Writes Ciaran Dineen,
While many students here in UCC and across the country must work part-time, if not full-time jobs to pay for college fees, accommodation and day to day living, not many are expected to pick up their phone and answer a call at any time in the day. It’s also unlikely that they face as much scrutiny and pressure to deliver a constant satisfactory service as one 19 year-old UCC student. There is simply no hiding when your entire legitimacy is based on the support and backing of the people that you share a community with. This is what Councillor Ben Dalton O’Sullivan will encounter for hopefully at least the next 5 years.
On the 26th May 2019, a teenager from a rural part of south Cork made national headlines by becoming the youngest elected Councillor in the country following the 2019 Local Elections. Ben Dalton O’Sullivan hails from Ballygarvan, a small village near Cork Airport and he spent much of his summer laying the foundations for 5 years of public service after being voted into Cork County Council (CCC) by the constituents in the Carrigaline Local Electoral Area. The 19 year-old is certainly studying a relevant degree for his occupation, having started his second year this September in the BSc Government degree. He is not the first student from the course to have been elected to this level of local government, but he is certainly the youngest. Despite his youth, Councillor Dalton O’Sullivan is already showing that he is more than capable of standing up for himself and most importantly for his electorate, proving that he is wise beyond his years.
All Politics is Local:
Although for many young people the thought of politics alone is enough to warrant a change of subject, it is something that runs through the veins of this young man, and a stint in representative politics was almost destined. “I’ve always loved politics”, Ben tells the University Express. “I think the first election I really got interested in was the 2011 Presidential Election because I was in 6th class and remember our teacher being really passionate about it. I went to the count and just loved the whole experience of boxes being opened and all the votes being counted, it was something that always stuck with me”, he continues.
While the glitz and glamour of national elections was a political catalyst for the Ballygarvaner, it’s a love for community that has driven him to where he is today. Sometimes the phrase, ‘All Politics Is Local’ is used in an almost jocular manner to describe some minor local government process, but alas there is nothing more serious for Ben, who places the interests of his locality at the core of his mindset. “I put myself forward for election because I felt that the people of Ballygarvan had been forgotten for a number of years and I wanted to change that”, Ben says, explaining his desire to seek election. “When you live in a small rural community you kind of know about everything that’s going on and you know what problems people encounter on a daily basis, because we’re more than likely all going to face those same issues. When I decided to put myself forward I just thought, ‘why not?’ The worst thing that was going to happen was that I didn’t get in so I really had no worries about going for it.”
Now the teenage Independent Councillor finds himself representing his parish on the county stage and a regular feature of his early motions has been to raise issues with obscure place names which require attention. While this brings the odd cordial smirk from fellow members and civil servants alike, this is the mantra for life as a County Councillor.
Finding The Balance – UCC vs CCC:
Certainly one of the biggest reflections Ben had to make before entering the election race was the impact that it would potentially have on his academic studies. While lecture hours in the Government degree aren’t exactly hefty, achieving a successful balance between the two roles was always going to be a difficult challenge to overcome. “It’s definitely something I had to take into strong consideration before making my mind up”, Ben explains. “I must admit that while I love the course I much rather the practical side of things and getting stuck into a situation and being on the ground. I have found myself to be under a little bit of pressure lately because we have a lot of meetings, particularly on a Monday, but so far I am managing and the lecturers are very understanding.”
While the position as Councillor is not paid as a full time job, the hours do not reflect this and Ben’s phone can ring at 7am or 11pm, with the caller expecting him to answer it. This alone brings its own pressure and from the outside looking in it seems like there is no escape from it all and it’s not difficult to envisage a young person like Ben being consumed by it. Nevertheless the second year BSc Government student is coping well and finds that his studies are helping the process. “It’s definitely helped my work with Council. I think if you’re in politics you need to be proactive and be able to make connections to get things done but being able to hear and listen to some of the best lecturers in the country is also a great insight for me.”
A big part of the job for Ben is knowing where to go and who to speak to when a constituent raises an issue. This of course comes with experience but is a crucial feature of the role as it can speed up the response process significantly. Understanding the system of hierarchy in Cork County Council and approaching the right person for the specific issue is vital. This itself takes a lot of energy and input but the reward in return is worth it. “In this job you simply have to love what you do”, Ben tells the Express. “Ask any Councillor who has been here for many years and they will say the same because you can’t be here just to be here for the sake of it, you really would want to enjoy putting 100% of yourself into it,” he continues.
Three Days in May:
When Ben woke up on Friday 24th May he had done all he could in attempting to seek the votes of the hundreds and perhaps thousands of people that he encountered in the build up to polling day. He had done what many people our age would find terrifying, actually knocking on doors and speaking with strangers face-to-face. In hindsight his campaign strategy was perfect, and Ben found that being as open and honest with people on the doors was the best policy. “Going to areas where you aren’t known is difficult but I was just very honest with people and said, ‘look I know I’m very very new but I want to work and put in the hard effort for 5 years’, and that message seemed to pay off for me.”
In the final days leading up to May 24th, Ben had a good feeling for his chances and believed that he had done enough to be one of the six candidates that would be elected. “When I went into my old primary school to vote at 12pm I asked what turnout was like and it was only 30%, but I went back at 10pm and it was up to 68%. I knew then that I had a really good chance because it was one of the highest turnouts around.” All of the graft and hard work was rewarded in front of his eyes when the UCC student went to the tally centre in Mallow the day after the votes had taken place. Here he was able to get a great inkling into how he had been perceived by the voters. “I remember arriving a bit late and the Ballygarvan boxes had already been opened but then I just saw piles and piles of papers with Dalton O’Sullivan 1’s everywhere, and there weren’t even preferences in some of them, just Dalton O’Sullivan and nothing else”, Ben recalls with delight. “To hear my name being called out constantly in the background was just the proudest moment of my life.”
Coming away from Mallow, Ben had a great feeling over how the process would unfold but ultimately the votes had not yet been officially counted. It was a long and drawn-out procedure and the then election candidate had to make his way back to County Hall, where the votes were being counted, on Sunday morning to discover his fate. It proved to be a journey well made and the teenager was deemed elected to the Carrigaline LEA after all other candidates had been eliminated. It was a moment of pure joy for Ben and his family who were there to celebrate with him, as he became the youngest Councillor in the country.
The Work Has Just Begun:
While being elected was an enormous thing to achieve, Councillor Dalton O’Sullivan must now live up to the hype and reputation by being the representative that his electorate voted for. He is only five months into the job but there is certainly no easing-in process and it’s been a case of, out of the campaign fire, into the Council frying pan, for the teenager. Already he has received some heckling from other members of the chamber during full council meetings, where Ben sits alongside some of the most experienced and tested Councillors in the land. However, this is just the beginning of a five year cycle and no one would be surprised if the name Ben Dalton O’Sullivan sticks around for many more years to come!