Comment & Analysis
Oct 24, 2018

Presidential Candidates Overlook Students at Their Peril

By disregarding students, Ireland's presidential candidates are ignoring a demographic that can transform Ireland, writes Tara Porter McEvoy.

Tara Porter McEvoyContributing Writer
Dominic McGrath for The University Times

There are countless examples from the history of student movements that have ignited conversations about vital causes, and fuelled campaigns so consequential they have touched the highest political offices in the world. Irish students, in the past year, have proven that young people can lead a campaign so strong it will push a vital referendum over the finish line to victory.

However, the six presidential candidates vying for election this month seem to have overlooked the work students have done. As October 26th approaches, the presidential hopefuls have ramped up their campaigning efforts with the intention of differentiating themselves from each other and gaining the support of the electorate. The mistake being made by all candidates, though, lies in their failure to recognise the untapped potential of the youth vote.

Kildare businessman Gavin Duffy is leading his campaign with the slogan “Ambitious for Ireland”. Duffy wants to create a “Youth Corps”, targeted at 18 to 25-year-olds who will enhance their CV’s by volunteering at home and abroad. This, however, is an activity that students already engage regularly in without the help of the President. Perhaps Duffy should delve deeper into the issues that haunt the minds of young adults today: for example, health, the housing crisis, college fees and other social issues, and adjust his campaign strategy accordingly.


Incumbent Michael D Higgins hopes to be “a president for us all”, intent on tackling climate change, Brexit and the housing crisis. However, the housing crisis has only worsened during Higgins’s tenure in the Áras. Higgins has highlighted the inhumane circumstances that confront thousands of Irish citizens every day and has urged the government to address the issue without delay. However, these measures fall short of what I expect of our President. Higgins does not hold executive powers and thus cannot engage in policymaking, but it is within his powers to mobilise the people and shed light on the hardships that permeate society. We need decisive action, not meaningless soundbites that are merely regurgitated in the daily news cycle and washed out at the hands of yet another sensationalised story.

Duffy should delve deeper into the issues that haunt the minds of young adults today and adjust his campaign strategy accordingly

Instead of composing lyrical speeches, Higgins should devote his efforts to facilitating attractive yet meaningful events in Phoenix Park in aid of the crisis. Higgins’s priorities do not seem to be in check with those of students, particularly in light of the recent Raise the Roof rally, which brought more than 3,000 students to the streets of Dublin in protest at the housing crisis. Higgins should have invested more energy in our students and fulfilled his campaign promise of empowering our youth. Although he introduced the Take Charge of Change initiative in 2012, which took the form of a 105-page document and several workshops, nothing has been done since then, and the initiative was never executed in a way that was accessible to its target audience – young people. Higgins, overall, needs to become more in touch with the ideals and anxieties of young people and communicate with students in a way that will reach them on a personal level.

Peter Casey, a businessman who emigrated in the 1980s, is returning home with his knowledge from abroad and hopes to reconnect the Irish diaspora, which he regards as Ireland’s “greatest but underutilised asset”. Casey believes he has the ability to unite the 70 million people whose heritage originates in Ireland and bring in the process huge economic benefits to the country. However, Casey’s fixation on the diaspora and the countless generations descended from Irish families shows a disheartening dismissal of the next generation of Irish students at home, an untapped resource sitting roundly ignored on the doorstep of the country he hopes to lead. We have the tenacity to steer this country in the direction of economic prosperity, guide our global partners into an era of enlightenment and spearhead the next wave of innovation. Casey, though, must realise that the students of Ireland, not its diaspora, are the magic bullet that can reinvigorate the country.

Higgins needs to become more in touch with the anxieties of young people and communicate with students in a way that will reach them on a personal level

Senator Joan Freeman, the founder of Pieta House, hopes to bring her work for mental and physical health to a national level. Liadh Ní Riada, Sinn Féin’s candidate, hopes to spark a conversation on Irish unity in light of Brexit negotiations and bring her experience from the European Parliament to the Áras. Sean Gallagher’s second attempt at winning the presidency is focused on “shaping our future together”.

None of these politicians seem particularly interested in the lot of students. Indeed, Gallagher and Freeman have in recent weeks spoken to members of Trinity Politics Society (Pol Soc), yet have failed to mention students in any of the subsequent presidential debates. It seems these candidates have failed to grasp the potential consequences on an election of the student vote. By disregarding students, there is an argument to be made that these candidates are shooting themselves in the foot, and it underscores a lack of respect from the candidates for the work carried out by thousands of students over decades.

It is a grave political miscalculation to exclude students and young people from the presidential narrative

The role of the Irish president is predominantly ceremonial and is primarily focused on representing Ireland overseas. Subsequently, many view the presidency as largely unimportant. This notion, however, is an erroneous one. The president has the platform and opportunity to motivate and inspire people, especially the students of today, who are in desperate need of a leader who doesn’t remind them of the cynicism and chaos of everyday politics.

Regardless of who wins, the presidency is in need of change and reform. For too long the role has languished voluntarily on the periphery of Irish politics. The Irish president has the resources at their disposal to focus their attention on young people and mobilise students to help solve the issues they are confronted with every day. In a country in which more than 33 per cent of the population is under 25 years of age, and in which thousands of students registered to vote in the last referendum, it is a grave political miscalculation to exclude this demographic from the presidential narrative. So far, in this respect, the six candidates are falling short of the mark.

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