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By Eoin Neylon

IN THE past fortnight thousands of young political activists have been attending annual conferences of political youth wings across the country.

This youth conference season kicked off a fortnight ago in Athlone with Ógra Fianna Fáil and the weekend just gone saw Young Fine Gael meet at Limerick Junction and Sinn Féin Ógra gather in Derry.

The conferences of the three largest parties in the State alone saw a collective 2,000 young people debating issues ranging from the environment, health, Brexit, women in politics, the Irish language, education, and voting at 16. The last topic is one that drew significant attention in the past week. A bill to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the 2019 local and European elections came before the Seanad for debate but was narrowly defeated.

Sinn Féin introduced the bill and naturally enough voted in favour of it. Fianna Fáil, who had promised in their 2016 election manifesto to allow for the measure abstained on it. This meant that Fine Gael voting against the bill, along with just enough independents, saw it defeated. The campaign internationally to allow votes at 16 is gathering pace. Malta recently became the latest country to allow it and our neighbours in Scotland introduced it a couple of years ago.

Brazil is the largest democracy that allows 16 year olds to vote but in all, there are over a dozen countries, all within Europe and South America that have introduced the measure at some level. What they’ve found since is that those who were granted even some form of voting right at 16 were more politically engaged and aware and more likely to vote than their compatriots who were enfranchised at 18.

In a setting where we are seeing falling turnouts, the number of people involved in politics falling and a rise in cynicism surrounding all political affairs, this move may well be exactly what our democracy needs. An international review of those countries where it is in effect also showed that, contrary to some opponents’ views, 16 and 17 year olds were not found to be any more swayed by populist candidates or parties and also didn’t show blind loyalty towards the voting pattern of their parents.

Instead, this group were found to be more swayed on the issues at hand rather than follow the politics of personality as older generation had. Whatever your view on the proposal itself, more media attention was focused on the contribution of Fine Gael-nominated Independent Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell than the outcome of the vote in the chamber itself. In her contribution, O’Donnell turned to directly address the congregation from the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union who were in the gallery.

During this she openly sneered and laughed at them as she exclaimed, “I’m not going to give you a vote”. Her speech to the Upper House ‘advised’ that young people should stay away from politics and focus on other pursuits. All in all, it was the single most insulting, inarticulate and ill-informed speech I’ve even heard delivered in the Oireachtas. In the seven years since Enda Kenny appointed her a Senator, she herself has not brought forward a single Bill of her own. She has co-sponsored only two Bills in all that time, both in the last 13 months.

O’Donnell is more widely known for her appearances in the papers preview section of the Tonight show on TV3 and for her unwavering support for Kenny and anything his Government proposed during his tenure as Taoiseach. Contrary to her record, that of party youth wings stands as a beacon as to what can be achieved in politics. LGBT rights, environmental policies, educational reform, political reform and pro-entrepreneurship measures are all policies and campaigns I’ve witnessed first-hand having their genesis in party youth wings before being adopted by senior parties. A lot of the most progressive political changes this country has seen in the last quarter century would not have come about but for the existence of political youth wings to give air time to new ideas and a platform to young people to speak up in support of them.

O’Donnell could not be more wrong; politics needs young people to get involved now more than ever if our democracy is to thrive. It’s also a great place for young people to cut their political teeth. In Clare we’re no strangers to having strong representation in youth politics. Both Ógra Fianna Fáil and Young Fine Gael have always punched above their respective weight when it comes to representation on their respective national stages.

Cllr Cathal Crowe noted in a speech to a Fianna Fáil gathering on Friday that it was the University of Limerick cumann of Ógra that opened to door to politics for him. Although still young, he’s since gained 14 years of council experience and remains the youngest member of Clare County Council. One might expect that title to move on as young people from all parties locally look to vie for the title. One such person may be Clarecastle’s Rebecca Gregan who was unfortunate to lose out in the YFG Presidential election at the weekend.

As a young community pharmacist, being a female STEM advocate means she represents a voice that is often missing from political debates. I somewhat think we’ll be hearing a lot more from her in the future. Either which way, I’d take Crowe or Gregan each and every day over O’Donnell. Give me a young person who’s in touch with the community, knows the issues of the day and knows the struggles faced by people on the street over someone from academia who’s only in a lofty position as a gift for being a cheerleader. Give me votes at 16 over Taoiseach appointments to the Seanad.

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