Two days before the deadline to register to vote, my eldest nephew took off his headphones and looked up from his pre-Leaving revision for a quick chat. He turned 18 last month, a clever, decent and clued-in young man, and I thought he’d be delighted to have his say in our democracy.
Not so much. He’d gone to the Garda Station but they were out of forms. No problem, I said, I’ll send you the links. He seemed less than enthused, so I said voting is a big deal for any Irish citizen. “Is it, though?” he asked. “I think I’d probably be better off concentrating on my exams.
“Anyway, who could I vote for? What relevance do they have to my life?”
I suggested education, healthcare, social protection and any number of other ways in which politics impacts directly upon the lives of young people, but I was crestfallen to see someone so bright disengaged from the workings of our political system.
He asked me how many candidates come to the job via – as he put it – “nepotism” and I replied, long-windedly, that while we tend to think of political dynasties as a uniquely Irish phenomenon, dynasties occur in every democracy and, anyway, parties select candidates they think most likely to get elected and it’s then up to the electorate who represents them. To be honest, I could see I wasn’t impressing him and – frankly – I wasn’t impressing myself either.
I asked him if he or his friends ever talk about politics and he said that – apart from last year’s Marriage Equality referendum – they tend to have more important things to think about.
“I mean,” he said, “You don’t go out with your friends and discuss politics, do you? Does anybody?”
Feeling very old, I avoided that question but asked whether he has any friends who are members of political parties. That earned the withering response “If they were, they wouldn’t be my friends”.
I asked whether any particular figure in politics strikes him as note-worthy. “No,” was his blunt response. “They’re all either embarrassments, like Wallace and Ming or else they’re like the worst kind of teacher imaginable. Teachers you’d laugh at. Like Enda.
“Why can’t we have proper leaders, like Obama? Instead, we get Enda. Look at him! Such a teacher!”
I pointed out that he actually gets on very well with his teachers and – as it happens – President Obama is a teacher himself, a professor of law.
Which I thought was a very clever point. “Whatever,” my nephew said a smile, “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but I’ve exams in the morning.” The headphones went back on.
This isn’t a “Why-Oh-Why?” about The Youth Of Today With Their Hair And The Music. I’m biased, but my nephew is a lovely young man. He’s a lot smarter than me and he’s someone in whose hands Ireland should be very safe. So why isn’t he exercised about this election? Why – if he’s right – do he and his contemporaries find politics so boring and irrelevant?
Are our kids failing our democracy or are we failing them?
I couldn’t help but think of my nephew last weekend, when I snuck into Enda Kenny’s dreary private address to the Fermoy FG faithful. It was an interminable yarn about all the American CEOs Enda has dazzled with Ireland’s recovery and his own homespun wisdom. He also terrorised Fermoy’s breathless Blueshirts with visions of the Sinn Fein/Fianna Fáil zombie apocalypse which will follow a hung Dáil.
“I want ye to go out there,” Enda told them. “Go out there and knock on the door *nok nok nok* and say ‘Mary or John or Paddy or whatever your name is, we can’t afford to lave the country down’. (Long pause.)
“Go raibh mile maith agaibh!!” (Rapturous applause.)
All I could think was “Like a muinteoir trying vainly to channel a revivalist preacher”.
(By way of a postscript, maybe my nephew is wrong. His cousin is eleven and thinks it’s the gravest injustice of all time that he has no say in how his country is run. I reckon at least one of them has the makings of a future Taoiseach.)
Originally published in The Evening Echo 23rd February 2016.