ALISON O'CONNOR: Age referendum is a good way to involve younger people in politics

Mary McAleese got a rousing welcome in Rostrevor, Co Down, after winning the Presidency in 1997; she was the youngest President ever at 46.

The fear is that if we are to vote a majority yes today ... we could end up with a mere child in the Áras, writes Alison O’ Connor

INSTEAD of ticking a “yes” and “no” on the ballot paper today I’ve had a last minute change of mind. Rather it will be a yes and yes from me.

I believed I knew my mind on both questions, including the poor relation referendum on presidential age — that was going to be my no vote. This tallied with my desire to give the Government a bit of a kicking for choosing such a relatively bizarre topic for people to vote on with so many other pressing political reforms to choose from, not least the list of issues provided by the Convention on the Constitution.

I cannot remember any election or referendum in which I have had less interest or curiosity, simply deciding early on that it was going to be a no from me.

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But in truth there is an element of us biting our noses off to spite our faces by voting down this question. A friend who helped me see the error of my ways described it as being like a recovering alcoholic who chooses to gather up all the alcohol in the house and throw it down the sink for fear of drinking it at some time in the future.

Admittedly it took some further explanation for me to grasp the concept of what he was trying to explain — in essence he was saying that as an electorate we will be voting down this proposal on the basis that we might go completely bonkers in some future presidential election, and elect someone barely out of nappies with the wit of a gnat.

The fear is that if we are to vote a majority yes today to this question we could end up with a mere child in the Áras. The truth is there is hardly a snowball’s chance in hell of us voting a 21-year-old in as President, but why vote to limit our options? After all we are told that Jesus died at 33; that Bob Geldof was the same age when he organised Live Aid (not that I’m drawing a direct comparison between the two). Indeed Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai was only 17 when she was awarded that prize, the youngest ever winner.

There have been fears expressed that having an age limit of 21 could result in “joke” candidates putting themselves forward and in doing so demean the office of President. But age is surely no limit to this. Granted, given the weekend that is in it, we did once send a turkey as the Irish entrant in the Eurovision. It’s worth noting that in Italy the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo is in his mid-60s.

What the new Article in the Constitution would say, if this referendum was passed today, which is highly unlikely on the evidence of poll results, is that “every citizen who has reached the age of twenty-one years is eligible for election to the office of President”.

At present you must be 21 years of age to become a TD, or a member of the Seanad, or to be elected as a member of the European Parliament, but only 18 years to be elected as a member of a local authority.

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It’s worth looking back in history to note that the youngest President that we elected so far was Mary McAleese in 1997 and she was 46 at the time, indeed Mary Robinson was the same age when she was first elected in 1990. But those two are mere neophytes compared to our usual more mature male choices given that Douglas Hyde was 78 when he was elected in 1938, and Eamon deValera 76 when elected in 1959. Our current President Michael D Higgins, who is doing a fine job of it, was 70 when he moved into the Aras.

The numbers speak for themselves don’t they? We have form here, so to speak, so we’re unlikely to lose the run of ourselves in some future presidential election.

What we would be doing with a vote in the affirmative is increasing our options on candidate choice and diversity available in future presidential elections. This would also be a good way to involve younger people in politics and retain the engagement that has built up over recent months, not ironically with this presidential age referendum, but on the marriage equality one. It will be a huge shock (to me at least) if we don’t see a bigger turnout of young people at polling stations today given the almost unprecedented level of interest there has been, when compared to the usual middle aged and higher involvement there is in these things.

The chairman of the Constitutional Convention Tom Arnold has written that in recent years many of the voting public have not engaged adequately with the issue before them and voting turnout has been low.

“If the solemn process of constitutional reform is to be properly carried out, our political system, in association with our wider society, needs to improve the way we organise and engage with the public in relation to referendums.” Trust in the political system has diminished, he believed, and in some of our public discourse, “there is a cynicism and a sense of alienation which is unhealthy for our society and, ultimately, dangerous for our democracy”. Certainly when it comes to the “other” referendum being held today — in this instance the one that has gotten the overwhelming majority of the interest — no one could allege there has been an absence of discussion or involvement, and that crucially it has led to an involvement from young people, who as previously mentioned, tend to feel utterly alienated from the political process.

I see how those on the no side have felt somewhat under siege, and this is not how it should be, but the overall level of discussion has undoubtedly been a fillip to boosting political engagement all round.

It really is disappointing though that the referendum which the Government chose to accompany the same-sex one related to the presidential age, given what other topics it could have chosen.

Granted they were always going to have their hands full with getting the same-sex marriage vote over the line, but they would have been better off simply holding that one on its own, rather than tagging on what appears like a nonsense one, simply to be seen to give the nod to political reform.

It will be incredible if we did not have a decent voter turnout today. This is particularly important for the same sex marriage referendum, where passions have run so high for those in favour and against.

The losing side, and I’m hoping that will be the no vote, need to be able to see that a sizable and decent number of their fellow citizens turned out to vote. That will make it easier to accept.

Visit our special Referendum 2015 section for all the latest news and analysis


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