The relationship between students and Irish political parties

Trinity News sits down with leaders of various Trinity branches of Irish political parties to discern whether students are moving away from rigid party affiliations. Will the future of Irish politics continue to be centred around party agendas?

“Quite a lot has happened. We have managed to get a kettle.” This announcement produced brief applause at TCD’s Young Social Democrats’s monthly committee meeting. The Social Democrats are one of several student political parties active on the Trinity campus. Chaired by Seán Thim O’Leary, a second year PPES student, the group’s schedule covers a wide range of events, including voter registration drives, coffee mornings, movie nights, and attendance at the senior party’s National Conference (after which, the committee proudly notes, they received a shoutout from RTÉ).

The relationship between students and Irish political parties is dynamic. On the one hand, young Irish people seem to be passionate about causes ranging from housing to Palestine to gender equality. They don’t shy away from discussing current affairs online, or amongst friends. Students make political memes and TikToks go viral, and they are active when it comes to organising and attending protests. 

“Parties seem, sometimes, too clique-like”

On the other hand, voter turnout for Irish 18 to 25 year olds has consistently been below the European average. Few young people are registered members of mainstream political parties. The way in which this age group interacts with politics has changed. “People have their opinions, and people want to articulate them, but [many] feel that parties don’t suit them for whatever reasons,” according to Thim O’Leary. “A big part of that is that parties seem, sometimes, too clique-like.” 

The Trinity Social Democrats Chair explained that one of the things which drew them to the party was that it came across as the most welcoming and inclusive. They also cited the “mysticism” which surrounds the policies of established parties as a repelling factor. The suggestion is that larger, more established parties seem to rely on their historical position in the public’s political imagination, rather than policies themselves, to attract voters. 

Such a tactic does not seem to convince Trinity voters. According to a poll conducted by Trinity News, only 12.7% of students would cast a vote in favour of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, two of the parties which make up the current coalition government. In contrast, smaller parties such as the Social Democrats, the Green Party, and People Before Profit combined receive 46.7% of first preference choices.

If historical weight and established tradition does not win parties much support, does this mean that policy is the most important factor for young people when deciding how to vote? Cutting politics down to bite-sized pieces is not new—“it’s the economy, stupid”—but it can be dangerous in an age of social media in which political education often starts and finishes with a 20-second viral clip.

“I think maybe sometimes [young] people are voting just based on the vibes”

For Eric Betts, third-year civil engineering student and member of TCD Young Greens, the onus lies on the parties to communicate their policies to young people as clearly as possible. Not having had any previous experience of politics, Betts was drawn to the Green Party because of his interest in the environment: “I joined not knowing much about it, knowing I’d probably vote Green [because] I’m a big fan of green infrastructure.” Rather than delve into the finer details of a party’s policy documents, he stated that, “I think maybe sometimes [young] people are voting just based on the vibes.”

He stressed the importance of policy over personality when it comes to enacting real change: “Work has to be done… [but] is it being done?” Betts paused, then added with a laugh, speaking through clenched teeth: “You know when you put a task in the background when it isn’t that pressing, and suddenly it’s too late? I think the pain is not big enough for people to notice sometimes.”

Lean Tolentino, a third year maths student and secretary for Trinity People Before Profit (PBP), expressed a similar sentiment: “I find a lot of the time people might have opinions or views, but most are sceptical of politics in general.” They argued that politicians fail to truly understand that “students are struggling”, stating that successive governments have been unable to solve problems in areas such as housing or healthcare, which over time has fostered mistrust.

Tolentino explained that they were drawn to PBP as a “grassroots” organisation which carried out work at a local level in tangible ways: “Whenever I’d be interested in an issue, or there was a problem in my area, it was always People Before Profit who were protesting or organising something.”

Smaller parties definitely draw a large proportion of votes from Trinity’s population, but even they admit to struggling with effectively communicating their messages. Despite calls for change and a desire to enact improvements, there remains the general impression that a finger still has not been put on the pulse of the problem. This is made harder by the fact that increasing political engagement is a broad goal, at times too broad to be tangible.

Echoing other interviewees, Tolentino stresses the need for cooperation: “If you try to approach things from a collective level, and get everyone involved, that dichotomy between who would be successful in politics or not … is no longer relevant.” 

“You shouldn’t blindly trust anybody—never mind politicians”

Diarmuid Smith, Chair of the Trinity wing of Young Fianna Fáil, also believed that listening and co-operation is the key to success. While stressing that he enjoyed the buzz of debate and the social element of student politics, he also noted that “you shouldn’t blindly trust anybody—never mind politicians.” When speaking on the issue of public distrust in the political system, underlying frustration is a big theme. “People might feel that politicians aren’t listening to them. People get angry about that. They come to distrust the whole system and think that the whole system is working against them—which, I don’t think it is. I think that’s a bit irrational.”

Smith emphasised the importance of rationality and calm at several points during his interview. “You can’t lose your head in politics. You have to stay calm.”  While this view of politics might seem out of place in this age of polarisation, it is a sentiment echoed again and again by those interviewed. Smith dismissed polarisation as a future direction for Irish politics, arguing that politics is a platform where differing opinions can be shared in a passionate but respectful manner. He was reluctant to dismiss the whole system as broken.

Following an exchange of eighteen emails, and one missed appointment (due to Leo’s surprise resignation), Trinity News finally managed to speak with Kuruvilla George, a representative from Trinity Fine Gael. A PhD student studying Artificial Intelligence, George explained that what drew him to the party was its “traditional” nature. 

This emphasis on historical personality is not unfamiliar to many Irish voters, and could be a reason for younger voter’s disenchantment with politics in general. George pointed to the “psychology” of students, whom he characterises as “usually left-leaning” in contrast with the “major parties”, described as “centre, centre-right.” He didn’t necessarily consider this a bad thing, pointing out that different platforms can be used to raise different social issues. 

There is one party in particular which is very publicly handling the precarious balance between old traditions and modern appeal. Sinn Féin never responded to an invitation to interview for this series, but they are by far the party attracting the most attention from younger voters. Last November, an Irish Times IPSOS found that Sinn Féin was considered the first choice of 44% of 18- to 24-year-olds, an increase from 35% in 2021. 

All interviewees emphasised the need for tolerance, commitment, calm, and level-headedness. All stressed their view of politics as a way to help others and create real improvements in society. Without hesitation they were able to point to the highs of being involved in student politics—connecting with others, organising events, being involved in tangible change on an individual level. Although none envisaged themselves as entering a political career directly after college (some more emphatically than others), this is an admirable ethos for our generation to bring to the political table.