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Referendum on president mocks real needs of young


President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D Higgins

President Michael D Higgins

Many young Irish people will vote Yes to gay marriage on the grounds of equality. But they ought to vote No in the other referendum on May 22, for the very same reason.

Those meant to be pleased at the prospect of running for president while under 35 are the very ones who have borne the brunt of the current recession. They are not obliged to accept gestures of reform.

There are 166 Dail deputies. Only seven of these are under 35. Just one is under 30. To see more younger people in politics, the parties need no referendum.

What matters a lot to young people are social and economic issues. They want jobs that offer secure employment, a liveable wage and defined hours. They need decent housing that they can afford to rent or buy. Health insurance and pensions ought not to be luxuries.

Allowing one person aged 21 to 35 to become president every seven years is such a minor reform compared with the pressing needs of young people that the proposal deserves to be rejected.

With senior ministers dodging debate on the second referendum, an opinion poll has suggested that it could be heavily defeated.

So why are even opposition politicians who backed the proposal lying low? Fianna Fail is still shamed by its betrayal of an entire generation. And Sinn Fein cannot shout loudly about the rights of young people, given its cover-up of child abuse by members of the IRA.

For their part, Fine Gael and Labour underestimated the ability of the Irish public to recognise a public relations gimmick when they see one. Caught out, the Government now seems to be walking away from the proposal. Referendum posters proclaim that political parties care about equality, but the fact remains that, throughout Irish society, glaring inequality is widespread. The young struggle especially hard, with many unlikely ever to enjoy the standard of living that their parents had.

Where is the equality in health services, education, housing and employment? Where is the political passion to create a new society out of the mess that the banks landed us in? What looks to some like a restoration project for Ireland's elites means permanent precariousness for the young.

Even the Constitutional Convention, an exercise in academic politics, had more to suggest than this.

The Convention wanted enhanced constitutional protection of economic and social rights. It proposed rights to housing, social security, essential healthcare and disability services, and it wanted these rights to be realised and justiciable. But there is no referendum on any of that.

And there is no referendum on votes for emigrants either. Many young people have gone during the recession. We deny them a say in the political life of the society that ejected them. Whether abroad by choice or necessity, they have valuable insights to bring to bear on Ireland, and that is exactly why politicians fear giving them a voice.

This referendum is a lost opportunity to let our Irish emigrants vote in future Irish elections, just as Americans who come here to run businesses have a vote in US elections. James Joyce once wrote that, "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow".

Even the terms of the second referendum itself fail the equality test, three times.

First, all citizens will not be equal when it comes to nominating a presidential candidate. Members of the Oireachtas and local councils alone retain that right.

Secondly, the change does not extend to voters aged 18 to 21. Any youth organisation that supports this referendum is making itself a patsy.

Thirdly, the proposal provides no new oath that a person elected president can take before entering into office. The present oath may be sworn conscientiously only by a believer in God. This suggests that inclusivity and equality are not the primary motivations in proposing the referendum on the president's age.

At present, there is no inequity in the provisions relating to voting for a president, and no pressing need for a change. Every citizen, from age 18 upwards, has an equal say in what candidate gets elected. No citizen under 35 may be nominated, and any citizen over 35 can be. Young voters as well as old can see the benefits of voting for a presidential candidate with experience, which is presumably why every person elected president so far in this State has actually been over 45.

The silence from politicians on the presidential referendum speaks volumes. This is what promises of political reform appear to have come to, with the reform of the Seanad having been botched.

Our expectations of real fundamental change in Irish society are so low that we just shrug when nobody cares to argue passionately that a change in the Constitution that they have proposed is worth the toss of an argument. "Take it or leave it" has been the contemptible attitude of political parties so far.

There has been no campaign on the age referendum, despite the fact that an early opinion poll in the Irish Times showed that even "a significant majority of the 24-35 age group intends to vote No".

The media, like politics, is dominated by older people and many are out of touch with the view from the bottom strata of this society. Media, too, often take their cue from what politicians say. Better to be like the Wall Street Journal when, during one US presidential election, it ran a lively series called "Absent Agenda" about issues that all candidates preferred to park.

The absence of campaigning may be a deliberate ploy by a Cabinet that has seen an attempted PR stroke go badly wrong. They are depriving the second referendum of the oxygen of publicity.

In 1966, Fianna Fail pressurised Eamon de Valera to stand for a second term as president, only to find that its sure bet was under threat from the candidacy of Fine Gael's Tom O'Higgins.

Charles Haughey and other party strategists then had Dev keep quiet, claiming that it would be inappropriate for an outgoing president to campaign. They successfully pressed RTE to deny O'Higgins much publicity, on the grounds that to allow him on air when Dev was silent would be unbalanced and unfair.

Today, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland makes clear that a refusal by one side to debate cannot prevent broadcasters from proceeding to cover stories. The media should pursue ministers and press them on the real needs of young people, and expose the second referendum for the gimmick that it is.

Sunday Independent