Lowering the age won't mean all-night raves in the áras
Published 18/05/2015 | 02:30
Here's a cast-iron prediction for Friday's referendum: it will be beaten by a tonne. No, not the same-sex marriage vote. The other referendum that nobody is talking about: the prospect of lowering the qualification age to stand for President from 35 years to 21.
Many people do not even know this referendum is happening. The few that have bothered to comment about it have been at best patronising and at worst insulting towards young people.
Nobody is entirely sure why this referendum proposition is being aired at all. There's a rumour at Leinster House that it's about combating "Donegal syndrome" in the one the Government really want passed, the marriage referendum.
I deal with that in point number 10 below. There's nothing to stop you cutting straight to that one at the end. Or you could spare a few more minutes and scoot through 10 good reasons to say 'Yes' to allowing people over 21 to stand for office as titular head of state.
1. The existing age-limit is totally arbitrary. It dates from 1937 in a document, Bunreacht na hÉireann, mainly shaped by a man, Éamon de Valera, historians agree was a Victorian in outlook. Eighteen, or at most 21, is the age at which most people qualify for all sorts of 'adult' things in life. What is so utterly different to standing for President of Ireland? What is the benefit of extending the age-limit to 35?
2. We have allowed our politics get old almost unbeknownst to ourselves. Only seven of the 166 TDs are under 35 and just one is under 30. When the current Dáil first met in March 2011, the average age was 48.5 years, compared to 50.4 years for the previous Dáil elected in 2007. It was the first time since 1982 that the average age had dropped, and the change was only marginal.
3. It was not always like that. In the 1960s and 1970s when the founding generation were finally bowing out of Irish public life, many young people got a start. The late Seamus Brennan was secretary general of Fianna Fáil at age 25; the future Tánaiste Mary Harney was in the Seanad aged 24; future Taoiseach John Bruton was a TD aged 22.
4. We are only talking about the right to stand for the office. It is quite likely that it is a job, the few but crucial powers of which it has, that requires considerable political and life experience. It would appear unlikely that a 20-something would have this experience. But you cannot totally rule that idea out. It is not unthinkable that a 30-something would have them.
5. The bulk of the founding fathers of this Irish State would have been debarred from standing for the job of Uachtarán na hÉireann.
Michael Collins would have been deemed too young even as he headed for Béal na mBláth.
In fact, Jesus Christ, the man still drawing crowds every Sunday across the nation, would not have qualified to stand for office as President.
6. It is true that most of our young people should be touring the world and, one way or another, getting stuck in some questionable activity. Some form of dissolute behaviour would not be out of the question. It's called "getting experience of life" and covers a multitude. But it is not entirely mandatory to get up to such things either. And, are we seriously suggesting that this sort of carry-on should go on for 14 years? If it did, would we suddenly expect it all to stop at age 35?
7. True, allowing somebody aged 21 to 35 present at the hustings as a potential President, would not suddenly "youthen" the Irish body politic. We definitely need other initiatives to re-engage younger people with Irish public life. But peremptorily shooting down this proposition based on some sort of reflexive boorishness is entirely the wrong message to send to young people about politics and public life. It says that we do not trust young people.
8. Ageism takes many forms. In 2011, Michael D Higgins took on and saw off the ageists who said he was too old for the job at the then age of 70 years. The energy and commitment President Higgins has brought to the job since then speaks for itself. Let's not waste time on long-winded arguments here. Just apply the corollary of all that in your approach to considering lowering the age of qualification to stand for office. In summary, if Michael D was young enough - then a 20-something could well be old enough to at least stand for the job.
9. Above all, remember it's an age-limit - not an age-target. Just as an 80kmh speed limit does not oblige any motorist to hit 80 on a winding country road, neither does the 21-year age-limit oblige us to commit to opening áras an Uachtaráin to all-night raves. Voters will choose from the presidential candidates as per usual, basing their choice on a variety of grounds. Most of us will vote for the man or woman we think will do the best job, age perception will be one factor in the mix. Some under 35s I know would be in bed before Michael D.
10. As we noted at the start, none of us really knows why we are being asked to vote on this in a referendum. The Government has not advocated for it, against it, or in any other way.
Lovers of conspiracy theories - some of them advocating a 'No' to gay marriage - think it was a make-weight to satisfy Donegal people and some others' recurring and apparently uncontrollable urge to vote 'No' on any given referendum day. Conspiracists in my experience are usually, though not always, wrong because politics is far too messy for such slick plans.
But no matter. The sky will not fall whichever way this one pans out. All the better to astound and confound the authorities with a 'Yes' to this proposition on Friday.