Wednesday 28 September 2016

A 21-year-old president wouldn't be a child emperor

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

Mary Robinson and PAul Newman
Mary Robinson and PAul Newman

As the referendum on reducing the presidential age of eligibility from 35 to 21 gets ever closer, it's fast becoming one of the stalwart 'debates headed for a fight' at my local pub, where, I can assure you, there's no shortage of opinion.

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The obvious arguments against lowering the age are that a person so young lacks the experience to occupy such an important role and, that it could be the start of a very slippery slope leading to terrifying thoughts of teenage presidents. However, I find myself squarely on the opposite side of this debate. Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne at just 25 and has spent a lifetime admirably representing her country. Personally, I find the notion of young, fresh leadership intriguing.

Some have attacked the referendum as pandering to the youth at the expense of the presidency. I don't see it that way. Today's youth has grown up with stories of the woeful state of affairs pre-Celtic Tiger, and has spent the better part of the last decade watching the economy collapse. It's left them jaded and disenchanted with any notion of politics. Today's youth aren't interested in voting for their daddy's generation of leaders, who have already let them down, they want someone who has the pulse of the new generation, someone who'll make them listen again.

For that matter, I wouldn't mind seeing a hip young Pope, with white Nikes to match the hat, weigh in on issues like same-sex marriage or contraception for today's generation of Catholics - though Pope Francis may be a real step in that direction. Imagine for a moment, if you will, a 21-year-old Irish president in Aras an Uachtarain. Though they might take a less formal approach to affairs, with the more stuffy traditions and ceremonies possibly heading for the scrap heap, it's highly unlikely, having garnered enough respect and votes to get into office, that they would behave without some sense of decorum. They wouldn't be a child emperor, as in China or a hereditary dictator, as in North Korea, leaving nations in fear of their whims.

Our 21-year-old president would be an elected official, chosen by the people; young and old alike, who would be in touch with the youth of today. They may not have the 'experience' of an older candidate, but by that very same token they don't have the obligations and associations that collect over a lengthy political career, nor has their idealism been ground away yet.

Perhaps the word 'idealism' throws up red flags for you, but when you look at someone like JFK, who was the youngest person elected to office in US history, idealism seems less like a dirty word. Beyond being young, vibrant and charismatic, Kennedy was pro-civil rights, oversaw an economic boom and was the first to announce the US mission to put a man on the moon. He was forward thinking and had the people behind him and, despite his idealism and supposed inexperience, he held strong in the Cuban missile crisis under enormous pressure. Kennedy was beloved because he was a president who was in touch with the upcoming generation.

Simply put, if a candidate is totally unsuitable for the position, then don't vote for them. But, to say that an educated, competent, 21-year-old adult can't run for the position based solely on age is discrimination. The presidency should be held by the candidate most qualified for the job.

Sunday Independent

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