Young people have always been pivotal to the intersection of activism and politics, but with the changing nature of both political and activist spheres, the traditional structure of youth wings of political parties has come under increasing strain. Torn between grassroots activism and the formal political process, young people are trying to reconcile their commitment to rallying cries for change, as well as formal political policies.
While canvassing for the repeal of the eighth amendment, Holly Cairns, a Social Democrat TD for Cork South West, explains that she confronted her initial reluctance to attach the word “politics” to what she was doing. “I didn’t feel like Irish politics related to people my age, heard us, felt us. And I never would have seen myself as somebody who was politically engaged.”
Despite her initial disillusionment, Cairns explained that this process revealed “a new progressive style of politics” that could affect positive change – and propel her to electoral success. “Learning through activism and through grassroots movements, I think, has been my biggest strength in Irish politics, because we have a completely different approach to your average candidate or TD running for the election… we stopped and we engaged with people in the same way we did with repeal”.
Cairns explains that visibility and scrutiny that young women in politics are subjected to is a major deterrent. To collapse the boundary between activism and the political process, more inclusive participation is needed. Cairns herself has been the subject of online abuse, often grounded in misogyny, but she insists that that should not be discouraging: “As a public representative, you’re going to get abuse online, and it can be really difficult but it’s not actually personal.”
I didn’t feel like Irish politics related to people my age, heard us, felt us. And I never would have seen myself as somebody who was politically engaged
“The more women that are in politics, the more normal it would be, and I think the less targeted than women will be in that job.”
The Young Greens encourage membership of people aged 16 to 30, or students of any age, with local groups in third-level institutions and in smaller, local chapters across the country. However, levels of engagement with senior party members in local constituencies varies, and some constituencies do not have enough members to form a youth branch chapter.
Heather Casserly, the equality officer on the national executive of the Young Greens, explains that “smaller parties don’t necessarily even have the membership base to have a youth branch in every constituency – far from it. But I think making provisions for the eventuality that there will be one there would be excellent.”
Young people faced with the prospect of joining youth branches of political parties encounter varying levels of interest from party headquarters, including different relations with the senior party and capacities to influence the party position.
“In the Green Party, one of the great things about the party is that it does have a system whereby they do try to make decisions at the very lowest level,” Casserly explains. “From my own personal experience I do think that the main [Carlow] branch did engage with us, especially after we set up and at local constituency meetings, we always had a slot where we could voice things that we had been talking about in our own youth group.”
Smaller parties don’t necessarily even have the membership base to have a youth branch in every constituency – far from it
Passive participation in youth branches and invalidation by the senior party, Casserly adds, both distance young people from the political process. “There’s no faster way to burn out than to feel that the impact that you’re trying to make isn’t working or that your activism isn’t being listened to, which I think is why a lot of people have kind of shifted away from traditional party politics.” The onus, she believes, is not on the young activists: “It’s up to parties to come and listen to younger people rather than for younger people to scream and shout and try to make their voices heard – because that’s what they’ve been doing.”
Following the slew of resignations in the Green Party, Young Greens and Queer Greens last year, Casserly explains that “the people that were left felt just absolutely demotivated” but that those that remained in the Young Greens decided to make “a commitment to change to change the system from the inside, to stay in, to hold the party to account and to make sure that as best we can, that the Green Party does keep voting left, doesn’t stray too far into the other centre-right policies”.
Casserly was confronted with the question of reshaping the political infrastructure from within – or excluding herself as a form of protest. She explains: “The decision I made a year ago was to try to get involved in the party and try to make a difference in the traditional system in the way that I could. It’s not for everyone, and I completely understand that”.
Laoise Lynch, the former treasurer of the TCD Young Greens, remarks that at times, the senior political parties don’t engage with their young branches, which can disillusion younger members: “They’re like two separate entities.”
There’s no faster way to burn out than to feel that the impact that you’re trying to make isn’t working or that your activism isn’t being listened to
The crux of the issue, it seems, is civic culture. Casserly explains that “it is very possible for the Young Greens to bring forward policies. I think, to be honest, the issue maybe doesn’t so much lie in the mechanism, but more in people’s response to things that have been put forward by the Young Greens, and just even the fact that they were put forward by the Young Greens … that culture is what needs to change.”
The Green Party’s press office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither Young Fine Gael nor Ógra Fianna Fáil responded to requests for interview.
For Labour Youth, the structure of youth branches offers an opportunity for constituency and college branches to build a network of grassroots socialism. With an age bracket of 16 to 30 for membership, the demographic of Labour Youth provides for inclusive participation. For Catherine Arnold, the national gender equality officer for Labour Youth, this is an asset.
Sixteen is “a time where you’ve got a lot of your life controlled, but you’ve also got a lot of agency. You can influence your local community in schools”, she explains. “At least locally, an attitude of agency and empowerment is facilitated by secondary schools” through schemes like Young Social Innovators and Foróige. Arnold argues that, in her own Fingal constituency, which has a young population, generational barriers need to be challenged to empower young people in the political sphere.
When we start shifting our ideas of what counts as activism, what counts as getting involved in politics – when we make that mental shift, we can see that there’s a lot more going on than what’s on the surface, than what is just ‘party politics’
Arnold explains that “youth wings can be a bit more radical, a bit more activist … there’s a conception of politics being very stuffy and bureaucratic but, from my experience, it’s been a lot more [activist] than you would think”.
Both in Labour Youth and in cross-party discussions, political engagement in the party setting forces young people to challenge their conception of the world – and of politics. “When we start shifting our ideas of what counts as activism, what counts as getting involved in politics – when we make that mental shift, we can see that there’s a lot more going on than what’s on the surface, than what is just ‘party politics’.”
Over 50 Ógra Shinn Féin branches are located in both local communities and universities, presided over by the democratically elected National Youth Committee, the governing body of Ógra Shinn Féin.
For Christine O’Mahony, engagement with the political process was a necessary means for her to bring attention to issues she cares about, including direct provision. Joining the Social Democrats’s youth organisation, as well as the Abolish Direct Provision campaign group, gave her the flexibility to engage with politicians and asylum seekers. “I invite TDs and I invite senators to the event so those residents in direct provision can talk to them and get their questions answered and sometimes they talk about their case, because they want the politician to know so they can get out of DP.”
When you do activism online, people kind of expect you to have a position on everything
Raised in a republican household, O’Mahony joined Ógra Shinn Féin, working at the Dublin and Meath branches and later becoming chairperson for UCD Sinn Féin. She explains that it was the activism and bootstrap political campaigns that she enjoyed the most. It was while a bill on greyhound racing debated in the Dáil in November 2020 that O’Mahony’s views diverged from the party position: Sinn Féin “didn’t want the funding that the government was going to give the greyhounds, but they didn’t want to defund the industry … that’s when I started rebelling from the party, putting up my own opinions [online].”
O’Mahony was torn between online pressure to express her views, and her allegiance to the party standard. “When you do activism online, people kind of expect you to have a position on everything. And then you get criticised if you’re following the party line and not giving out. That’s why, instead of keeping it to myself that I’m against [Sinn Fein’s position on greyhound racing], I put it out there that this is not my view.”
“After that, I was phoned by one of the people in Ógra Shinn Féin and they told me to delete that tweet. I didn’t argue with them.”
In December 2020, “Sinn Féin followers were accused of racism and homophobia and I agreed with that, because I’ve seen it. I’ve seen our members on the anonymous Sinn Fein-supporting accounts attack Leo Varadkar and attack other members of the Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil parties… instead of their policies, they attack their race, gender and sexuality.”
You can’t expect me to defend everything that the party does, but they kind of wanted you to, and so that’s why I left Sinn Féin
In particular, O’Mahony criticised Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley for an offensive tweet about Leo Varadkar written in 2017, and called on Stanley to apologise. “That’s when I wrote that tweet that we should be dealing with, not only the homophobia coming from our supporters, but from our politicians.”
A senior party member visited her family home over the tweets, and she was implored by other Sinn Féin members to abide by the party social media rules and democratic centralism after she spoke about the experience on Drogheda-based radio station LMFM.
“I hated the democratic centralism. It would turn off young people going into politics, that they can’t have their own opinion and that they have to follow the party … you can’t expect me to defend everything that the party does, but they kind of wanted you to, and so that’s why I left Sinn Féin because I couldn’t deal with the fact that they wouldn’t deal with my complaints, they wouldn’t let me have my own opinion, and there was bullying in the party.”
Michael Power, the secretary of Ógra Shinn Féin Meath and vice chair of Ógra Shinn Féin DCU, explains the internal process to deal with complaints. He says that despite policy differences, “that doesn’t detract from the fact that we are treated very well by the [senior] party”.
For Power, activism and politics intersect at the nationwide education events Ógra Shinn Féin organises for new members
“We do have arguments between the party and there are a lot of situations when the party does something that we’re not happy with and a lot of the wider membership of Ógra is not happy with.”
For Power, activism and politics intersect at the nationwide education events Ógra Shinn Féin organises for new members – “young people [who] are really interested in politics but they’re not fully versed in [the] party manifesto, what the party stands for”.
National issues such as housing and health crises, as well as “young people becoming a lot more involved and a lot more cognisant of [international] politics”, created “the perfect storm” that propelled Sinn Féin support in the 2020 general election. “I think those big social upheavals and those big, big changes – like the gay marriage referendum, and the eighth amendment … those are very good avenues for people to get involved in politics”. Surges in support for seismic movements such as the Black Lives Matter and Fridays for Future protests were also “catalysts for getting young people involved in politics and being more interested in politics”.
Contrary to the criticism levelled against the party structure, Power insists that close co-operation exists between the junior and senior wings. “There’s been a lot of criticism where people are saying, ‘It’s just a separate thing, and the party does whatever they want while Ógra sits on the sidelines’, [but] from my own experience, we do work with them a lot and we do get listened to. We are obviously a lot more radical in some aspects.”
He explains that there is resistance to more radical campaigns backed by the youth wing from “the older generations in a very large party with a lot of political opinions. [Ógra] would be a lot more radical and a lot more socialist in nature. But that doesn’t detract from the fact that we are treated very well by the [senior] party”.
Young people stand at the faultlines of activism and politics. Cairns muses that a dialogue between activism and formal politics is an essential vehicle to drive change. “I don’t think we realise how impactful that is, how important grassroots movements are and activists in general – it’s just essential to democracy.”
Correction: 20.53pm, May 27th, 2021.