Sunday 15 September 2019

'Young people aren't the ones that made this mess but we are going to be living through it'

From climate change to the housing crisis, three of Ireland's younger European election hopefuls talk to Political Correspondent Cormac McQuinn about the big issues facing this generation

Maria Walsh (Fine Gael)
Maria Walsh (Fine Gael)
Adrienne Wallace (People Before Profit).
Gary Gannon (Social Democrats).
Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Brian Crowley was just 30 years old when he was first elected to the European Parliament in the 1990s.

He went on to have a career spanning 25 years and the phenomenally popular MEP secured a staggering 180,000 first preference votes in 2014.

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He is now stepping down for health reasons and is not contesting the European Elections, but there are 59 candidates in the upcoming battle for seats in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Just a handful of hopefuls across the three constituencies fall into the same fresh-faced age bracket as Mr Crowley was when he started out.

The average age of Ireland's 11 outgoing MEPs is just over 54 and several of them, like Fine Gael's Seán Kelly (66) and Independent Luke 'Ming' Flanagan (47), are seeking re-election.

That compares to an average age across the population of around 37.

So where are all the millennial candidates vying to bring the voice of youth to the European Parliament? And what are the challenges they face in getting elected?

Social Democrats Dublin candidate Gary Gannon (32) agrees there is a dearth of younger candidates in the race.

Gannon believes this is because a lot of political parties see the European elections as a "way of rewarding established politicians".

Gannon said those politicians are standing on their experience.

He blames the older politicians for the 2008 financial crisis and the rise of "right-wing populism and hatred" he says contributed to Brexit.

Gannon argues that younger people are at the "business end of massive challenges" like climate change and difficulties accessing housing.

He says: "It's absolutely essential that we have people in the European Parliament who are impacted by the immediacy of the issues that we're facing."

Adrienne Wallace (29), a People Before Profit candidate, puts forward an argument along a similar theme.

The Ireland South candidate says "politics has failed our generation. We have to start getting more involved in shaping it if we want any type of future."

She said she fears she'll never own a home and it's "daunting and scary" for people her age thinking about trying to get a mortgage.

Wallace also points to climate change saying: "There might not even be a planet that is habitable. That's the stark reality of what's happening now. Young people aren't the ones that made this mess but we are going to be the ones to have to live through it."

She says it's important that young people not only get involved in politics, but also to turn up in large numbers to vote so their voices are heard.

"We really have to get a big turnout of young people in these elections," she says.

'Disconnect'

Fine Gael's Maria Walsh, a former Rose of Tralee, is contesting the Midlands North-West constituency.

She turns 32 next month and says she believes there has been a "disconnect" in terms of politics and youth.

The middle-aged profile of the current crop of MEPs is perhaps a symptom of the fact that older voters traditionally turn out in higher numbers.

But Walsh says that the recent referendums on marriage equality and repealing the Eighth Amendment on abortion are examples of how the country has changed, helped by first-time voters casting their ballots.

The vast geographic spread of the European election constituencies and sheer number of votes needed to get over the line can favour more established candidates with greater name recognition.

Asked if age will be a disadvantage for younger candidates like her, Walsh mentions her Fine Gael running mate Mairead McGuinness (59) who first entered the European Parliament in 2004.

She says she recognises her achievements and adds: "I'm starting in the same place Mairead was 15 years ago."

Walsh pointed to her own experience in business, her advocacy for rural Ireland and the network she built during her tenure as a Rose of Tralee.

She concedes she has had some people on the campaign trail questioning if her age will work against her but she adds: "I actually say, you know what? It doesn't, it's aiding me."

All three have embraced social media in a bid to reach out to younger voters including the use of often slickly produced video they hope will go viral.

Gannon believes he will "absolutely confound expectations" despite a challenging field in the Dublin packed with competing left-wing candidates.

He says the "progressive movement" internationally isn't necessarily reflected in traditional polling which often fails to capture the views of younger voters.

He gives the example of the surprise election of millennial poster child Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the US House of Representatives.

Wallace says she knows she's the "underdog" in Ireland South but says "we are going for it", while acknowledging "we have to work twice as hard to get the message out there."

Gannon, an outgoing Dublin City councillor and Carlow-based Wallace are both contesting the local elections as well.

It remains to be seen if any of Ireland's next batch of MEPs will be under 35, replicating Brian Crowley's achievement at getting elected to Europe a such a young age, a quarter of a century ago.

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