Political party youth wings can be hard to appraise. In Ireland, they’re usually characterised by a unique zeal and loyalty to their parent movements, even when they frequently find themselves at odds with the mothership on a range of policy issues.
The prime examples of this phenomenon may be the youth wings of Labour and the Green Party, who seem to find themselves most frequently ignored. As with all political groupings, the precise character of Labour Youth and the Young Greens is variable, but they consistently fall to the left of their parent parties. Members of these groups have often found themselves disappointed and disillusioned by their colleagues in the Dáil, especially during each party’s tenure in coalition with Fianna Fáil and/or Fine Gael.
“Labour Youth contains many self-identifying socialists, but finds that difficult to reconcile a party whose recent stint in government was characterised by austerity and deep cuts to social services.”
Labour Youth contains many self-identifying socialists, but often finds that difficult to reconcile with being attached to a party whose most recent stint in government was characterised by austerity and deep cuts to social services, and which voted against the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador during a period of protracted Israeli state violence in Palestine this summer. The latter event prompted Labour Youth to tweet that it was “wholly disappointed” in its party.
This week, Labour leader Alan Kelly said in an interview on Newstalk that he is “not going to lead a party that’s…left wing”, and said that he opposed regulation on short-term rentals in rural areas, where he himself leases a property on a short-term basis. This is in stark contrast with Labour Youth’s vision for the party of James Connolly.
Similarly, the Young Greens was in the past the home of many zealous young environmentalists and left-wing activists, but has seen the exodus of many such members during its current term in government. For many, the disconnect between their personal progressivism and environmentalism could not be reconciled with a party helping to block the introduction of rent controls and an environment minister advocating the building of new fossil fuel plants.
Young Fine Gael (YFG), while it arguably enjoys more influence and is less frequently disillusioned than the youth wings of the centre left, is also ideologically distinct from its parent organisation. Fine Gael as a whole is a broad church, but tends to average out somewhere on the centre-right. However, YFG has frequently displayed a more firmly right-wing character. Former YFG President Killian Foley-Walsh was and is known for his social conservatism and for having attended the conference of the Young Americas Foundation in 2019, an organisation known for its frequent endorsement of far-right figures such as Ben Shapiro, Nigel Farage, and Jeff Sessions. Current YFG President Art O’Mahony opposed the repeal of the eighth amendment, despite his parent party’s regular assertion that it is one of their “key achievements”.
At an organisational level, YFG opposed entering the current coalition because it believed the Programme for Government was too economically left wing. Posts on internal YFG social media are, in the words of Elaine Loughlin, often “ultra-conservative and anti-immigrant in tone”. At the start of pride month this year, the YFG social media page initially branded itself with the “progress flag” (a version of the pride flag modified to include specific recognition of people of colour and trans people within the LGBTQ+ community) but then removed this flag (eventually replacing it with a standard pride flag) and deleted all evidence that it had been present.
All of this is indicative of an economic and social conservatism that, while certainly present within Fine Gael as a whole, is much less influential there than it is in YFG.
Ógra Fianna Fáil, like its parent party, is often difficult to conclusively label ideologically. But some differences with that party are still identifiable. The youth group called on Tánaiste Leo Varadkar to resign in August over the Merrion Hotel scandal, while the parliamentary party remained steadfast in its support for Fine Gael TDs Varadkar and Simon Coveney.
So, we can see that this dismissal of youth wing concerns is a common trend across most parties. It occurs even when those concerns represent good political advice, such as the Young Greens and Ógra Fianna Fáil observing the damage this coalition would do and is doing to their respective parties.
Perhaps the reason parties ignore their youth wings (even when those youth wings are displaying better instincts than party leadership) is down to a general contempt for young people among the Irish political class. From the widespread vilification of young people during the pandemic to the consistent adoption of policies that hurt young people in terms of housing and funding for education, one could be forgiven for thinking that Irish politics is just hostile to anyone under the age of 30 as a rule.
“Many TDs in marginal seats would not have been elected if younger members of their parties hadn’t spent weeks knocking on doors and handing out leaflets for them.”
So why do parties have youth wings if they don’t particularly respect them? Because they serve three vital purposes which are hard to replicate elsewhere. The first is as a source of campaigning and organising capacity, particularly around elections. The zeal and energy which is partially to blame for youth sections’ divergence from their more moderate parties is also indispensable to those parties; youth wings drum up general support by constantly campaigning and organising events with a frequency that parties in general often don’t, and have presence in spaces frequented by teenagers and young adults — whom political parties often struggle to reach. When elections roll around, members of youth wings are disproportionately represented among campaign volunteers. Many TDs in marginal seats would not have been elected if younger members of their parties hadn’t spent weeks knocking on doors and handing out leaflets for them.
Secondly, they serve as a controlled, limited outlet for young people’s political energy. Teenagers, students and other young adults naturally want influence over how their country is run, but by encouraging them to join organisations tied to existing party political structures, establishment politicians gain some measure of control over the expression of that energy. Young people are urged to think of these structures as the best outlet for change and spend their time lobbying parties to adopt their policies, which suits the political class better than them instead engaging in direct action or becoming involved in student radicalism.
In the best-case scenario — for politicians — they’ll be able to actually control and direct how these young people influence politics. But even if they can’t do that, setting up these organisations as the official, supposedly-most-legitimate way for our generation to engage in politics at least serves as a moderated release valve for youthful zeal and frustration.
Finally, youth wings are where the next generation of parties’ leadership is often found and trained. Those who stick around, and are willing to compromise and see their input ignored or watered down, often find themselves on a fast-track to high office within their party. That willingness to sacrifice principle for perceived or actual political expediency is valuable in any future TD, especially in a country where party whips are wielded as aggressively as they are in Ireland. Alan Kelly, Micheál Martin and Leo Varadkar all had their start in their parties’ youth sections, and this pattern is repeated throughout much of the rest of their parliamentary parties and others.
This co-option and sanitisation of youth activism by professional politicians is contemptible, without a doubt, especially as part of a broader condescending attitude towards young people. It’s bad enough that political parties generally scoff at our generation’s desire for change and to inherit a better country, but to profit from that idealism while never taking it seriously is downright abhorrent. But that’s why parties set up these organisations in the first place. Part of the point of them is to prevent real change.
“Young adults are still adults, and members of youth wings bear responsibility for continuing to support politicians who take advantage of them.”
At the same time, young adults are still adults, and sooner or later members of youth wings begin to bear responsibility for continuing to support politicians who take advantage of them and don’t respect them. Choosing to take part in these organisations often comes from a laudable desire to have a say in their country’s future and try to achieve positive change. But the behaviour of political parties — both towards their youth wings and in general — indicates that they do not exist to listen to the voices of young people or to implement positive change. Young members of such parties would be better off directing their energy elsewhere.