17 December 2009 Edition
Interview: Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Ógra Shinn Féin National Órganiser
A fighting voice for young people
FROM Togher on the south side of Cork City Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire (20) was appointed National Órganiser for Ógra Shinn Féin last month. He has taken a break from study, after completing two years of a Law degree, to undertake the role. Here he speaks to ELLA O’DWYER about the role of Ógra in the wider republican struggle
“I don’t come from a Sinn Féin background”, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire explains, “but I was always interested in politics from when I was about 15 or 16. Sinn Féin struck me as the party that best represents the community I come from in Cork City.
“Togher wasn’t necessarily the most prosperous of places when I was growing up so I always had the inclination to look at issues around social justice. I joined Ógra two years ago when I was in University College Cork and I was appointed Ógra National Organiser last month. The previous organiser, Barry McColgan, has been very supportive of me in taking on his former role. I’ve the height of respect for Barry. He’s done a huge amount of work for Ógra and has put in fantastic foundations and done a tremendous amount of work.
“The primary role I would see Ógra having is providing a space for young republicans to develop politically before going into the party and it’s an important means of recruitment. Secondly Ógra allows for the education of young republicans so that we can produce high quality activists. We have a very good educational programme. We go away for educational weekends, five to eight times a year. As well as having a social side these weekends allow us to have talks and debates. Not so long ago we had Arthur Scargill talking about the miners and we’ve had talks from people from the Basque movement - things like that.”
“Because I’m based in Cork I’ve an opportunity to build more in the South. Uladh is our strongest Cúige but the 26 counties wouldn’t be as strong. There’s a lot of work to be done in building the organisation down here. Also, something Barry was interested in himself and will probably help us with, is getting a more policy orientated aspect to Ógra and trying to get the organisation thinking more about Sinn Féin policy and having an impact on that. I’d like to see Ógra taking an active role in policy development and taking positions on policies particularly in terms of issues around youth.
“We held our Congress in the Felons [Club in Belfast] recently and launched our ‘Who Fears to Speak of a United Ireland’ campaign. The idea isn’t just about trying to heighten national consciousness around the united Ireland theme and motivating people to work to that end. It’s also about exploring why some people don’t believe it will work. It’s about investigating people’s reservations, unionists in particular, and how you might overcome that.
“It’s also about highlighting the inequalities in everyday aspects of the border. I think it’s very important to engage with young people on their perspective on partition. In the South most people have an underlying sense that a united Ireland makes sense but not everyone. I was in a debate recently in UCC and it was quite interesting. The biggest objection to a united Ireland was based on whether we could afford it and whether it really makes sense. It wasn’t about the armed conflict or whether unionists’ rights would be trampled on. It’s good that we’re having the debate and getting the republican argument across. That debate on a united Ireland is immensely winnable. It makes more economic sense to be a single unit rather than a divided country where you have two civil services and two transport systems and separate telephone networks – all the practical things.”
The new National Organiser says young people were ‘viciously targeted’ in the recent budget. “The Budget has left a lot of people reeling. It’s probably one of the most right wing budgets in the history of the state. Young people have been almost viciously targeted and almost singled out. Even before this budget there were cutbacks in community services and drug rehabilitation services that would have affected young people. I think it’s a sign that this government doesn’t see young people as having a political voice and as being an easy target that won’t fight back. What I would say is that it’s Ógra’s job to provide a voice for those young people. An awful lot of young people aren’t politically engaged at all and they don’t feel their vote is worth anything much. But some of that is because they are not engaged. A lot of people feel that they can’t make a difference and that is something Ógra needs to address.”
The broad republican family has a lot to offer Ógra by way of support, Ó Laoghaire says. “‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ was a term phrased by Declan Kearney recently at the Antoine Mac Giolla Bhrighde lecture in Derry and it’s a theme that came to mind during our recent Congress because we had prominent republicans like Bobby Storey, Seán Murray and Daithí McKay popping in and out to share their experiences and advice.
“There’s a lot of experienced republicans out there who actively support Ógra by giving talks and encouragement. These people are very supportive and where that happens you get more young people coming through. We get a lot of support from individuals in the Movement but I think the party itself is not massively geared towards young people. But the party and Ógra are two parts of the same thing and the more support we can get from the party the better.”
One of the other goals Donnchadh has set himself is to get more young women involved in Ógra. “We need to recruit a lot more people into Ógra and particularly women. Politics in Ireland is generally geared towards men and there aren’t enough women in the Movement. We’ve had a lot of inspirational young women in the Movement, people like Sheena Campbell for instance. She was a law student like myself. A book was brought out about her recently and there’s actually two Ógra cumainn called after her, in Queens and DCU. She would be someone I’d admire and also people like Mairéad Farrell and Eibhlín Glenholmes. Women like these would encourage young women to get involved.”
Donnchadh stood in the last Local Elections and came very close to getting elected. Will he stand again? “I won’t commit to that”, he laughs, “If the lads see that in the paper below in the Cork office they’ll be onto me. But I’ll see again in five years time, but it is a lot of work and I’m not sure yet.”
Donnchadh speaking at the Ógra Shinn Féin National Congress last month