Ben Fraser’s first vote in an Irish general election may also be his last for a long while. Like many of his contemporaries, the 18-year-old student is seriously considering joining an exodus that is gathering pace as the recession deepens.
Up to 50,000 Irish citizens could leave the country this year, which would be the biggest wave of emigration since the last great exodus in the unemployment-blighted 1980s.
But while that mass desertion involved labourers and construction workers, this time it is professionals and graduates who are leaving.
“Anyone you meet who has been considering doing a college course knows there is a mood around, a real feeling that our best, our only option is to go away,” said Fraser, who is studying business and economics at Trinity College, Dublin.
He said most of his friends were already pondering about the emigration boat or plane.
“There is an atmosphere at college hanging over people,” he added. “It is all about what we can sell to a foreign labour market, not a home one.”
Emigration is an emotive issue in Ireland. The 1980s wave is still etched deep in the national psyche, the loss of an entire generation to economic blight.
After national holidays, standard TV footage would depict tearful airport farewells, the outwardly visible sign of a traumatic mass departure that cut through families and communities.
Dylan Haskins thinks there are votes in the issue. A student who looks like the Jedward twins, he is running for the Dublin South East constituency in Friday’s election, promising a raft of measures to support young people.
Haskins has deployed social networking sites and an imaginative campaign film, using cartoon-style graphics, in his battle to get into the Dáil.
He has also won the support of prominent people from both the left and right in Irish politics. The 23-year-old is backed by the leftwing social entrepreneur Mick Wallace and the centre-right economist David McWilliams.
“I can think of five people I know who, in the last few months alone, have left the country,” he said.
“For those still at college, their only safety net is the knowledge that they can leave when they complete their studies. Who can blame them?
“What’s there for them in this country? If our generation are not given a role in rebuilding Ireland, we have no motivation to stay.”
He is against the current party system and has joined a record number of independents from across the political spectrum standing for election.
The fund, he said, will be one of his “non-negotiable” policies if his vote is required to prop up any party or coalition after 25 February.
“When I say I want more young people in government, I just don’t mean the politicians,” he said. “There should be a fast-track system in the civil service to quickly promote younger public servants into the running of the state. We need new blood right at the top.”
Petra Jordan, who is studying classical civilisation at Trinity, said most of her class planned to emigrate after graduation this summer. A friend of hers has just completed an architectural technology degree at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but has been unable to find work in Ireland.
Jordan, like her friend Inez Novacic – who was born in Belgrade but educated in Dublin – has her sights set on New York. Both have applied for the J1 visa, which would allow them to work legally in the US for a year.
Richard Morris, an engineering student at University College Dublin, said young engineers had no choice but to leave.
The 24-year-old, who is studying for a masters, said: “There is more than an 80% chance I will be working out of this country when I complete my studies in three months time.
“I have already applied for 50 jobs and have only received offers of interviews from abroad. I have one in Switzerland and another in England next month.
“I love this country. I had all the benefits from it. I have been eyeing up Irish companies but there are no jobs available at present. In my undergraduate class, there were 65 students and half of them are now unemployed.”
Haskins said he will “stay and fight” in the republic even after the election is over. But the majority of his young election workers who run online opinion polls, work on his website, put up posters and canvass the thousands of flats in the Dublin constituency are contemplating emigration.
“If we don’t turn this country around, we are in danger of losing a generation of young, talented people,” he said.