Throughout history, social and political change has been consistently driven by a new educated class of students who, through their studies and experiences, recognise the failures of the generation before them and set about making change.
A prime example of this is the student protests that swept the globe in 1968, that saw thousands of students taking to the streets to demand change.
That thirst for change didn’t stop with end of the 1960s. On a visit to China in 2018, I was fortunate to be able to make a visit to Tiananmen Square, the scene of the now infamous ‘Tank Man’ footage. While standing in the square I couldn’t help but think of the students who were probably the same age that I was and who had risked their lives just 29 years beforehand in 1989 in an attempt to gain democratic freedom.
I asked our tour guide about the protests as they hadn’t mentioned it while we were there. Twitching nervously as she glanced towards the heavily armed soldiers that are stationed around the square, she told me that while people are aware of what happened there, they don’t like to discuss it, bringing our conversation to a close.
It was in that moment that I reflected on the many students back in Ireland who had successfully campaigned to repeal the 8th Amendment to Bunreacht na hÉireann only a few weeks prior and their opponents on the pro-life side.
Standing in the middle of Beijing, I now realised the importance of democracy and our right to protest and debate. As something we have probably all taken for granted, I realised that not everyone has that luxury.
University campuses across Ireland and indeed across the globe are a hive of political activity. From political societies to Students Unions, students are continuing the legacy of the previous generations in bringing about change. I caught up with three students from across the Island of Ireland who have become politically engaged since starting uni.
Jade Smith is currently studying a master’s degree in public policy at Dublin City University. While she wasn’t politically engaged during her undergraduate degree, Jade took the decision to join Fine Gael as her masters geared her towards designing policy that could be of benefit to Irish society and she felt that as a party, Fine Gael reflected her attitudes and values.
She believes that students are becoming more politically engaged when they arrive at university. “I don’t think there has ever been a generation that has been more informed about politics and angrier about politics. Students now have an obligation to speak up about things that are wrong and to stand up to people,” she said.
“Ireland was such a traditional State and we were influenced heavily by the Catholic Church for so long and that stunted our growth a little bit in terms of recognising that there is a need for change in society, especially for women.”
While the two Civil War parties do not yet contest elections in the North, that hasn’t stopped some students from Northern Ireland joining them. Ruairí Cormican, from Lisburn, joined Fianna Fáil during his second year of study at Queens University in Belfast (QUB).
Speaking of why he chose to join Fianna Fáil, “when it came to the political landscape in the North, I didn’t think that there were any parties that aligned with my values. I view myself as a Republican and within the North it would be expected that I would align with Sinn Féin, although I don’t agree with many of their policies and in particular their economic policies,” said Ruairí.
At that time there was talk of Fianna Fáil possibly contesting the 2019 local elections in Northern Ireland but the party subsequently signed an agreement to work alongside the Social Democratic and Labour Party in the North and didn’t run candidates despite Sorcha McAnespy launching her election campaign under the party banner whilst they were still in discussions with the SDLP.
Since joining Fianna Faíl, Ruairí has also joined the SDLP and he advised students to think about their own values before rushing to join any particular party. “Take an overview of what your positions and values are and quiz the party representatives at the likes of the Freshers’ Fair.”
One such person who has followed that advice is Ciara Campbell. Like Ruairí, she studied at QUB. She joined the Alliance Party at the Freshers Fair and was subsequently selected to run as a candidate in the 2019 local elections. She told me, “university is a place where you are exposed to new ideas. You have people who join a political party, people who become involved in student politics through their students’ union and also people who become active through groups such as Extinction Rebellion or feminist groups.”
“The Repeal movement was a lightning rod. Many people, women in particular became involved with the Pro-Choice campaign but I also saw people from the Pro-Life side of the argument become engaged like they had never done so before and this was a positive in that it furthered the debate and strengthened democracy.”
Whilst most view politics through a party-political lens, it is clear that it is much more than that. From what we can see, it has been students at the forefront of driving socio-political change around the globe for decades and it will be students who continue this legacy for decades to come.