In an interview with the College Tribune, drugstore Senator Jimmy Harte has expressed concern over the state of student political activism and awareness.
Reiterating remarks he made on Highland Radio earlier last week, healing the Labour Senator told the Tribune that students “seem to have gone off the radar” in the last decade as an active political force.
“The true student protest has been dying, rx ” commented the Senator. “Students supply the leaders of the future, so they should be making a stand about wider issues now. They have the power to challenge the establishment, but this does not seem to be happening.”
Senator Harte, who was a student in UCD in the late 1970s, noted the recent student protest against fees and said he was delighted that students had found a voice. He added, however, that the fact that the only major student protest in recent years has been over student fees shows that students’ political awareness has become “narrow” and “one-dimensional.”
Recalling the 1960s, when students made a stand for the preservation of Dublin’s Georgian buildings, the Senator remarked “real protest is when you stand up for your views. Students shouldn’t just be protesting against fees.”
Asked if he thought our protest would be more legitimate if we took a stand for issues other than our own wallet, the Senator said that he did think so.
In response to the Senator’s view of student political awareness and activism, the College Tribune decided to run a poll on these issues.
The poll of 200 UCD students revealed that 65% of respondents believe that they are not politically aware and 37% know who their local TD is.
Only 22% were able to list any major discussions over political or economic issues that have occurred in the Dáil in the last few months, while only 6% said that they were a member of a politically active group.
Asked if they had done anything in 2011, besides the student protest, that they would describe as “taking a political stand,” 92% said No.
Some respondents were asked what they thought of Senator Harte’s comments.
“That’s ridiculous,” replied one 3rd year. “What’s wrong with us taking a stand to protect our wallet?”
“I don’t think its very fair of him to say that,” offered 4th year Laura McCarthy. “Its not like we aren’t aware just because we aren’t protesting. Most of us just don’t have the time and sure what difference does it make?”
The attitude that protest is futile was described by one student activist, Tom Murray, as something that needs to be challenged. Tom, a Ph.D student who was highly involved in the Students Against War campaign over the last two years, believes that the media is partly to blame.
“I think there is a general lack of a sense that something can be done about things. This is repeatedly trotted out in the media and financial reporting, that there is just no alternative to more of the same neoliberal policies that caused the crisis.”
Tom was one of a group of 15-20 active members of the Students Against War campaign. The group spent two years trying to get the campaign recognised as a student society. Society status would have allowed the campaign funds, rooms and postering privileges. Instead, for two years the group funded themselves from their own pockets.
Tom believes that the restriction of society status is a major institutional reason why there is so little student activism visible on campus and that the current moratorium on societies is something that needs to be campaigned against.
Other reasons that were offered by students as to the reasons why activism and awareness might be low centred around the nature of politics itself. The sentiment was frequently expressed that politics is either too difficult or uninteresting to follow.
The question could be raised about what this means for the future of Irish politics. Senator Harte recalled student generations of the past that produced the major political figures of today. Student activism was always a source of burgeoning young politicians, as the student body is a “well educated group, representative of many different backgrounds,” according to Senator Harte.
Jack Doherty, a 2nd year student of Medicine, disagreed with the idea that low student activism is a serious problem for Irish society.
“Politics is an interest, just like football or a type of music. If its your job fine take it seriously. But why is it a national problem that I’m not interested in who my TD is?”
Whether or not the change would mark an improvement for society, Tom Murray believes that a change in student attitudes to politics can happen by people getting active. He pointed out that the success of well-attended Students Against War meetings on the Arab Spring and Wikileaks shows that students participate when there is a forum.
“I don’t think its worth focusing on apathy…This attitude can be challenged by getting involved in campaigns such as boycotting the household charge. This is about challenging austerity, challenging neoliberalism and deciding what kind of future we want to have.”
In a closing remark, Senator Harte stated that “students are a force if they want to be.”