When you look at some of the biggest names in Irish politics, from Micheál Martin to Ivana Bacik, their beginnings are routed in student activism and politics. One of the groups which have faced difficulty making the transition from activism to the government benches is Ireland’s Socialist Party. However last May the party, as a member of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, made significant inroads into the political game when fourteen of its local election candidates were voted onto local councils. The party also won its third Dáil seat since the 2011 general election, bringing its TD count to two, after the resignation of Clare Daly from the party in 2012.
Recently I spoke to one of the party’s newly-elected councillors in Limerick about the connections between student life and activism, and political life. Limerick City and County Councillor, Cian Prendiville, began political actions while still in secondary school.
“I first got active in politics in secondary school, somewhat in youth against war, student walk-outs against the invasion of Iraq and then involving Socialist Youth and in school-student based activism as well,” Prendiville explained. It was during his time as a student at the University of Limerick though, that he reached the harder edges of activism and political campaigning.
He explained: “I started in UL in 2007 and myself and some others founded a socialist society on campus. That was also the same year as the battle on fees really started to heat up.
“I was involved in both the Students Union fees working group at the time and involved in a campaign called Free Education for Everyone, or FEE, that was involved in organising protests and campaigns and actions, fighting against fees. That would have been, I’d say, the major campaign.”
He was also involved in organising various anti-racism activities and information meetings during this time.
Later Prendiville became involved in campaigns fighting against the closure of St. John’s A&E department in Limerick. This was the first campaign he “got [his] teeth into” in Limerick. “From then on there was a lot of other campaigns as well but that’s how it started,” he added.
By the time the Fianna Fáil-Green Party government collapsed in 2011, Prendiville had already been set on a journey to stand in the general election of that same year, describing it as “an historic opportunity.”
Prendiville, explained: “We got a solid vote, pretty much across the constituency as well, which was an indication that it wasn’t on the basis of proportionality or locality or anything like that. It was political, people responded to the political message that we were saying. And I think that showed that there was an interest there and something to build on. But there was a spark. We were very happy with that for our first time out.”
Prendiville, having only graduated from UL recently, explained that the issue of him being a student did not come up when canvassing. “You get people making positive comments about ‘oh we need fresh faces and young people, etc., etc.’ What we’d always be focusing on, not the individual, but on what we stand for. But no, there was never a negative comment,” he said.
On the use of Students Unions as political launch-pads, Prendiville takes a critical standpoint. “Yeah, I think there’s a lot of that that takes place, that Student Unions fall away from being what I think they should be, of being active campaigning unions of students coming together to fight for their interests, to fight against fees, to fight against cuts to education and the fight for jobs at the end of it and all that”.
“The Students Union runs the shop or the nightlife or whatever, which is obviously important, but it shouldn’t be the core of it. In that move it’s become a kindergarten for aspiring establishment politicians, their first step on the road. I think that’s been detrimental to Students Unions to be honest with you,” he said.
Separately, a common perception of Irish students seems to be that they are more liberal on social issues, such as abortion or marriage equality. Prendiville explained his take on this.
“I think young people in general, whether they are young workers or young students, are very progressive on these issues, such as abortion rights, marriage equality, separating church and state. And to be honest with you I think a lot of young people are shocked that there still has to be campaigns on these issues, that we don’t have marriage equality, that there are still people opposed to it, that women face 14 years in prison for getting an abortion. I think there’s a general feeling amongst young people that this country needs to be dragged into the 21st century,” he said.
On the upcoming marriage equality referendum, Prendiville emphasised the importance of registering to vote, especially amongst young people and students.
Getting people to register will be “the focus of the campaign and trying to not just have a campaign of watching the debates on the media, but trying to encourage people to become active and organisers, making sure that their friends are registered and that their friends vote,” he explained.
In recent years Students Unions around the country, such as those in NUIG, TCD, UCD and the Union of Student in Ireland itself, have taken on official ‘pro-choice’ stances. Other universities such as UL have temporarily halted the official recognition of ‘pro-life’ societies.
Speaking about this apparent move towards the ‘pro-choice’ stance on abortion, Prendiville said:
“[Students] are not going to just sit around and wait 20 or 30 years for it to be changed. In reality these are all things that should have been changed twenty or thirty years ago. And I think that is energy that needs to be organised and mobilised. I think that will be a key. Not just young people talking to ourselves but those who are pro-choice organising to build a movement to go out and convince others to build.
“Fundamentally, in my opinion, what we need to do is not just a lobbying or information campaign but what’s needed is a mass movement in this country to force the political elite, the political establishment, who are way behind the ordinary people on this [and] are still tied to the catholic church, to force that elite to act to call the referendum on the repeal of the 8th Amendment.”
From social issues to government austerity policies, Councilor Prendiville appears to believe that young people can be a huge resource in making the changes which he sees as necessary in society.