“If you’re from the north you should be able to vote”

Ogra Sinn Fein chairman Eamon McGinley.  (0710JB65)
Ogra Sinn Fein chairman Eamon McGinley. (0710JB65)

Sunday Journal Reporter Andrew Quinn met with members of Derry Ógra Shinn Féin to find out how they have been getting involved in Martin McGuinness’s bid to become the next President of Ireland and to ask them why they think Irish passport holders living in the North should be allowed to vote.

Ronan McDonald wants to vote for Martin McGuinness to become the next President of Ireland but he can’t.

Ronan is 19 years-old and is an Irish passport holder but because his address is in the North of Ireland he’s not eligible to cast his vote on October 27.

“It’s something that I am very passionate about and I would hope that through campaigning that we would be able to see some sort of an amendment in the near future,” says Ronan.

Politics is something that Ronan is passionate about. As a former head boy at St. Joseph’s Boys’ School he helped to organise a hustings event ahead of the 2010 Westminster General Election. He’s since completed his A-levels and is now studying International Politics and Irish History at Magee.

“I spoke with Martina Anderson [Sinn Fein MLA for Foyle] at the hustings event last year and she told me about Ógra Shinn Féin. I contacted the group the very next day and I have been involved with it ever since.

“It’s perhaps one of the best decisions I ever made because you get a real sense that your voice is being heard here - people listen to us when we speak,” says Ronan.

“The reason Sinn Fein appeals to me so much is because I see it as a grass roots political party. There’s a willingness to listen and there’s a real belief in putting the community first - that’s something that I really respect and admire.”

Ógra Shinn Féin began life as Toirse, a Youth Group associated with Sinn Fein four years ago. After a while the group became affiliated with the party and now boasts at least 25 active members.

“We are involved in a variety of political campaigns, protests and issues,” explains 22 year-old Adrian Kelly. “But in recent weeks we have been heavily involved with the ‘One Passport One Vote’ campaign. We are determined to secure the vote for Irish citizens living in the North.

“We have drawn up a petition and we are aiming to get 1000 people to sign it and then we will deliver it to the Irish Government in Dublin. We’ll suggest that they listen to what we are saying and try to convey to them just how important it is that Irish people living in the North are able to register their vote in an Irish Presidential election.

“Mary McAleese is from the North and Martin McGuinness is from Derry. If you can be from the North and put yourself forward to become the next President of Ireland then surely if you’re from the North you should be able to vote too.”

Adrian, who is studying for a degree in Community Youth Work at Magee, is a the oldest member of Ógra Shinn Féin and his younger peers refer to him as the “granda of the group”. Adrian’s 18 year-old brother David is also a member.

In recent months the group have been involved in protests over the government’s decision to scrap Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), the Not Another Ravaged Community [NARC] campaign and locally they help raise awareness on issues such as suicide, drug and alcohol abuse.

The group meet on a regular basis in the Sinn Fein offices in the Rathmore Business Park. As well as addressing contemporary issues they are also involved in commemoration services to mark the 1916 Easter Rising and the 1981 Hunger Strikes.

“I think it’s important for us to be retrospective as well as forward thinking,” says Adrian. “The history of what our country has experienced is very important to us as is the issues affecting us now such as EMA and our ‘One Passport One Vote’ campaign.”

Eighteen year-old Eamon McGinley is from Creggan and is the chairman of the group. Although in his new post a couple of months he has addressed hundreds of people at the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Hunger Strikes and is also the point of contact for every member in the group.

“My father and my brother are republican activists and when I was at an Easter Rising commemoration march two years ago I heard about Ógra Shinn Féin and decided to come along to a few meetings. I’ve met some amazing people since joining and I am really enjoying the challenge that being chairman brings.

“There many other groups like ours throughout Ireland so it’s up to me to make sure that everyone inside and outside of our group is kept informed and up-to-date.”

Eamon explained that the reason that Sinn Fein appealed to his way of thinking so much was because they advocated equality.

“Whether you’re out canvassing on the streets of Derry or you’re Martin McGuinness or Gerry Adams, everyone is the same within the framework of the party.

“That’s the aspect of Sinn Fein that really appealed to me. There’s no room for egos within the party. There’s none of this out for one’s self instead everything that happens within the party is for the best of the party.”

Even if their ‘One Passport One Vote’ campaign is successful there are many members in the group who would still be unable to vote because they are under the legal age of 18.

“That’s another issue that we want to tackle,” states Adrian. “All you have to do is look at the people around this table to see how passionate they are. We would like to see the age lowered from 18 to 16.

“The myth that young people are not interested in voting is exactly that - a myth. Ógra Shinn Féin take an active part in their communities and whether it’s trying to reform the way we vote or how our old people are serviced within the community Ógra Shinn Féin members are always there at the heart of the issue.”

Politics was always something that interested 16 year-old St. Columb’s College student Ryan McGilloway. It was during the local elections this year that he decided to join Ógra Shinn Féin.

“My parents were out at the time and a knock came to the door. I answered and it was Adrian [Kelly]. He told me what the party was doing and explained to me where they stood on issues affecting young people.

“I was always interested in politics but when I heard what Adrian had to say I knew that Ógra Shinn Féin was where I wanted to go.

“Adrian gave me his telephone number and I called him up the very next day and the rest is history.

“I’ve learnt a whole lot since joining Ógra Shinn Féin. We’ve been active in our campaign against the scrapping of EMA and as a protest over what’s happening in Palestine we also boycott Israeli goods.”

It’s fair to suggest that some of the Ógra Shinn Féin members could be the Derry City Councillors, Foyle MLAs or MP of tomorrow. Adrian believes that the party is in good hands.

“In 1998 Sinn Fein published its youth strategy,” says Adrian. This helped to form such groups as our own and the support we get from the top of the party is second to none.

“We have our own congress and our proposals are then taken to the Ard Fheis where they are eventually ratified.”

Ógra Shinn Féin hosted this year’s annual congress at the Gasyard Centre in the Brandywell. Martin McGuinness was the keynote speaker at the event.

“Martin [McGuinness] has always been very supportive of us,” says Eamon. “If he’s about he’s always asking us how we are getting on and if we ever need advice he’s always there to give it.

“We organised the annual congress at the Gasyard this year. Over 130 people took part in the event and we even brought groups from the Basque and Catalan regions. They talked to us about their national identity and how they see things going forward.

“Martin McGuinness spoke at the congress. It was a big success and hopefully we can pay him back by driving forward the ‘One Passport One Vote’ campaign.”

Asked if they think Martin McGuinness can become the next President of Ireland almost every face smiles and then Adrian says “Why not?.”

“I think that the people of Ireland will respect Martin for his stance on the economy. They know that the country’s economy was badly affected by greedy people and I think that the fact that Martin will continue to draw his average industrial wage will appeal to many people.

“Every time I turn on the radio or the television I hear people talking about his [Martin McGuinness’s] past. No one seems to want to spend as much time talking about how he, along with a few others, helped to bring peace to this part of Ireland.

“I think many in this room would see him as an inspiration and it would be such a significant moment in Irish history if he was to be become the next President of Ireland.

“I also think that he’d have no problem in living up to his title as the People’s President. We’ll all have our fingers crossed on October 27.”

For further information or to join Ógra Shinn Féin contact the Sinn Fein office by telephone on 028 71 377 551.