Sunday 18 August 2019

The young bloods: Meet the new wave of local election candidates under 30

The big read: A new wave of candidates under 30 will try to make their first steps onto the political ladder in the local elections. But are the young bloods prepared for the rough and tumble ahead? Kim Bielenberg and John Meagher find out

Sinn Féin candidate in the local elections Grace McManus pictured outside her old school Loreto Bray in Co Wicklow. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Sinn Féin candidate in the local elections Grace McManus pictured outside her old school Loreto Bray in Co Wicklow. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Beckha Doyle
Liam Van Der Spek
Siobhan Shovlin
Stephanie Hanlon

They are coming of age as politicians in the era of Trump, Brexit, climate change - and the two landmark referendums that turned traditional Ireland upside down.

Many of them were born when the Internet was already a mass medium, and they know nothing of life before the age of always-on culture and mobile phones.

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A new generation of candidates under 30 will try to make their first baby steps onto the political ladder when they stand as candidates in the local elections.

Buoyed by idealism and a refreshing lack of cynicism about politics, they seem undeterred by reports of the gruelling nature of the job - and the scant rewards of the unglamorous life of a councillor.

They are determined to point out that life for them as millennials has not been as cushy as their elders sometimes try to make out.

A good number of candidates at the upper end of this age range went to school during the Celtic Tiger era, confident that a life of prosperity awaited them.

By the time they graduated, the crash had arrived, stripping many of them of the hope of a cushy job - and later on they found that the property boom excluded them from any hope of affordable accommodation.

A high proportion of the new young candidates live at home with their parents - and in a good number of cases, they moved back in after a stint paying a small fortune in rents.

According to the latest estimates by political geographer Dr Adrian Kavanagh, the new wave of young candidates has a higher than average representation of women.

Dr Kavanagh, a lecturer at NUI Maynooth, estimates that 34pc of candidates aged 35 and under are female.

Ciairín De Buis, who runs the training group Women for Election, says many of these young female candidates had their first encounter with politics during the referendum campaigns.

Emboldened women

They got to know the nuts and bolts of political organisation and canvassing. They also saw what could be achieved through political participation, and that seems to have emboldened them.

"After the referendum campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, we saw many more women training to be candidates," says De Buis, who organises seminars for aspiring female politicians.

Left-wing parties are attracting a greater proportion of young candidates under the age of 35 - they make up 33pc of People before Profit candidates, and 26pc of those running for the Social Democrats. Only 8pc of Fine Gael candidates are under 35, and 12pc of those in Fianna Fáil are in that age group, according to the latest estimates.

While many under-30s may have been borne aloft on the tide of idealism of the referendum campaigns, there are others who travel into the mainstream politics along a much more traditional route.

There is a certain timelessness about the way in which candidates may be nursed for a life of politics in a well-known dynasty.

At the age of just 22, a fresh-faced Cathal Haughey was this week pounding the pavements of Clontarf and Beaumont seeking to become the fourth generation of his family to serve as a politician for Fianna Fáil.

No other young candidate has such a deep-rooted and controversial pedigree as the student, who has just finished a degree in Contemporary Culture and Society at Dublin City University.

His great-grandfather, Sean Lemass, who fought in the Easter Rising, served as Taoiseach; his grandfather Charles was Taoiseach; and his uncle Sean is a TD and former junior minister.

Before she died last year, Cathal's late grandmother Maureen Haughey told the young student to think long and hard before embarking on a life of politics.

She knew how tough politics could be as the daughter of a Taoiseach, the wife of another Taoiseach, and the mother of a TD.

As he went looking for votes in some of Charlie's old stomping grounds this week, Cathal admitted that the Haughey name provokes mixed responses.

"The name does come with strengths and weaknesses," says the candidate, who is a Dublin organiser for Ógra Fianna Fáil. "Some people say to me that they would never vote for a Haughey.

"You can't choose your name, so that is something you have to live with. I would ask people to judge me on my own merits, and not based on prejudices."

Property ladder

Like most young candidates of his generation, Haughey is concerned about the housing crisis.

"For young people like me it's very hard to get on the housing ladder," says the candidate, who rents a property on Dublin's Collins Avenue.

"This was not a problem for people twenty or thirty years ago if you had a decent job. There is going to be a whole generation who are locked out of the property ladder."

Stephanie Hanlon

Although she is campaigning for a party with a different world view, Stephanie Hanlon, a People before Profit candidate in Kilkenny, also sees housing as a primary concern.

Like many of the candidates in her age group, the 27-year-old college lecturer from a farming background has moved back home to live with her parents. "I used to be embarrassed about it, but not any more," she says. "It's so weird that I can never envision myself being able to save to have a house of my own."

The lecturer at Carlow College says the housing crisis has affected the mindset of young people and their ability to lead independent lives.

"A whole generation is putting their lives on hold to a certain extent.

"They don't have the option to explore a separate part of themselves for themselves. My romantic relationships and my social interactions have to be respectful of the fact that I am living with other people."

Like a good number of young candidates, Stephanie Hanlon cut her teeth as a grassroots politician in referendums campaigns for marriage equality and the repeal of the eighth amendment.

"I hugely identified with marriage equality - as a bisexual I see myself as part of the LGBT community."

As director of election for Together for Yes in Carlow and Kilkenny during the abortion referendum, she learned campaigning tactics and strategy.

"I was looking at the electoral register and doing some of the statistical analysis," she says. "Young people are much more politicised now - voting used to be seen as a duty, but now they want to get involved."

Siobhan Shovlin

As a Fine Gael candidate for Dublin City Council, primary school teacher Siobhan Shovlin says she also notices a much greater awareness of politics.

"That has been heightened by the recent referendums, and there is more engagement from young people than there would have been in the past."

As someone who has rented a home for ten years, the teacher is keen to dispel the idea of a snowflake generation that has had it easy.

"I think this is a generation that has overcome various challenges. We went to school during the Celtic Tiger when we felt that the possibilities were endless.

"Then we came out of college and we realised that things were not like that. When I finished college in 2011, there were no jobs for teachers. I was waiting for a text every day to see if I would get a day's teaching."

Cosseted Generation

Beckha Doyle

Beckha Doyle, a Social Democrats candidate in Clare, is equally dismissive of the notion that the millennials are a cosseted generation.

"We are all supposed to be lazy and sensitive and want everything for nothing," she says. "That idea is overhyped."

The 27-year-old, who works at home in Scarfiff for an e-commerce company and lives with her parents, says: "My generation gets a tough rap. If you look at the statistics you'll find that we work very hard and for less money.

"The things that were achievable for young people twenty or thirty years ago are not achievable now."

If she is elected, the young candidate hopes to address some of the problems suffered in rural East Clare. The plight of her corner of rural Ireland has fired her up with political enthusiasm just as much the recent repeal referendum.

"There is not much to encourage young people to stay, and people feel that the area is being left behind."There is a lack of infrastructure - people are living in villages, where they don't have a doctor and there's no post office."

The young candidate says she feels inspired by the success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the radical young Democrat elected to the US congress last year.

Full of optimism and hope that they can succeed, the young candidates have plucked up the courage to put their names forward. But are they really prepared for the job that awaits them on the first rung of a ladder that can seem more like a greasy pole?

Dr Adrian Kavanagh of NUI Maynooth scrutinises elections closely and has noticed that many young candidates who were elected in 2014 have not put their names forward this time around.

He has also noticed that candidates who come from well-known dynasties are more likely to stay the course and continue with their political career.

"I think the explanation is that is not a nice job a lot of the time, but the dynasty candidates know from their families what to expect."

There are three young Healy-Raes standing for the council in Kerry, and Dr Kavanagh believes they are likely to stay the course. "A lot of first time councillors don't know the level of work that is required, " he says.

Young councillors can struggle to balance their work for the council, their daytime jobs and their family commitments. The pay for being a councillor is €17,000, plus around €5,000 in expenses.

Jennifer Cuffe, who was elected in her twenties last time out for Fianna Fáil in Dún Laoghaire, says she decided to quit, because she found it difficult to balance the commitment with her job as a lawyer.

"A lot of those elected in 2014 are stepping back from it," she says. "Being a councillor is really a part-time job with full-time hours, and I found that I can't work the hours it deserves and pay my mortgage and other bills."

Although she is walking away from the life of a politician with some regret, Cuffe says there are other aspects of the job that she finds difficult.

She says the amount of abuse suffered by councillors and politicians in general has got a lot worse since became involved in 2012.

She has had public comments about her hair colour and her weight, and she cited a recent email when an anonymous correspondent told her to "f*** off, you corrupt Godless bitch".

Hostile environment

Another serving councillor said: "The next generation coming into politics can find that it is a very hostile environment, and you are open to attack and ridicule."

Councillors who are stepping down have also cited the sheer frustration of trying to getting anything done in the job.

All these reservations have not deterred a new generation of aspiring young politicians from coming forward and standing for office.

Liam Van Der Spek

For Liam Van Der Spek, a 23-year-old data engineer running for the Labour Party in Cavan, the decision to run developed from a feeling that there is still a deficit of young voices in county councils.

The UCD graduate, who lives at home in Cavan, says: "My generation is politically engaged and there is more activism than there has ever been.

"It is not just about tweeting things, but getting out to marches and demonstrations. There is an element of not being satisfied with the way things are."

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