Give young people democratic power by giving them a vote

Give young people democratic power by giving them a vote
Protesters in Dublin joined young people around the world at climate change protests last Friday. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

I worry about Greta Thunberg too. Ryan Tubridy has been heavily criticised for expressing his concern for the mental wellbeing of the 16-year-old climate campaigner on his RTÉ One radio show, particularly as he mentioned she has Asperger’s Syndrome.

Asperger’s Syndrome — recently re-named High Functioning Autism — does frequently present with chronic anxiety.

The thing is, though, Greta Thunberg is right to be anxious about her future on this planet.

Perhaps she would be less angry with the rest of us if she fully understood that most of us are the product of an evolutionary process which has selected us for unreasoning optimism and limitless self-interest.

Thunberg is different and her difference is a gift to us all.

Unlike most of us, she has no rose-tinted glasses and she doesn’t sugar-coat. She does things like telling the world leaders at the UN Summit in New York on Monday that the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions we can emit if we want even a 67% chance of keeping the planet’s temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius will be emitted in the next eight-and-a-half years, at current emissions levels.

The other crucial difference she has, however, is her youth.

She feels it more than older people. Young people are more engaged with this issue than we oldies, and I include myself, someone who has volunteered for environmental charities for over a decade.

I would say my anxiety about the climate crisis has lessened in that time and that is perhaps because in my heart of hearts, I hope I will be dead and buried before the worst hits my part of the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my children, but I’m a simple product of evolution engineered by self-interest.

It was the nearest I’ve ever got to a light-bulb moment when I realised that my children’s death doesn’t concern me as long as it happens after mine.

The death of their child is surely the worst tragedy humans can experience and yet most of us never give a thought to the inevitable death of our own children.

In that fact lies much of the secret of our inaction on climate.

We hope it will happen when we’re gone, in the never-never land of the future.

That’s why 16-year-olds should have the right to vote. The climate crisis completely changes the debate on votes for 16- and 17-year-olds, to which I have always been opposed.

I changed my mind at the climate march in Dublin last Friday.

I popped along to the march after a spot of mid-morning shopping but in the midst of all those lovely youngsters who face a future damaged by climate change caused, in large part, by my generation. I started to bawl.

Then I started to ask myself what we can do to really empower these young people and I realised they need to be given the vote.

This is a relatively easy thing to do; the present Government committed to holding a referendum on the issue this year, following a positive vote by the Convention on the Constitution in 2013.

The Council of Europe even made a resolution in 2015 encouraging EU member states to explore the issue of extending the franchise to younger people and suggested that local elections might be the place to start.

Austria extended the vote to 16-year-olds in 2007 and Malta followed suit last year. So far these are the only two member states which give full voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds.

Many states have extended voting rights to younger people in other ballots, however. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds voted in the Scottish independence referendum and can vote for the Scottish parliament. The Welsh parliament has plans to follow suit and there is some interest North of the border in extending the right to vote in Assembly elections, which might alter the political landscape of Northern Ireland, except there is no Assembly.

Some German states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections. The Swiss canton of Glarus has extended voting rights to 16- and 17-year-olds and young people can vote in some local elections in Norway.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Slovenia, 16- and 17-year-olds can vote if they are working while in Hungary and in the Philippines, they can vote if they are married.

Worldwide, countries which extend the franchise to 16- or at least to 17-year-olds are many and varied and not necessarily liberal, either. They include Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador, East Timor, Taiwan, Tunisia and Sudan, not to mention that bastion of democracy, North Korea.

Hugely different reasons apply all over the world: in some less developed countries, 16-year-olds are expected to be out of school and working, as they were in Ireland until very recently. Iran was until 2007 the country with the lowest voting age in the world, at 15, but in that year, they brought it up to what is currently the standard age internationally: 18.

Other countries, like Austria and British islands of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, have looked at their age profile and realised that the democratic mandate of their governments will be increasingly narrow as the population gets older.

This is the territory in which Ireland finds itself, with a rapidly ageing population; by 2030, one-in-six of us will be over 65, as opposed to one-in-eight now.

Before the climate strikes, I wasn’t convinced by the arguments for giving 16- and 17-year-olds the vote. I was rearing such beings, after all, and clearing up after them.

Making them politically aware hardly justifies extending the vote to 126,000 people.

I suppose I also feared the change which that young vote might bring to politics, though it has to be said that in Austria, young people vote in similar numbers and in similar ways to the rest of the population.

There is a strong chance that following the climate strikes, young people with the vote will demand action on climate change before they cast it, however. They deserve a vote on the future which concerns them more than it does us.

Yes, 16 is a somewhat arbitrary age and most 16-year-olds are not like Greta Thunberg, but it is the age at which we allow kids to leave school and enter the workforce full-time. If Thunberg seems anxious and angry, the way to help her and thousands like her is not to silence them, it is to give them power.

In democracies like Ireland, that power lies in the ballot box. If Leo Varadkar is serious about tackling climate change, he must honour the commitment already given by his party and schedule a referendum on extending the vote to over 16s.

Instead of anxiety, young people need power over their own destiny.

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