People before party tricks

Matthew Mulligan 

Online Editor

This May, the Local and European Elections will take place, the first of their kind since the ousting of Fianna Fáil from government and the election of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition in 2011. Since then, the government has lost TDs to the independent benches, Labour has lost almost 10% of its councillors, and the “Reform Alliance” has tried to get itself off the ground. Lucinda Creighton, Róisín Shortall, Colm Keaveny and others have lost the whip, with Keaveny later joining Fianna Fáil.

The indecisiveness and suspicion of Irish voters has not been unwarranted, as shown by Pat Rabbitte’s remarks that making simple promises that may or may not be fulfilled is something that one “tends to do during an election”.

The elections in May will be a reflection on whether the Irish people have forgiven or forgotten Fianna Fáil, and whether they feel that the government is doing a good job. Local elections are more accessible to independent candidates and smaller parties. Reflecting the fact that it is the first electoral opportunity since 2011, the May elections will certainly be interesting and will produce results that will keep pundits talking until the scheduled General Election in 2016.

The announcement that some Trinity graduates who are running for council seats in May have affiliated under a new group, “People before Parties”, is certainly an indication that younger people who are leaving College and facing high unemployment and the prospect of emigration want to do something to help those in their areas.

The group does not describe itself as a political party and it consists of independent candidates who feel frustrated about the size of problems in their area and their inability to affect change. The mixture of political beliefs among candidates and a lack of a wish to constrain themselves within the party whip system is why they are running as independents, along with plans and policies that try tackle smaller local issues instead of larger national issues.

One such candidate is Wayne Flanagan Tobin, a suicide prevention campaigner and youth worker who is running in Pembroke South Dock. Tobin’s campaign leaflet explicitly mentions a disgruntlement with the promises made by political parties and a need for “a new type of politics which represents young people, struggling families, and the elderly”.

Speaking to Trinity News, Wayne Flanagan Tobin said that the desire to come together as a group was borne out of a frustration at the “brain drain” that was occurring in the country. Though most of the candidates running under the People before Parties banner are based in Dublin, Flanagan Tobin mentioned that he would like to see the idea broadened and expanded to different parts of the country.

The fact that the group is made up of graduates is reflective of a frustration of being “unable to affect the decisions in their communities” with the skills they have from university and working in their particular sectors, and a feeling of compulsion to “get up and do something locally”.

Simon Hall, candidate for the Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown County Council, is another graduate of Trinity and former editor of the University Record, forerunner to The University Times. Hall states on his website that the reason he is running as an independent is that he feels that national parties are more orientated towards national politics, and should “have a limited place in local politics”. He cites the increase in councillor numbers as something that may contribute to a large number of independents elected, which he says would be a good result.

Both Hall and Flanagan Tobin have made promises which genuinely do seem to be focused on improving the communities in which they are living. Of course, the usual arguments by Irish political observers regarding the merits or redundancies of the local government system are mostly based on the fact that TDs regularly bring up local issues in the Oireachtas, conduct local clinics, and are an early port-of-call for problems their constituents have; from graffiti to accessibility grants to medical bill irregularities.

TDs such as the Healy-Raes and Michael Lowry are constantly returned to the Dáil because of their popularity in their constituencies and the time they spend on local issues. However these TDs are both from areas with smaller populations than Dublin, where the personal touch from TDs is harder to come by. Local councillors with issues that strictly affect their local areas may have the personable touch needed to get elected.

It is not the first time that young Trinity students have tried to enter into the political realm with campaigns based on a different approach to politics. The last General Election saw Trinity Classical Civilisation and Art History student Dylan Haskins run a campaign in the same constituency as Rúairí Quinn and Lucinda Creighton. Haskins was eliminated in the fourth round of voting, but managed to spread his message through interviews with Le Monde and Al Jazeera.

Independent Trinity Senator David Norris has expressed his support for young people looking to affect change by running in elections, saying that he is “delighted that young people from the universities have started putting themselves forward actively for candidacy as independents in the local elections”.  Whether or not the People before Parties group succeeds or fails in helping the graduates get elected, there is a definite rise in the number of independents and young people who feel like they have the skills to better their area running in elections, and the Local Elections in May will be no different.