Join the (political) party

Originally written for Trinity News

Civic education is by now a standard part of every school’s curriculum. If we feel strongly about a particular political issue, we know that we’re morally obliged, as active citizens, to articulate our opinions, whether by protesting publicly or by writing to our political representatives. The latter is a relatively non-time consuming form of political engagement, yet while one letter may get a drain cleared or a pothole fixed, it’s unlikely to effect radical change. The humble citizen, armed with only a pen and a sheet of paper, has a lot less influence than the well connected lobbyist. Joining the union or representative body for whatever issue is dearest to his heart will increase his power, but an even more radical method would be to join a political party.

Simply put, joining a party is the least complicated method of taking ownership of the political system. Regardless of whether card-carrying members intend to run for election, or even take part in basic grass roots activity such as canvassing, they are entitled to a voice on party policy. Nearly every party allows its members to vote on policy at branch level, and others allow their full membership to vote at AGMs and Ard Fheiseanna. Much has been made of governments breaking the promises which get them elected, yet few people ask why citizens don’t take part in deciding what those polices should be in the first place.

It’s blatantly obvious that citizens are either unaware of this power, or are uninterested in having it. According to my calculations, the percentage of Trinity Students involved in political parties is well below 3%. Given the rising education costs, the poor employment statistics, and the woeful financial situation facing most students, the fact that over 97% of students are divorced from the policy-making process is deplorable. At a time when the youth unemployment problem should be the single most important issue on the government’s agenda, most students have elected to simply switch off. I attribute this unfortunate state of affairs to two main factors.

Firstly there is an unfortunate tendency in Irish society to stigmatise political involvement. I believe this is due to a popular misconception that party members have a moral obligation to agree with every single decision that the party makes. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While I can’t speak for every party in the country, as a member of Fianna Fáil I have found that while all members broadly agree on so-called “common sense” policies, they disagree quite heavily on others. This disagreement is healthy, because it ensures that our policies are discussed from every angle before they are finally unveiled to the public. This also has a certain educational value. For example, since becoming involved in Fianna Fáil I’ve learned a lot about CAP and the Common Fisheries Policy which I knew little or nothing about before. I would imagine that this experience would be the same, regardless of what party one may choose to join.

Secondly easy to be dismissive of grass roots power, given our experience that governments, especially coalition governments, usually don’t follow party policy to the letter. This is because coalition governments operate on a quid pro quo basis, and unless the two parties have a lot in common, compromise is needed. Also some radical policies are either too uneconomical or politically difficult to implement over five years, and may require a lot of public debate to make the electorate accept their value. All this does not diminish the power of the grass roots in setting the agenda. TDs and Senators may play around with it to suit their electorate, making compromises and placing contentious policies in cold storage, but they cannot ignore them completely. If the grass roots finds itself ignored by very the candidates it selected, it can choose to remove them at future selection conventions. Admittedly this power is rarely exercised, but it exists nonetheless.

Its high time for the citizens of this country, particularly the younger generation, to wake up and become politically active. If students are fed up with being ignored by their TDs, then maybe they should force them to listen. More than any time in our history, we need a democratic revolution to bring new ideas and voices to the forefront of national debate. For what use is it to live in a democracy, if we choose to divorce ourselves from it? We have a voice, let’s use it!

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