Pol Soc general election debate: Campaign narrative is adhered to as opposition promise to rectify Fine Gael and Labour’s failures

The event, held on Tuesday in the Swift Theatre, saw the Green Party, Sinn Féin, Social Democrats and AAA/PBP fighting to appeal to students’ social conscience on education funding, climate change and the eighth amendment, while Renua’s Tim Graham stated the topics were less than preferable.

Trinity’s Politics Society held their general election debate involving student party representatives yesterday evening. Young Fine Gael (YFG) , Ógra Fianna Fáil, Labour, Sinn Féin, The Social Democrats and People Before Profit/Anti Austerity Alliance (PBP/AAA) were the parties represented.

Each party representative made an opening statement before being asked to express their views and policies in relation to education funding, climate change and the eighth amendment.

Tim Graham, Secretary of Renua, however, took issue with the chosen topics, remarking: “They weren’t particularly the questions I hoped to talk about but it seems it’s what Trinity wants to talk about.” He indicated he would have preferred to speak on the issues of Renua’s flat tax policy and their policies on crime.

The opening statements made by the representatives contained for the most part a reiteration of the message delivered by each of their respective party leaders. Richard Bonham (YFG) repeated the much-criticized, and now somewhat notorious, “keeping the recovery going” slogan. Sean Egan, representing the Socialist Worker Student Society who support PBP/AAA, on the other-hand, spoke more aggressively. He stated he “almost threw up” listening to the other parties and further emphasised his frustration with the leading government parties, saying: “I’m mad as hell and I don’t f***ing buy it.”

Given Labour’s weakness in opinion polls for the duration of the campaign period, Paul Molloy began by asking audience members for a vote to ensure that the party could act as a watchdog and “ensure a progressive agenda” results from the next government.

On the topic of third-level funding, both Richard Bonham (Fine Gael) and Graham advocated a student loan system. Egan took issue with this, claiming such a system is a “very clearly a trap and it would completely corporatize education”. When challenged on the concept of loan system of funding for education, Bonham defended the idea, explaining that the government “can’t pay for everything” and that he didn’t favour charging more on income tax to fund education.

Ronan Mac Giolla Rua, President of Trinity Social Democrats, opposed such a scheme, outlining the party’s ambition to “reduce and cap” the student contribution fee at €2,000 and to “reform and expand SUSI” to provide “specific and targeted grants”. Both Sam Torsney (Green Party) and Paul MacNamee (FF) outlined their parties’ promises to freeze the price of student contributions for the entire government term, with MacNamee adding that Fianna Fáil plan to restore the postgraduate grant.

Regarding the eighth amendment, Bonham explained that Fine Gael intended to set up a constitutional convention, with a view to holding a referendum. Mac Giolla Rua and Sinn Féin’s Andrew Myles argued against this, the former claiming “[the government] already had a constitutional convention”, which resulted in a referendum on lowering the presidential eligibility age instead of a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment.

Responding to a question, asking why legislation should be brought in should the amendment be repealed, Torsney stated that legislation would be required in order to secure the success of removing it from the constitution: “once it’s removed from the constitution the legislation can be changed.”

Torsney made clear that the priority for the Green Party was to remove the eighth amendment from the constitution and allow abortion in the case of rape and fatal foetal abnormalities, despite admitting that he was “personally in favour of a more liberal regime”. Egan of PBP/AAA reacted strongly against the current abortion legislation and called for what he saw as the need to “scrap the wretched eighth amendment”.

On the topic of environmental policy, Mac Giolla Rua and MacNamee outlined their parties’ wish to incentivise investment in green technology. Molloy spoke more generally on Labour’s ambitions for Ireland to become “carbon-neutral by 2021”,echoing similar insubstantial sentiments by Bonham who added Fine Gael hoped the set up a task force on climate change. Myles of Sinn Féin spoke of “a full legislative ban on fracking”.

While Graham reiterated his wish to not speak on the issue, and stated his personal opposition to wind turbines in his local area, he said “Renua has several policies on the topic such as supporting Caoilte in reforestation”.

Torsney of the Green Party outlined the Green Party’s ambition for “a 3bn investment plan” and for Ireland to be “fossil free by 2050” with “carbon neutral agriculture” and their policy of “10% of the transport budget going to cycling”.

When challenged on whether so-called ‘hard left-wing’ policies were the answer to improving quality of life, Myles  attempted to distinguish Sinn Féin from the far-left, describing it as a “social democratic alternative” that would “provide universal healthcare and free education”. Egan also sought to affiliate the AAA/PBP alliance with social democracy, citing the success of healthcare and education systems in Nordic governments as positive examples.

A question on female representation in government, Egan and Mac Giolla Rua were  quick to point out that their parties have the highest proportion of female candidates at 40% and 45% respectively. Both conceded, however, that looking at the figures isn’t enough, with Egan stating: “we have to realise that party policy doesn’t work entirely against the fact that we live in a structurally misogynistic society.”

Correction 25/2/16, 5:08 – An earlier version of this piece mistakingly attributed the quote on the eightht amendment “once it’s removed from the constitution the legislation can be changed” to AAA/PBP representative Sean Egan, when it was said by Green Party representative Sam Torsney