Thursday 19 September 2019

Jason O'Mahony: 'Young people need a voice in the Dáil'

Pensioners protest outside the Dáil in 2008 after a Fianna Fáil proposal to increase the threshold for over-70s medical cards. PHOTO: COLLINS
Pensioners protest outside the Dáil in 2008 after a Fianna Fáil proposal to increase the threshold for over-70s medical cards. PHOTO: COLLINS

Jason O'Mahony

For a country with a somewhat erratic relationship with the seasons, it's nevertheless reassuring to have markers as to the passing of the year. Just as the summer's first Spanish students mocking us with their raincoats and sweaters as we pitifully expose our pale, naked flesh to the most feeble of sunlight marks the beginning of summer, another marker has been passed.

That Punxsutawney Phil of Irish politics, Fianna Fáil's Willie O'Dea, has marked another political Groundhog Day and the coming of budget season by once again demanding that senior citizens be genuflected at with yet another pension increase.

Of course he has.

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They are the most reliable group of voters in the country, with the highest turnout.

You cross them at your political peril.

You also avoid stating the obvious: that, as a group, they are among the most cosseted. They're more likely to own their own property, and be enjoying the joys of a defined benefit pension that will soon become for most young people the retirement planning version of the Loch Ness Monster.

Most importantly, they have every single party putting their interests first and foremost.

Parties fall over themselves trying to come up with ever more schemes to either give pensioners more free stuff or to exempt them from paying for things they already reach into their pockets for.

Pensioners terrify politicians. Remember when in 2008 Fianna Fáil tried to take back the over-70s medical card to be faced down successfully by the "Gilets Gris"?

There's nothing inherently wrong with this.

Every social group in Ireland, from pensioners to farmers to vintners to public sector workers, leans on our very nervous political class for favour. It is as old a democratic story as when the first white toga-bedecked Roman tribune turned in the forum to a citizen and remarked: "I know you. You're Playedforus Countyus's eldest, aren't you? How's your mother? Will you tell your father I got him those two tickets for the Circus Maximus?"

There is, however, one exception to the rule.

Young people.

There is not a single party that will publicly promise to put the interests of young people ahead of any other social group.

Every party claims to be for all sections of society, but we know that to be a load of nonsense.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael nearly always side economically with the older people, and the other parties aren't much better.

It's so bad that huge sums of money that could be used for addressing the problems of the young, who face challenges even with that most basic of needs, housing, will instead be casually flung at the housed pensioner to pander to them.

Consider that giving an extra €5 a week to each of Ireland's 640,000-odd pensioners will cost us €165m a year, a gold-plated pander if ever there was one.

The parties even manage to co-opt young people to help them betray their own demographic. Watch how the various youth sections start out promising to be a voice for young people and end up parroting the same line about solidarity across the ages as the senior party.

It's a lovely thought, but it always seems that the oldest demographic always comes out better.

Don't forget, it was the minimum wage that was cut during the great recession, not the old-age pension.

Parties don't fear the young vote, and why should they? Even Sinn Féin, which gets a higher share of the youth vote than any other party, is unwilling to come out openly and say that pensioners aren't doing too badly and should hold off for a few years as resources are targeted at building affordable housing for the young.

Many assume that the Green Party is the party of young people, but it's worth recalling that the party's most impressive votes have been in comfortable south Dublin constituencies, the sort of places where opposition to new building is a card of political faith.

Could a party aimed at the 18-30 voter do well?

Across the West, from the Brexit party to Emmanuel Macron, political systems are becoming more fluid, although it has to be stressed that Irish politics has proven to be incredibly resilient, the only major change being Sinn Féin replacing Labour as the party of the working-class left.

Could a half dozen candidates running on a shared platform of youth issues first and foremost get elected, and be in the mix for getting policies implemented in a future coalition?

I've been a sceptic about the ability of a new party to do well in Ireland, but I think a youth platform could have a chance if it is willing to openly campaign on putting youth votes ahead of other sections of society.

That's the trick: if such a party or group started pandering to pensioners and farmers and everyone else it would become just another party.

But if it campaigned so vociferously on an "18-30 First" message to be actually attacked by other parties for being divisive, then it might have a chance.

That's the new politics, as Trump and Farage have shown. Your voters are as much motivated not by your message as by how angry your party makes other people.

Best-case scenario, you get a few TDs elected. Worst case? You force the established parties to come out openly with policies targeted specifically at young people.

Either way is a winner for young people.

Irish Independent

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