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Martina Devlin: If we really want change, we must all get involved

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How will change ever happen in Ireland, if the generation you'd expect to drive it from the streets into the Dail

is decimated

Today you may be wrestling over who and how to vote -- I'm still having a bit of a tussle with the permutations myself.

But some of the mists of indecision cleared after I spoke at a conference on Saturday in Dublin's Trinity College, when I suddenly realised that tomorrow's vote is worthless unless we believe it can be used to change our society. Or even just to set change in motion.

The event was called Wikipol, a discussion in which students considered political reform and how to mend a flawed system. Standing there, looking at a roomful of people in their early 20s saddled with the debts of others, I wondered what percentage of them would still be in Ireland this time next year. They represent the group most likely to bail out.

You could dismiss this conference, which they organised themselves, as a good idea happening too late to make a difference in Election 2011. Or you could shelve it as a talking shop -- talk is something we excel at in this country; unfortunately, it doesn't bridge national deficits.

But what struck me is that, against all the odds, these young people haven't rejected Ireland. They aren't applying for visas. They aren't actively planning lives in wealthier countries with better opportunities, even if it comes to that. This generation is sometimes written off as spoiled or apathetic, yet here they were, trying to be good citizens, to think of solutions, to become involved.

One of the organisers, final-year political science student Ciara Begley (21) said: "Churchill once wrote, 'The biggest argument against democracy is a five-minute discussion with the average voter'. Today, it seems that the biggest argument against voting is a five-minute discussion with an elected representative. Clicking the refresh button on Irish politics is difficult."

But difficult doesn't mean impossible -- they aren't surrendering hope of reform. They have faith in the possibility of it. Unlike some of us, they aren't admitting defeat even before an attempt is made to refashion the system.

"People are hungry for change, they want to understand how the system can be made better," said another Wikipol co-founder Ross Curran (23), also a final-year political science student.

He insisted it was important to believe ordinary people could make a difference. The group is hoping to galvanise other students with similar events in campuses around Ireland. Yes, it's too late to make an impact now, the students agree, but there will be other elections. We may be in line for a volatile few years politically.

This is the age band we expect to emigrate, and maybe a significant quantity of them will ship out. They belong to the internet generation, which takes a global stance anyway.

Presumably some of them would choose to go abroad for experience regardless of whether we were in the midst of a crisis. Talented and ambitious people have always shipped out in search of opportunity. But a number of these students -- and other young people unable to avail of third-level education -- will be driven away by economic necessity, and by negligence on the State's part.

And here's what bothers me. How will the change for which we are crying out ever happen in Ireland, if the generation you'd expect to drive it from the streets into the Dail is decimated? We need these young heads, packed with the idealism many of us out-grow, to keep reform on the agenda; to remind us how catastrophically we got it wrong, or allowed others to do so in our name.

At the Wikipol discussion, topics ranged from voting rights for emigrants to imposing gender quotas on political parties. Votes for the overseas Irish was an issue particularly pertinent for these students.

The scarcity of female candidates in the general election was also a hot issue. "The Dail has always been at least 86pc male," Maynooth graduate student Claire McGing told the conference, noting that female candidate numbers had dropped again for the fourth year in succession.

Labour is fielding most female candidates at 26.5pc of the total, while Fianna Fail has fewest at 14.7pc. Fine Gael stands at just over 15pc, a slight reduction on 2007. This means the way the Labour vote plays out will have the greatest impact on female numbers in the Dail. Are gender quotas undemocratic? Let me put it this way: having less than 14pc of women in the last Dail was grossly undemocratic. Things don't fix themselves -- quotas work, as other countries have discovered.

Some voters are implementing their own ad hoc quota arrangements. In various constituencies where I shadowed candidates during the week, women said they intended giving their first preference to a female contender irrespective of party. They just want capable, practical women in the Dail. Other women insist she needs to be the best candidate in her own right.

We can be sure of only one thing: a phalanx of women won't be entering Leinster House on March 9 when the 31st Dail convenes. The figures will probably remain static.

It's not something that exercises candidates, although Labour's Ivana Bacik has championed quotas. Candidates I met seemed more concerned about social welfare fraud, as though other more serious types of fraud weren't perpetrated in this country.

Anyhow, here's the nub of the problem. It is doubtful we will see change driven by women -- numerically a small minority in the Dail. And change probably won't come from a student revolution because many young people are leaving, though their enthusiasm and energy can motivate others.

So where will change originate? Politicians? Dream on. Change can only start with us. Change in our voting patterns is a beginning, but we also need to become participants in society rather than observers of it.

Wikipol gave me pause for thought. It gave me hope, too. I don't know if it was a drop in the ocean, a tentative beginning or a sign of the times.

Then again, who can tell which tiny acorns will be the ones to grow into mighty oaks?

Irish Independent