One of the very first societies I was coerced into signing up to during Freshers’ Week was Ógra Fianna Fáil. Young, naive, impressionable, and incomprehensibly nervous, a couple of euro and my email address seemed a small price to pay for a printed Proclamation, a frisbee, and of course the freedom to move on to the next stand. However, what I did not realise, was that signing up for political societies will cost you far more than the aforementioned money. Sporting my green tote bag, I was blissfully unaware of the dismissive glances from the Young Fine Gael contingent, ignorant to the looks of disdain from the collegiate socialists, and utterly heedless to the sound of sharpening knives from Ógra Shinn Féin. One hour into my college experience, I had unknowingly subscribed to a set of ideals I did not quite understand and, to this day, I am unsure that I agree with. With one fell swoop, I had reduced myself to a stereotypical conservative, condoned the financial collapse, and ensured I would be tagged in every future Fianna Fáil event by at least one clever classmate.
“Their target audience is far too impressionable, far too vulnerable, and a subscription to a political ideal at the age of 18 is simply nonsensical.”
College is a judgemental place. The societies you join often define your personality. The clothes you wear can determine your worth. Your beliefs, either abhorrent or justified, can often lead to your dismissal. It is for these reasons that political parties have no place on a college campus. Their target audience is far too impressionable, far too vulnerable, and a subscription to a political ideal at the age of 18 is simply nonsensical. The relationship between political societies in College can be toxic. Bickering, judgement, an instant need for loyalty from fellow members and, in the end, conflict which is neither productive nor justified.
It must be said that there are certain benefits to political parties acting as societies, although they are few and far between. Many students may have keen political interests, and so the opportunity to join Fianna Fáil, or working towards a united Ireland with Sinn Féin during their formative years can be appealing. These societies may provide such people with an opportunity to be themselves, an opportunity to collaborate with similar viewpoints. An opportunity to meet new people, with whom they share a commonality of purpose.
“Seize the opportunity to hear all voices, to observe three sides of the coin, before deciding which political party represents you.”
To suggest that joining a political party is necessary to do this, however, is false. In fact, it could be submitted that this method of personal development is entirely counterproductive. It defies the institutional goals of a university as a whole. By joining a political society in college, you are ultimately subscribing to an echo chamber. Everyone within it will share the same views as you, will probably be of the same socio-economic background, therefore productive disagreements are seldom, if not rare. By pinning your flag to the mast of a specific set of beliefs so early on, you deny yourself the chance to hear the differing opinions present in the more politically neutral forums Trinity provides for the activists amongst us. Passionate about a United Ireland? Take part in a debate. Bothered by the housing crisis? Bang down the door of the students’ union. Seize the opportunity to hear all voices, to observe three sides of the coin, before deciding which political party represents you. You shouldn’t sell yourself short by closing your mind in the eyes of your peers for the sake of a free slice of pizza or a shiny tote bag.
The practice of political parties acting as societies is in many ways, exploitative and divisive. Having taken part in politically oriented activities outside of college, this much is self-apparent. Discussions will often centre around which goodies will entice new voters, which kind of poster will draw another member. Given Freshers’ beliefs are not yet fully formed, the practice becomes rather cult like and, although notably optional, extremely invasive. For many, there is no disregard to those involved in these societies, yet it is probably more a frisbee you are after than a lifetime membership.
Perhaps the largest inconsistency with political parties and college societies is what a society should be. That is an inclusive, open forum, where involvement will aid future prospects, rather than potentially limit them. Whether you care to believe it or not, involvement in a political party can lead to you being written off by many, and is a far bigger commitment than a membership to the likes of the Phil, the Hist, or Envirosoc, for example. Membership in political parties follows you. Sean Gallagher’s membership in Fianna Fáil affected his Presidential election seven years ago. By subscribing to a political party, whether it is just or injust, you subscribe to the stereotype. You subscribe to the party line. You are making a pledge that, due to the way society operates, is extremely difficult to escape. In an era of social media, political societies make it very easy for members to be held to what they may have believed at the age of 18 for the rest of their lives. A functional, productive, worthwhile, and compatible college society will never involve such a commitment.
“The existence of these societies does more harm than good in the context of life in university.”
Finally, the Central Societies Committee (CSC) policy concerning political campaigns, which is that they are forbidden, is incompatible at face value with political societies. A political society is by nature a political campaign. While technically youth parties do not always follow the views of senior parties, that is not how they or their members are perceived. Membership within them is subsequently a poisoned chalice, and should ultimately be regarded as such.
The role of political societies on campus today is one which does not quite make sense. While events such as the politically neutral PolSoc’s Battle of the Parties facilitates well rounded discussion, many of the activities of campus political parties are insular and perhaps harmful to those taking part. While there is an argument that those who want to join a political party should be capable of doing so, there is no need for this membership to be on college grounds. They are incompatible with CSC policies, can prove to be divisive, and do not fit the model of an effective society. While they may contain admirable activists and committed future success stories, the existence of these societies does more harm than good in the context of life in university.