighth amendment, changed the course of history. Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell was adamant that we should ‘stay away from politics’, a statement that embodies how the government are willing to overlook certain sections of society but that is not a fair democratic process. This is the same government that cast a blind eye to the suffering of women who were forced to travel overseas for healthcare, that they should have been able to access in their own country. I believe that if 16 year olds were allowed to vote it could only benefit, not hinder our country.
Senator Lynn Ruane eloquently rebuffed O’Donnell’s stance stating that ‘it comes from a position [where] maybe politics doesn’t affect your life very much’. I thoroughly agree with this and it is this privilege that inhibits certain elected officials to realise how their every decision influences our fate. It is time for the young people of this country to show the government once again, how democracy works and just how influential the youth can be. I think that we should say yes to more young people in politics. Yes to politicians engaging with us and acknowledging our opinions and yes to a new Ireland where inclusivity, equality and respect are the orders of the day.