2 September 2012 Edition
The regeneration game
Young activists in Sinn Féin speaking up . . . making changes . . . taking responsibility
If you consider that the vast majority of Volunteers during the conflict were in their late teens and early twenties, then there is no reason why someone that age can’t be an elected representative – Councillor Colly Kelly
‘Everyone here is here on merit’
‘TOO MALE, TOO PALE AND TOO STALE’ was the quote often given about political institutions on this island and few could argue with that sentiment. The majority of politicians in Ireland fall onto the bracket of being middle-aged or older males, but is Sinn Féin changing that perception?
Anyone who had the opportunity to attend the Ard Fheis in May would have seen a political conference that was anything but ‘male, pale or stale’ as young speaker upon young speaker took to the stage.
From the time Senator Kathryn Reilly raised the roof with a ‘GAA strip show’ of county jerseys to highlight the growing problem of emigration, the stage was set for young people to impress upon everyone that there is talent in abundance in our party.
As we look across the country, we see Navan’s Caoimhe Ní Shluáin, the youngest Mayor in Ireland; Kathryn Reilly from Cavan/Monaghan is the youngest senator in Ireland; Cathal McLaughlin the youngest ever Mayor of Limavady; and Chris Hazzard and Megan Fearon, the two youngest MLAs in the Assembly.
Last year we saw Niall Ó Donnghaile elected as the youngest Mayor of Belfast, second largest city in Ireland, where Tierna Cunningham now holds the position of Deputy Mayor.
In Derry and Donegal, two young men, Colly Kelly and Jack Murray, are making a name for themselves as hard-working councillors delivering for their constituencies and working together on the all-Ireland agenda to deliver change.
And Sinn Féin has many more already active out there and even more coming through the ranks.
As Martin McGuinness said recently at a team meeting in Stormont: “Everyone here is here on merit.”
I asked some of these activists what enticed a young person to get into the busy life of politics, where politicians are usually given a bad press or a hard time.
One of our newest representatives, Megan Fearon says that although her family has a republican history, she made up her own mind about politics.
“In my immediate family I was the first to become politically active. My desire for self-determination has always been a strong one so when I was old enough, I joined my local Sinn Féin branch. Aside from the presence of the British Government in Ireland, my interest in politics has always been spurred on by seeing so much inequality and injustice in the world.
“My reason for becoming so involved in politics is because I have always wanted to do what I could to help people. There are so many changes needed in our society and I am grateful now to be in a position where I can bring about change.”
Derry Councillor Colly Kelly says he was working in the cumann when he was asked to put his name forward.
“I considered it thoroughly before deciding to stand. I looked at it as a challenge. I saw that young people didn’t have a voice on the council and I wanted our team to be a reflection of society and saw an opportunity to get a young voice at the centre of decision-making in the city. As a republican I don’t see an age barrier in striving to create a new Ireland based on equality. If you consider that the vast majority of Volunteers during the conflict were in their late teens and early twenties, then there is no reason why someone that age can’t be an elected representative.”
On the issue of age and whether it is an advantage or disadvantage, Limavady Mayor Cathal McLaughlin says:
“It is important that my generation steps forwards and has our voices heard. I was frustrated that there was no one representing young people in a way that relates to the youth of today. While older people were all young at one stage, times and trends change so what was important to young people ten to twenty years ago may not be prevalent today.
Megan Fearon adds:
“I can naturally identify with issues facing young people that perhaps many of our other representatives cannot. Obviously this will be a challenge and I never underestimated that. However, it will be a challenge for all of our new MLAs. This is a new experience for us all. Sinn Féin has strong Assembly and constituency teams across the board and I can draw on the combined wealth of experience that is on offer there. I am going into this with a positive attitude, to do my very best for all the people who I now represent. I only look on my age as a positive thing.”
Derry Councillor Colly Kelly believes that taking on his new role helped mature him as a person and gave him a sense of purpose in delivering for his community.
“In many meetings you have people who are older than me looking for leadership and while I respect my elders my age doesn’t inhibit me in giving the leadership needed. The party support that has been given to me has increased my confidence and allowed me to tackle issues that I wouldn’t have taken on before I took on an elected role.”
Chris Hazzard, a new MLA from South Down, cites an international inspiration.
“I was amazed at the impact that Camila Vallejo had in Chile last year. Here was a 23-year-old female student who helped shake a country’s political institutions to their very core. In writing she often invoked the words of her radical inspiration, Salvador Allende: ‘To be a student and not a revolutionary is a contradiction.’ As a young Irish republican I want to bring the same radical focus to political activism here in Ireland.”
Social media has become the norm for young people to communicate with each other and part of everyday activity so I asked some of our representatives if they used social media and if it is helpful in getting a political message across.
Chris Hazzard calls to mind the words of Internet blogger Luke Akehurst, who recently commented: “Blogs, tweets and Facebook are just as likely to be what loses a party the election as what wins it.”
Derry Councillor Colly Kelly speaks about balancing his public profile with trying to lead a typical life of a young person and someone with a partner.
“We recently had a baby son so I don’t be out as much as I used to, but all my friends still treat me as one of the boys. I still enjoy doing what I did before entering politics so it has not curtailed me in that way. However, being a public figure can have its disadvantages in that some people are scrutinising your every move (especially those who are politically opposed to Sinn Féin) to make political capital, so you are conscious of who you are and who you represent.”
Mayor of Limavady Cathal McLaughlin says he has continued to live as normal a life as possible.
“Since I became Mayor I have had a full diary so it is hard to get the time to relax at the moment although I wouldn’t change anything.”
Chris Hazzard maintains he won’t be giving up following his beloved Down team across the country in search of another Sam Maguire Cup.
“I’m trying to finish my PhD at the School of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast but my summer months are usually shaped by weekends spent on the road as the fortunes of the county have risen quite considerably once again in recent years.
“When I have time I enjoy spending time with friends and family at my favourite restaurant, Mourne Seafood, or between Kelly’s or Madden’s bars.
Our youngest public representative, Megan Fearon, ends on this note:
“I’m aware that some aspects of my life will change with this new public profile but I didn’t go into this with my eyes closed and any changes have been anticipated. I have interests outside politics and I’ll try to keep them up so I have a healthy balance. I really enjoy travelling and learning about other cultures. I love reading to relax but also walking, which suits perfectly since I live beside the beautiful Slieve Gullion.”
The wealth of young talent Sinn Féin is cultivating promises a thriving, party that regenerates itself with new thinking and new energy. Sinn Féin is committed to giving all of the young people within the party the opportunities to develop and flourish – it’s up to us now.