Meet the faces of Trinity party politics

What drives college politicos? What are their ambitions, criticisms and predictions for the upcoming general election? We talk to Trinity students involved in Fine Gael, Labour, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and the Socialist Workers Party.

InDepthIn the days following the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris earlier this year, black and white posters advertising a Trinity Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) discussion on anti-Islamophobia were pasted on to walls in campus loos, corridors and foyers. “Je ne suis pas Charlie” – as the event was provocatively named – was an attempt to discuss “why, while condemning such an atrocity, we must be wary of endorsing racism and Islamophobia under the guise of free speech,” its Facebook event page said. The discussion, held in an arts block room eight days after the massacre, was attended by over a hundred students.

This is the most active the branch has been in about 10 years, according to Rory O’Neill, the secretary of SWSS. “There’s always an audience in universities for radical ideas, for an alternative critical approach to what’s said in the media,” he says. “It just requires a committed group of people to respond quickly to events and put out an alternative line on topical issues.”

O’Neill, a first-year history and philosophy student, joined the branch’s senior party, the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), two and a half years ago, after becoming interested in “more radical, left revolutionary” ideas. He describes himself as a Marxist, “someone who wants democratic control of the economy by working people.” However, the fight to end capitalism is not just about economics, he says. “It’s about standing with all oppressed people: fighting for LGBTQ equality, showing solidarity with the Palestinian people, opposing sexism and standing for a woman’s right to choose. Being a Marxist means seeing all these things as part of one framework of exploitation, which we call capitalism.”

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 11.25.39Rory O’Neill, SWSS. Photo: Catherine Healy

But better regulated capitalism, for Trinity Young Fine Gael (YFG) members, is what has saved Ireland from the brink of disaster since it took office in 2011.  “In general, I think Fine Gael has led the country in the right way, and created jobs and growth,” third-year law student Richard Bonham, the branch’s secretary, tells me.

Third-year history student Ellen O’Connor, an unsuccessful Fine Gael candidate for Dún Laoghaire in the recent local elections, agrees. “[Taoiseach Enda Kenny] has brought the country back up from  the mess it was in,” she says. “There have definitely been tough decisions, but I think things are starting to turn around now.”

What about the cuts to jobseeker’s allowance, the carer’s allowance and lone parent’s allowance? “Given the mess we were in in 2011, everyone was going to have to share some of the pain,” O’Connor says. “No-one in society could be left untouched – and of course I’d hope some of those cuts could be reversed over the next few years.” And increases to third-level fees? Bonham says the decision, while “tough”, must be considered in light of the maintenance grants in place for students. The JobBridge scheme, criticised by many youth groups as displacing properly paid jobs, is a valuable way of getting young people back to work, both contend.

Criticism of coalition 

Trinity Labour members are less enthused about the coalition’s record. Branch chair Killian O’Sullivan, a final-year history and geography student, describes the cut to social welfare for under-26s as “a real slap in the face”. Both he and prominent party member Neil Warner, a postgraduate history student, are particularly concerned about the government’s mooted income tax cuts.

Warner, who is currently researching economic policy in Britain’s Labour Party between 1979 and 1997, points out: “Ireland already has very low taxation by international standards. You can’t have good services and welfare without taxation.” Responding to public dissatisfaction with tax cuts “feeds into a very weak kind of discourse about how you solve problems,” he says. “It’s the same economic strategy that Fianna Fáil had before the crisis: this idea that you just cut taxes instead of looking at things long-term.” O’Sullivan adds: “The recent TASC report on income inequality in Ireland [published last month] demonstrates that the tax system is compensating for this huge problem. Tampering with it by giving people who have a lot of money more money is a very dangerous idea.”

I think there’s a real problem in general in party political culture – and this is partly what we wanted to raise – that criticism is in and of itself harmful.

Warner was a founding member of the Campaign for Labour Policies (CLP), a group of grassroots Labour members unhappy with government policies. It was formed shortly after the coalition’s “very regressive” first budget, he tells me. “We held meetings and press conferences to raise a more critical, adamantly socialist/social-democratic view of things. One big driving force was the 2012 party conference, where there was a sense that there wasn’t strong opposition to the budget, to the way that the party was heading.”

Was the party receptive to its suggestions? “I wouldn’t say so. I think there’s a real problem in general in party political culture – and this is partly what we wanted to raise – that criticism is in and of itself harmful. There was a big response among party membership, though. Over 100 people came to our first meeting – there was huge enthusiasm because of the disaffection with the government and the sense of not being listened to.”

The CLP lost momentum in 2013 following the departure of several of its key members from party ranks. Why did Warner stay on? “The biggest [red line issue] for me is if I felt there was no longer any acknowledgment of criticism or any discussion within the party, if there was no receptiveness for change among party members,” he says. “Whatever the leadership is doing, I like to make the distinction between the party itself and the potential within the party and its history, as opposed to what it’s doing at a particular moment.”

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 11.29.02Killian O’Sullivan, Trinity Labour Youth. Photo: Catherine Healy

But working as part of a capitalist coalition government will always end in defeat for working class people, according to SWP member Rory O’Neill. “Every attempt to reform capitalism throughout history has failed,” he says. “While we run elections and take part in elections, ultimately, without wanting to be too grandiose about it, we’re an attempt to build a revolutionary organisation. We believe that only a revolution of working class people from below can affect socialist change in society.”

We believe that through our struggles – through building the anti-water charges movement, trying to radicalise the marriage equality referendum and fight for a woman’s right to choose – we can win people over to revolutionary socialism.

Is the SWP’s ultimate goal, to bring about the end of capitalism, likely to be achieved in the immediate future? “The rise of Syriza and potential rise of Podemos is indicative that the struggle against capitalism is still very current,” O’Neill says. “I don’t think it’ll happen through a project like Syriza but it’s definitely a sign that we haven’t lost yet. Maybe capitalism will get through this crisis but there will be another one – that’s just how the system works – so as long as it is unable to deliver what humanity needs there’ll always be opportunities for the left to build an alternative.” The trick, he says, is to engage with the public on issues that affect them in their everyday lives.  “We believe that through our struggles – through building the anti-water charges movement, trying to radicalise the marriage equality referendum and fight for a woman’s right to choose – we can win people over to revolutionary socialism.”

General election

For other youth branches, electoral politics and the upcoming general election, rather than ending capitalism, is the focus. Both O’Connor and Bonham from YFG rule out supporting any future coalition with Sinn Féin. “Their economic policies just don’t add up and their funding system is completely in shadows,” Bonham says. “They’re paid the industrial wage and yet Gerry Adams can fly to America and get private treatment there.” O’Connor adds: “There are also obviously some worrying issues that have emerged with regards to sexual abuse within the IRA.” Labour, both say, has worked well with Fine Gael and would be their preferred coalition partner after 2016.

But Labour members O’Sullivan and Warner aren’t keen on the idea.  “I do see a lot of sense in what Jack O’Connor has said about positioning ourselves with the left and against Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil,” O’Sullivan says. Warner, meanwhile, thinks a time in opposition would be best for the party. “If there’s suddenly the possibility after the next election of some amazing left-wing government, maybe [we should go into government], but it’d be unlikely.”

Final-year law and politics student Niamh Walsh, the chair of Fianna Fáil’s Theobald Wolfe Tone Cumann, feels the same way about Fianna Fáil.  “We haven’t fully rebuilt ourselves on the ground or among the electorate to effectively survive a coalition,” she says. But second-year law student Briege Mac Oscar, the Wolfe Tone Cumann treasurer and northern organiser for Ógra Fianna Fáil, would consider supporting the party entering a coalition with any party other than Fine Gael and Sinn Féin.

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 11.34.25Niamh Walsh, Theobald Wolfe Tone Cumann. Photo: Catherine Healy 

While other Trinity politicos may not be prepared to work with his party, Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Graham, a third-year BESS student, says it would work with anyone as long it could form a majority in a future coalition. “My preference would be the Labour Party,” he admits. “I think there are some very good, solid people in Labour with progressive politics. I’d find it difficult to work with some of the more dogmatic or ultra-left people in the Socialist Party or SWP because they don’t want the responsibility of governance or policy.”

Graham, at just 20 years old, is one of the youngest elected representatives in the country. Clearly ambitious, he does not rule out running for the party in the forthcoming general election.  “If others think I have something to offer as a TD, I would,” he says. “Fundamentally, my role is as a political activist and if that means going to the Dáil, so be it.”

Key issues

What drives him? Affordable housing, as well as equality and access to education, he tells me.   “In South Dublin, for example, we’ve over 9,000 people on a housing list, but any money available to construct housing is dependent on central government.” And Northern Ireland? “The idea of a one-island economy attracted me. Having two economies, two education and health services on the one island didn’t make sense to me.”

Briege Mac Oscar gives a similar response, saying she was attracted to Fianna Fáil as a party that supports Irish unity, while also standing for fairness. “Growing up in the North I was always aware of the contribution Fianna Fáil had made to the peace process, with Albert Reynolds signing the Downing Street Declaration and Bertie Ahern playing a crucial role in the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement,” she says.

Niamh Walsh, who grew up in a Fianna Fáil-supporting household, says she got involved in politics because of the responsibility she felt citizens have to engage in democratic societies. “Because I study politics – I studied a module on representation and public opinion last year – I saw that you have to be active in politics to have your views represented,” she says. “For a democracy to be legitimate, it needs people to be engaged and, at the very least, vote. That’s one of the main reasons I got involved.”

I’d describe myself as a libertarian socialist and the Greens are the only ones who I feel represent that.

Final-year economics and politics student Aoife Smyth, the international liaison officer for the National Young Greens, says she was attracted to the Greens as it was one of the few parties “with a really long-term term vision. They’re thinking 50, even 100 years down the line instead of looking to the next election.That’s important to me terms of sustainable economic development.”

For fellow Green Party member Sam Torsney, who led efforts to gain college recognition for the newly formed Trinity Greens, family involvement proved to be a key catalyst in joining the party. “It would be between Green and Labour in my house,” he says. “But I’d describe myself as a libertarian socialist and the Greens are the only ones who I feel represent that.” The party’s “ultra-democratic” nature also appealed to him. “When I spoke at my first Green Party meeting, everyone listened to me. It’d be much more difficult in a bigger party to do that.”

Screen shot 2015-03-18 at 11.32.03Sam Torsney, Trinity Greens. Photo: Catherine Healy

Ellen O’Connor says she got involved in Fine Gael during the 2011 general election after feeling let down by the political system. “I felt I couldn’t sit around and complain, and I suppose I felt Fine Gael was the only party with a real plan to get the country back on track.” Richard Bonham agrees. “When you’re part of a society or organisation like this, you can actually try to achieve something and talk to the right people to get it done instead of talking into thin air,” he says.

That perceived ability to change things is also what attracted Neil Warner, who became a Labour member in 2007, to party politics. “I wanted to get involved at a wide, party political level, but I also wanted to do it in a way where there was a chance I could make an actual difference, so Labour seemed the obvious place to go.” Did he consider joining any other left-wing party? “After the age of 15, I never saw the Trot parties as that relevant.”

Rory O’Neill, who laughs off the “Trot” label, finds the SWP’s particular approach to campaigning most appealing. “We consider ourselves part of a tradition that emphasises socialism from below – the self-activity of working people,” he says. “It’s a profoundly anti-Stalinist, anti-authoritarian kind of socialism. That tradition really appealed me.”

But did the British SWP not handle rape allegations in a notoriously authoritarian fashion in 2013, when it “acquitted” a senior official accused of abusing a female member of the party? “The most important thing to emphasise is that they’re a different organisation and that’s significant because I can tell you that my personal opinion of what happened in the UK is that it was awful,” he says. “The way the party dealt with in Britain was totally despicable, indefensible, unforgivable.”

All you have to do is look at our electoral performance under Gerry Adams. We’ve gone from strength to strength in the opinion polls.

Jonathan Graham is more coy when asked about claims that Sinn Féin covered up sexual abuse. “Our position [on the issue] has been very clear,” he says, reciting the party line. “If anyone is aware of any instances of sexual assault, they need to go to report it to the relevant authorities. Political parties aren’t equipped to deal with these issues.” Does he fully support Gerry Adams’ leadership? “100%. All you have to do is look at our electoral performance under Gerry Adams. We’ve gone from strength to strength in the opinion polls.”

Support for party leaders

Most other party leaders are also popular among their youth ranks. Fianna Fáil members Briege Mac Oscar and Niamh Walsh commend Micheál Martin’s role in rebuilding the party after the 2011 general election. “There’s still debate around his leadership,” Walsh admits, however. “The problem is that he’s associated with the former coalition by the electorate. When we were canvassing [in the European and local elections] last year, people would say, ‘If you get rid of Micheál Martin, then I’ll talk to you.’”

Screenshot (278)Ellen O’Connor, Trinity Young Fine Gael. Photo: Catherine Healy

Sam Torsney and Aoife Smyth from Trinity Greens are both fans of party leader Eamon Ryan, a former minister in the last coalition government. “I think he’s great,” Smyth says. “He’s put in a  huge effort to try to keep the party going at such a tough time.”

Labour Youth’s Neil Warner, on the other hand, says the party hasn’t changed in any meaningful way under Joan Burton’s leadership. “The basic culture of the party – which is a very top down approach to leadership – is still there and very much drives the party,” he says.

I think that the current government owes a lot to the decisions and plan made by those, including Brian Lenihan, at the time.

Burton’s rhetoric on the issue of social welfare has been particularly disappointing, Warner says. “One of the biggest core values for any social democratic party is the idea of a welfare state… to mitigate the power of capitalism and the market over workers. There doesn’t seem, to me, to be an understanding of that among the party’s leadership at the moment.”

Members of Ógra and Trinity Greens are less outspoken when asked about their parties’ involvement in the last coalition government, though. Niamh Walsh – who describes her political views are centrist – says that she didn’t pay much attention to coalition policies as she was still in secondary school at the time. “Someone’s always going to think of a different way to do things,” she says when asked about spending cuts. “To me, they did what they thought was right at the time.” Briege Mac Oscar agrees. “They faced up to the extremely difficult decisions that had to be made and I think that the current government owes a lot to the decisions and plan made by those, including Brian Lenihan, at the time.”

The future, rather the past, is what Aoife Smyth and Sam Torsney from Trinity Greens say they are both concentrating on. “I wasn’t all that interested in politics at the time [that they were in government],” Torsney says. He adds: “The way I see it, they were told, ‘The economy is going to collapse if you don’t plug all this money into it’, so I don’t know what choice they had in that situation. But the Green Party stance on austerity is that, if it has to be done, it should be done in the most progressive way possible.”

Smyth says she only began to take an active interest in politics two years after the party left government. Ireland’s financial crisis was not the Green Party’s making, though, she adds. “It was unfortunate that it happened at that time, because that was a global crash and its foundations were laid in Ireland long before the Greens got into government. They obviously made austerity decisions with Fianna Fáil that they didn’t have much choice in.”

Like many of the other Trinity politicos I spoke to, she hopes to get involved in backroom politics after finishing her studies. Only two youth branch members – Briege Mac Oscar and Jonathan Graham – admit that they would consider running for election in the future. Niamh Walsh, while not ruling out a career in politics, says it’s unlikely. “I couldn’t imagine myself as a TD.  There’s very little time for politicians to have a personal life, especially if you want to have a family.” The level of abuse faced by political representatives is also off-putting, she adds. “I understand people are annoyed but at the same time politicians give up so much of their time and are doing their best, only to be met with a complete lack of respect.”

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.