Give the young a kick up the Aras
Tinkering with tradition simply shows how little we really care about the office of the presidency, says Eilis O'Hanlon
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
This is the referendum which will define how the outside world sees Ireland.These are words that absolutely no one in his or her right mind has said about the upcoming vote to lower the age at which a person can stand for the presidency from 35 to 21, to be held in tandem with the same-sex marriage referendum later this month.
In fact, of all the constitutional referendums which have been held in recent decades, this surely is the least interesting. It makes the one on judges' remuneration look positively earth-shattering in comparison. Accepted or rejected, it makes no difference to anything. No one will be upset by the result. It's not going to ruin anyone's day, let alone split families. It barely even comes up in conversation.
The only thing more difficult right now than finding anyone who can be bothered discussing this matter is finding anyone who, having been forced into discussing it, has a particularly strong opinion on it one way or another.
Some have valiantly tried. Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, opposing the change in the Irish Times a while ago, questioned whether 20-somethings would be capable of the "exercise of a wise discretion" which De Valera deemed necessary for the position. Theresa Reidy, a lecturer in UCC's Department of Government, pointed out in reply that there was no "scientific" evidence to suggest thirtysomethings were more mature than their younger counterparts.
None of the arguments was particularly convincing, but at least they gave it a go.
Colum Kenny from DCU's School of Communications probably made the best case for rejecting the amendment, when pointing out that one of the commonest mistakes made by politicians is to mess with things they don't understand and whose consequences are unforeseeable.
Last week's election in the UK is a case in point. Far from being a harmless sop to separatists which would shut up pesky nationalists for a generation, the Scottish independence referendum has turned out to have far-reaching effects on British politics.
It's hard to imagine what catastrophe might beset the country if 21-year-olds were permitted to become president, as they are in some of those other funky, up-to-date countries that have opened the door to younger candidates. Like, you know, Iran.
Jedward standing on a joint ticket, perhaps?
Even then, we should probably have enough faith in Irish voters to do the right thing.
What's insulting is for the Government to pretend that this is a matter that requires people's immediate attention. Of all the issues facing the country, this is the one people get to vote on? This is the great promise of radical reform?
When asked recently why there couldn't be a referendum on, say, repealing the Eighth Amendment, given that so many of those it affects are too young to have had a chance to vote on it before, Health Minister Leo Varadkar recently declared that it wasn't possible to do so because the Coalition did not have an electoral mandate to propose such a change.
Where is the electoral mandate to fiddle with the presidency? It wasn't even mentioned in any of the parties' manifestos before the last election, and the Constitutional Convention was split right down the middle on the issue, with half of the 100 delegates voting in favour, 47 against and three indicating that they did not know. As a result, a recommendation to reduce the age of eligibility for prospective presidents did make it into the final report, but it's not as if there was any great groundswell for action, and it's doubtful that anyone would have been bothered if the proposal had been quietly filed away in a drawer marked "Seriously, Lads, Who Cares?"
Since there is such little interest in the age of presidential candidates, the suspicion must be that this is the point. Offer cosmetic change, then hope the people are dumb enough to fall for it. If not, blame them when everything subsequently stays the same, as the Government petulantly did after the vote to abolish the Seanad was defeated.
This willingness to tinker with the presidency is proof that it's an institution which ultimately doesn't matter a whit, for all the faux respect which is paid to the office. Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese were almost too successful for their own good in that respect. They made the Aras seem like a stage for grand, feelgood gestures; a blank screen on which the self-congratulatory fantasies of a nation can be projected.
Given a chance to vote for a one-legged Guatemalan lesbian with dyslexia, we'd do it, simply because we'd like how it made us feel. Look at us, world. See how funky and inclusive we are. Do you, we could ask other countries, have a one-legged lesbian as your head of State? Didn't think so. That means we win.
The problem with politics as a profession is that it attracts people who like telling others what to do, and they're the very last ones who should be allowed or encouraged to do it. But at least those who enter that world get to make decisions, even if they are usually the wrong ones.
The presidency, by contrast, is more about status and ego. Presidents have no real power. They're figureheads. Why any 21-year-old would want that sort of life is baffling. What attraction can there be for anyone with energy to enter that world of dusty ritual? They should be out on the town, letting down their hair while they still have some, not stuck out in the Phoenix Park at another banquet, making dull small talk with foreign dignitaries.
A person's 20s are not the time for "wise discretion", but for foolish indiscretion. Indeed, that shouldn't simply be young people's right, but their duty as well. They're setting an example that the even younger can aspire to emulate, and the older can look back on wistfully.
They don't need the presidency. So much of contemporary culture is dedicated to the worship of youth, it's only fair that some things should be kept back as a privilege of advancing years. A mid-point somewhere in the 30s, which is on a par with most other countries, isn't so long to wait. The minimum age for a president is 40 in Germany and Estonia; in Italy, it's 50.
In fact, the Italians might well have got this one right. Reduce the age of candidates? Far better to raise it. Leave this office to the 50- and 60-somethings. They'll appreciate it better. It would be one small corrective to Irish society's appalling ageism.
It's called "deferred gratification", kids. Get over it.
Changing the Constitution right now would certainly be a slap in the face to the current President. No sooner do we elect the oldest candidate in the field at the last election than we pass a referendum effectively hoping that his successor will be someone who can beat him in a 100-yard dash. Michael D Higgins's generation probably shouldn't take that personally as an insult, but it wouldn't be unreasonable if they did.
There's a referendum to allow whippersnappers become president, but many in Ireland are still badgered into retiring when they reach a certain age. If lower limits are iniquitous, then so are upper ones. When do we get a vote on that?