“‘It’s not very complicated’ – How Sinn Féin captured the young vote”, Irish Examiner

By Liz Dunphy, Dublin, February 9, 2020

Rousing renditions of ‘Happy Birthday’ boomed through the cavernous count centre hall for the first TD elected to the 33rd Dáil who turned 31.

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Sinn Féin’s bright young hope, beamed as his cheering supporters hoisted him aboard their shoulders like a rock star after securing 14,057 votes in Cork South Central.

The fresh-faced TD beat the Tánaiste Simon Coveney, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson Micheal McGrath (who topped the poll in 2016) to the first seat.

And Mr Ó Laoghaire believes that galvanising those oft elusive youth votes need not be difficult – it just involves recognising your electorates’ needs and delivering them via your policy platform.

“It’s not very complicated,” he said.

“There’s a whole generation of people out there who feel locked out of the possibility of ever having their own home.

“For people waiting 10 years on a housing list, they may not qualify for social housing but the prospect of getting a mortgage is completely out of reach for them.


There has been a complete failure of the political establishment to give people the most basic of needs – that was the key issue for them.

“And I think that our policies, our vision for housing, our ambition for housing has clearly connected with young people.” The most recent MRBI exit poll, found that Sinn Féin’s support polled highest among 18-34-year-olds.

Sinn Féin won 31.8% support in the 18 – 24-year-old age group compared to Fine Gael’s 15.5%, the Green Party’s 14.4% and Fianna Fáil’s 13.6%.

Sinn Féin also topped the poll among 25 – 34-year-olds with 31.7%, Fine Gael had 17.3% and Fianna Fáil had 15.2%.

In fact, Sinn Féin was the most popular party among every age group up to 65.

Mr Ó Laoghaire said that the poll indicates that their policies connect with the Irish electorate across the board.

Liz Dunphy: 'It’s not very complicated' - How Sinn Féin captured the young vote

“I would say that the exit poll suggests that we have support across a broad range of age categories and I would say that as a whole, this sends a message to the political establishment that the old style of politics is no longer satisfactory to well over half the electorate and that there is a need now for significant change.

“When they heard Mary Lou, Eoin Ó Broin, Pearse Doherty and many others outlining Sinn Fein’s vision for them to be able to have their own home, to be able to have quality healthcare, affordable childcare, I think that registered with people and people gave us their support.”

Sinn Féin may be the story of this election, returning its best performance in Cork since 1920, topping the poll in both city constituencies, but it did not run enough candidates to really translate its unexpected popularity surge into seats.

And despite the shift away from the binary voter allegiances to Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael still topped the exit poll – just – with 22.4% compared to Sinn Féin’s 22.3% and Fianna Fáil’s 22.2%.

Leo Varadkar, the youngest Taoiseach ever in the State who took office at 38 – was flanked in government by other young TDs including European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee 33, Health Minister Simon Harris, 33, and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy, 37, who recently found renting a home in Dublin a challenge himself.

Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar as he arrives for the the Irish General Election count at Phibblestown Community Centre in Dublin. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Fine Gael leader Leo Varadkar as he arrives for the the Irish General Election count at Phibblestown Community Centre in Dublin. Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Varadkar’s government introduced some major constitutional changes that proved popular with young voters, liberating our society from the rusting shackles of a Theocratic past.

It was a leader in Europe introducing same-sex marriage and finally caught up with the continent when it introduced abortion rights.

But Fine Gael’s campaign, which focused mostly on Brexit and its fiscal responsibility, failed to fully resonate with young people struggling to find a place to live, pay for childcare or access adequate health care.

When people were asked in the exit poll which issue was most important to them when deciding how to vote, only 1% mentioned Brexit while 32% said health, 26% said housing/homelessness, 8% said the pension age, 6% said climate change and 6% said jobs.

The Green Wave looked set to return seats in Dublin but struggled in much of the country, despite the party’s youth appeal.

Lorna Bogue, 28, Green Party councillor in Cork South Central who contested the general election said that no one party was responsible for galvanising the youth vote.

“I don’t think anyone party can take credit for the youth surge.

“The Union of Students and an organisation called Cork Votes drove the youth vote in Cork. And Fridays for Future have organised themselves around the elections. So the youth are really driving this themselves.

“And whether they’re voting Green, Sinn Féin, Social Democrat, Labour or PBP, they’re all voting left and they’re voting for change.

“All the issues at the forefront of this election are issues that really affect young people.


I’m 28 and I’ll never afford a mortgage, I’m renting in Cork facing the constant danger of eviction. Housing is a real issue.

“Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are not appealing to the under-35s and that’s a problem for them.”

Ms Bogue said that Sinn Féin’s surge in the polls is partly due to a higher turnout than at the local elections. She said that the green vote has actually held stable since the last election – not declined as the Sinn Féin surge may suggest.

Sinead Halpin, 36, of the Social Democrats, believes that the voting age should be lowered to 16 and an electoral commission should be a priority for the next Dáil to mobilise the youth vote.

She said that the gap between CSO figures for those over 18 in her constituency and those on the electoral register is sizeable and she wants to change that.

“We need to make voting more accessible,” she said.

“There are extremely strict rules around postal votes and absentee voting – that needs to be looked at in far more detail.

“We were waiting on a report before the dissolution of this Dáil – the third report on an electoral commission in 20 years – which was not acted on.

“Setting up an electoral commission should be a priority for the new Dáil – to get it sorted and over the line – because our register is all over the place. People don’t know whether they’re registered or not, and some people are registered in a number of places. Some councils are better at managing it than others so there’s no consistency there.”

Ms Halpin said that a focus for her this year will be helping more young people in her constituency register to vote.

“When you look at the number of people who turn 18 and how many registered voters there are in the area there’s often a huge gap especially in some parts of my constituency like Guarranabraher and Hollyhill. So I’ll be standing outside SuperValu with loads of forms encouraging people to register this year,” she said.

“Some people use the phrase ‘I’m not into politics.’ But politics is everything around you.

“When you can’t find somewhere to live, or you can’t get affordable childcare, or find suitable schools for your children, then you realise that that is politics.” “It’s not just a problem that’s a standalone issue but a national issue driven by active engagement – or by a lack of active engagement.”

Irish Examiner