In the last five years, Ireland’s students have borne the brunt of the harsh policies of austerity implemented by the outgoing Fine Gael and Labour government. Increased student fees, reductions in maintenance grants and cutbacks within universities have all left many feeling disenfranchised and neglected by the coalition parties. Among students, it is felt that the Labour party’s promise of being a strong social democratic check to balance the centre right has fallen flatly.
It does seem that Fine Gael will be returned as the largest party to the 32nd Dáil, but the present coalition will fall well short of majority. This increasingly likely scenario comes as the disjointed opposition parties of the left rule out coalition with those they describe as “the parties of austerity”. That is, every party on the left bar one.
The Social Democrats have notably refused to rule out coalition with Fine Gael, or any party for that matter. This point stands out as remarkably flexible for a party that is seeking the votes of those who reject the austere policies that have brought Ireland back from the brink.
It raises many questions for students who are still at the cold face of cutbacks. While they might hold social democratic principles as their closest ideological “fit”, the idea of propping up a government lead by a party that has hurt them so viscerally is objectionable.
After having been let down by Labour, can young voters trust another party to dance with the proverbial devil? Absolutely.
The comparison of the Soc Dems to the Labour Party is, on the face of it, distinctly unfair. While Labour regularly fly the flag of being Ireland’s true party of the centre left, their history and legacy of the last government speak otherwise. Young people can see little evidence of the counter-balance against Fine Gael that Joan Burton wishes you to believe.
Instead, their small (but real) victories have benefitted public sector unions and pensioners, backtracking on promises made in 2011. The spectre of Ruairi Quinn, a minister who oversaw the increase in student “contribution” to €3000, signing a USI pledge in 2011 still haunts Burton and co. For a party composed of many former student activists, their connection to the student body of 2016 is lacking.
The Social Democrats on the other hand, on the face of it at least, seem acutely aware of, and are tapping into, the malcontent of students. Recognising their dissatisfaction with the parties of old, Soc Dems have put forward an agenda for changing the culture of parochialism synonymous with Irish politics. Young voters are rightfully weary of the promises of politicians, but the Social Democrats’ leaders’ records give reason for students to trust.
Without the baggage of the older parties, the Soc Dems trio of leaders have each carved out paths of principle both inside and out of the party fold.
One of these leaders, Stephen Donnelly, even before co-founding the Soc Dems, stood out from the crowd as an independent. He has been particularly vocal on student issues, having written in The Irish Times that the crisis of funding in universities is the “greatest threat” to prosperity.
Indeed, Trinity students saw first hand Donnelly’s competence at last November’s Students Union party debate, where he was widely recognised as a clear winner on the night. His strong contributions on the banking crisis, coupled with his educated background as a management consultant, mean that for many he is a beacon of sense.
This is amidst an opposition so easily written off as being populist and incapable of managing our finances, let alone of serving as a party of government.
The political records of Roisin Shorthall and Catherine Murphy, the two other co-founders of the Social Democrats, again tell their own tales of principles in politics.
The former was a Labour party junior minister who left the government benches amidst a political scandal over the perceived cronyism of a Fine Gael minister. Shorthall’s experience as an outspoken and occasionally controversial member of the Labour party should earn her kudos amongst students disillusioned with their performance in government.
Murphy made headlines last year for using her privilege as a TD to reveal banking arrangements that existed between billionaire Denis O’Brien and the former Anglo Irish Bank. This eye-raising move came as O’Brien had prohibited RTÉ from reporting the matter. Her pressure and stinging criticism of Fine Gael led the government to open a formal inquiry into the matter.
Both of these women have encountered the harsher edge and often the ire of Fine Gael in the last five years. Yet both are insistent that coalition with our largest party is on the table for the Social Democrats. This position may well cost them votes, but looking closely, we see a party that wants to make real change, not shout from the sidelines.
The Social Democrats’ leadership appear adamant that any foray into the government benches with Fine Gael, will not be simply to ‘make up the numbers’. Instead the party seems keen to say that while its door is open to potential suitors, Soc Dems want their pillars of honest politics, a strong economy, and a fair society to be embedded in the DNA of the next government.
If young voters want to see stronger social democratic principles why should they rule out a party that is willing engage with Fine Gael? Politics requires principled pragmatism, and if you want to get real change in the next Dáil, there is little point in resigning yourself to the opposition benches.
If we really want to see social democratic principles in the next government, and believe that Labour has failed in this regard, then students should have no problem voting Social Democrat.
Fine Gael stand reluctantly on social issues. The eighth amendment, which evidently weighs heavily on the minds of students, is notably absent from their manifesto. Going into government with a much weakened Fine Gael presents itself as the best way to see progress on these issues when the Dáil resumes in April. The past strength of the Soc Dems leaders and their pragmatic approach to politics should give students confidence in their ability to elicit change where Labour has failed.
While the possibility of change and hard policy outcomes is a very real prospect from such a pairing, we must remain realistic in our expectations. With only three sitting TDs amongst 14 candidates, the Social Democrats face an uphill battle in gaining the electoral traction needed to implement their objectives.
Soc Dems haven’t promised the world, as many accused Labour of doing in 2011. Indeed this over-promising has been attributed to much of Labour’s malaise in the run up to this election. Instead, Soc Dems have promised us principles and leadership. Whether they get to act on these after their first election remains to be seen.
The prospect of yet another centre right government may disillusion many students who hoped for greater change. Students can be confident, however, that if they want a strongly lead, articulate voice of reason on the left, then the Soc Dems can do this better than anyone else currently involved in Irish politics.
Illustration by Anna Hardstaff