Age of Presidential candidacy should not be lowered to 21

WE HAVE two constitutional referenda to decide on May 22 and I’ll be voting yes and no says Gerard Howlin

Age of Presidential candidacy should not be lowered to 21

Yes to marriage equality, but no to lowering the eligible age for candidates in presidential elections from 35 to 21.

Marriage equality is a topic I hope to return to another day, but on the day that’s in it, the eligible age for presidential candidates is pressing.

It’s not that it is a subject of chat among people I speak to, except for the occasional disparaging remark. But it is the subject of debate in the Dáil today.

Legislation enabling the referendum is this week’s business and is scheduled to conclude tomorrow.

Then the Bill will be sent to the Seanad. Assuming it is passed, which I do, the president will sign it into law and we the people will vote seven weeks from next Friday.

Having admitted I don’t hear much chat on the topic, let me declare a bias. I recently had significant birthday.

Having been on the provisional licence for years, the L plates are off; there is now officially a grumpy old git on board. Still a bit off the bus pass — but the disco days are over.

There was never a time when age didn’t complain about youth. It’s awful auld dross.

Come to think of it, I don’t have any complaints about the youth of today; except I no longer qualify. They are largely smarter, better educated, and more self-assured.

The world won’t fall in if a 21-year-old is elected president. In some respects it might be a better place. It is worth remembering that of the seven signatories of the 1916 Proclamation Joseph Plunkett at 28 and Seán MacDiarmada who was 33 would have been ineligible to be Uachtarán na hÉireann.

Éamonn Ceannt would just have made it at 35. Padraig Pearse at 36 was only over the line.

The senior surviving commandant Eamon De Valera, wouldn’t have qualified either. He was only 34. Though he did go on to become the oldest elected head of state in the world. He eventually retired as president in 1973 at the age of 90.

The constitution of the Weimar republic influenced the framing of the Irish presidency in Bunreacht na hÉireann.

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The mandatory age of 35 and the choice of a seven-year term were both copied from there.

When the Irish constitution was being written, the German presidency was already abolished.

Within hours of President Von Hindenburg’s death on August 9, 1934, the Reichstag passed a law stating: “The office of Reich President will be combined with that of Reich Chancellor.

The existing authority of the Reich President will consequently be transferred to the Führer and Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He will select his deputy”.

In a sense the Irish presidency inaugurated by 78-year-old Douglas Hyde in 1938, was the vicarious embodiment of the democratic vision hoped for but unachieved or short-lived elsewhere after World War I.

Our presidency has survived intact, and in a country not shy about scarifying its own shortcomings, we have democratic institutions — the presidency included — that endured. Ireland now enjoys the longest period of continuity of any European country, under a written constitution.

We the people are rightly wary of changing it, without good reason.

This proposed change, a gross waste of public money in my opinion, came out of the mess that was the constitutional convention. Full of well-intended people, institutionally it was strikingly lacking in political nous and played its predetermined role of patsy to perfection.

It inadvertently allowed itself be a sandbag holding back political reform, instead of a vehicle driving it forward.

The fact that the constitutional convention met at weekends and mainly in a seaside resort, is incidental but also a metaphor for its pointlessness.

It was a constitutional caravan-park for earnest, ineffectual anoraks.

The convention refused to butt into the government’s planned referendum on Seanad abolition. For a constitutional convention worthy of the name to sit on the side-lines while an entire House of the Oireachtas was nearly abolished, beggars belief.

That referendum and the failed proposal to enhance the powers of Oireachtas enquiries were advanced without reference to it.

This should have been a warning; a sign to quit rather than be window dressing. Arguably its greatest failure was the one centrally important issue it did address; reforming our electoral system.

I respect the bona fides of the majority who voted to leave the current broken system intact.

But it was a wrong call. The convention can claim credit for several worthwhile suggestions on Dáil reform and it supported a same-sex marriage referendum. But in the real political world, the latter was coming down the tracks regardless.

Instead of leading reform, major issues that were either avoided by the convention, or decided without reference to it.

Their proposal to reduce the voting age to 16 is not being proceeded with. But obliged to offer something, anything, by way of a referendum proposal we are being allowed to decide if the age of presidential candidates can be reduced to 21.

It is the very least that can be done, without openly admitting that random members of the public put onto a constitutional convention, with assorted Oireachtas members was a purposeful distraction from the get-go.

It never had any public traction, and unsurprisingly it has had almost no political pull either.

Ireland has been well served by its presidents. Justifiably praised — Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese were agents of change and rapprochement on this island.

At the beginning Douglas Hyde was a conciliatory figure in a country still divided by civil war.

De Valera gave global stature to an Ireland still finding its place in the world. He was also a point of stability during the upheaval of the 1969-70 period, cumulating in the arms trial. Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh and Patrick Hillery — both understated men — staunchly upheld the prerogatives of the office.

The stabilising, constitutional purpose of the office has been realised; thence its importance for change as well as continuity.

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THE problem with lowering the age of presidential candidates isn’t that echoing 1934 we will have neo-Nazis in the Áras; boy bands may be closer to it.

No, the more likely problem is overly earnest young politico’s or academics bursting with piousness but lacking the guile or fortitude to exercise the magisterial restraint required for the office of president.

Few great endeavours and certainly no revolutionary ones would succeed without the vigour of youth.

Constitutionally the president’s function is to curb the over-enthusiasm of others when required; and safeguard our basic rights under the constitution.

It is entirely appropriate that at 35, they are past the first full flush of youth. The gormlessness of the proposal is itself an advertisement for constitutional restraint, but not alas for the constitutional convention.

Instead this unasked for referendum underlines the extent to which it was a missed opportunity for reform.

This proposed change came out of the mess that was the constitutional convention.

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