When the members of the Constitutional Convention considered the issue of the eligible age limit of candidates for the office of President of Ireland the membership was split 50:50 as to whether change was desirable but they did not specify an alternative age limit.
This ambivalent stance has now been transposed by the Government into a referendum proposal. But neither of the government parties have elaborated on what the underlying rationale for their proposal is and if there is any compelling evidence whatsoever to commend it for electoral support.
Joan Burton has even indicated that Labour will focus their efforts and resources exclusively on the marriage referendum proposal and will not engage with the electorate on the presidential candidate age-limit proposal. Neither of the former living Presidents have offered any insight into the capacity of a 21-year-old to possess the savoir-faire, stature and prestige necessary to become an effective President.
The Referendum Commission is silent on the implications and potential consequences of this proposed change, other than to state what the revised wording of the Constitution would be if the proposal were to be accepted by the electorate.
There are 145 member states of the United Nations whose head of state is a president and, of these, 107 are directly elected by nationwide vote. The youngest incumbent president in the world today is Joseph Kabila, the 43-year-old President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The oldest president, at 91, is President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The median age of the world’s presidents’ is 63 years. The minimum age at which they are eligible to stand for office is typically 35 years; sometimes 40 years, with some exceptions, such as candidates for the office of President of Argentina, who must be at least 30 years old.
The youngest head of state in the world is Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader and Eternal President of North Korea, born in January 1983, whose father and grandfather have sequentially governed this country as an insular dictatorship since it was proclaimed a state in September 1948.
When the bill for this referendum was presented to the Dáil last month by Labour Minister-of-State, Ann Phelan, she declared that ‘international experience provides no real guide’ with respect to the age of presidential candidates.
But if there is not a single incumbent president in the entire world who was elected at the age of 21 years, what type of international experience could the Government be possibly seeking to put coherence, plausibility and credibility on their referendum proposal and to inspire the electorate?
This referendum will cost taxpayers more than €2million. In the absence of any substantive arguments and the robust advocacy of both coalition partners, the referendum will therefore be an electoral test of the Government’s political judgement and its capacity to persuade the electorate to support a nonsensical proposal for which there is not a scintilla of public clamour.