Don’t kid around with the Presidency

I have been having quite an amusing week. I had been asked to go on a TV panel discussion on UTV to argue the case for a ‘No’ vote in the upcoming referendum on lowering the age requirement for the President to 21, but for fun I left out which referendum vote for which I was putting the ‘No’ case, leading to much hilarity.

Many of my friends blanched at the news, and I could see their anger rising as I cheerfully kept up my enthusiasm for a ‘No’ vote. Of course, I couldn’t continue this charade very long – partly because I am just not that funny, and partly because I feel I have a moral obligation to try to persuade as many people as possible to vote ‘Yes’ on marriage equality.

I have written about my support for a ‘Yes’ vote on marriage equality here and it would be hypocritical, not to mention immoral, for me to argue the other side, but I do feel that there are compelling reasons to vote ‘No’ on the lowering of the Presidential age. This is not because I take an ageist view, but for the reasons outlined below.

The first reason has nothing to do with the issue itself, but the context in which the question is being asked. Many people are upset and angry with this government, and there is a desire out there among voters to ‘soften the cough’ of those in power by refusing to go along with what they are recommending. Therefore, many people will wish to disappoint the government, and they might do that by choosing to vote ‘No’ on marriage equality. That would be the wrong thing to do as it would deny (yet again) a marginalised group their equal, human rights.

However, by voting ‘No’ on the Presidential question, they can have their kick at the government ass without doing any damage to anyone. No-one is ever going to vote for an inexperienced President, the ‘No’ side say. If that’s the case, then there’s no need to change the Constitution. Don’t let the door hit your arse on the way out.

The second reason to vote ‘No’ is that this is a stupid, irrelevant, meaningless question which only just made it onto the ballot paper. The Constitutional Convention – the body that decides what type of reform we should have – only voted by 50 votes to 47 in favor of putting this question to the people, with three ‘Don’t Knows’ abstaining. This dubious body (containing four Northern Ireland politicians) weren’t sure that the question should even be asked, and if a few more of them could do the job they were asked (ie. give an opinion) then we mightn’t be here at all. It’s quite possible that the input of people from another country (the UK), pushed us over the line in terms of getting the question asked.

Thirdly, it is an insult to the young people of Ireland. People under 25 lost almost half their unemployment assistance because of their age. The youth unemployment rate at 21.1% is over double the rate it is for everyone else. University fees have rocketed. Emigration hits this group hardest. And instead of the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, The Who, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan, they have Coldplay, Adele and Ed Sheeran. Young people have suffered enough. If we want to do something for them, let’s do something practical and not offer them theoretical access to a post they’ll never fill.

Fourthly, I said ‘theoretical’ in that last sentence because no-one under 35 stands a realistic chance of ever being elected. The job lasts at least seven years, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask that they have already had a job or have worked for that period of time. Assuming a person has a college degree (I think this might be a minimum requirement in itself) and seven years’ work experience, that would mean a person would have to be 29 before they had passed this minimal requirement. And most of us would like a bit more than that.

For example, I would like to know the person’s family. I would like to know if they’re in a relationship, how long it has lasted, whether they have children, and if so, how well they care for their children. I would like to think that the head of State of Ireland, the father or mother figure of the country, the person who expresses our national soul and emotions (Mary Robinson and Mary MacAleese did this on several occasions) has some experience raising their own family, before they start heading up our collective one.

For those of you still undecided, here’s the crunch issue. If this amendment were passed, who might it benefit? In theory, it would allow people under 35 to run for the Presidency. Who might that be? Who at 21 has the money or the record to win such a race?

The answer is not ‘someone’ but ‘someone’s parents’. Bono’s kid could do it. Enda Kenny’s daughter could possible get the nod from Fine Gael. Or perhaps some minority party – such as the Greens – could nominate a popular figure who is ‘green’. A boyband member, perhaps. It would not be the individual, because the individual would have no experience in running for election, since you have to be 18 to be a TD. Assuming, again, you have to wait for a General Election, serve seven years as a TD to prove you can hold down a job for seven years, that puts you well into your thirties before you’re a credible candidate. Around 35. Which is what it is now.

And that’s the huge difference here. This should not be your first job. Perhaps a spell as a TD might be of benefit to someone before assuming the highest position in the country. Perhaps a few years working in the private or voluntary sector might be of use. But a person can’t be a TD until they are 18, while the youngest are mostly in their middle twenties. Most of these hacks are the sons and daughters of deceased TD’s who just inherit their parent’s seat. Is that who we want to facilitate in obtaining the Presidency?

We demean the office of the Presidency by being so flippant about who we allow to run for the post. But we are even more demeaning to those aged between 18-20 if we pass this amendment. Why are they excluded? Is it because that would seem laughable? And yet it is perfectly acceptable that an 18-year-old become a TD, because that, in the political world is starter position. Still, you don’t see too many 18-year-old TD’s.

We are not restricting a human right here. We are not diminishing anyone’s ability to take an equal part in society. We are simply looking at the requirements for the top job in the country, and making sure that candidates have the bare minimum required for that dignity of that position. We have elections to vet candidates on honesty, ability or religious lunacy, (In the latter case we just didn’t vote for Dana in 2011 because she was based in 1950) but before we even get to that point we need to have credible, experienced candidates.

And we are not alone in this. And we are not the first. The Romans set a minimum age for those holding public office in 180 BC. Italians today require their President to be over 50. Portugal and Poland demand their President is over 35, but the Germans insist on 40. You can be the President of Croatia at 18, but then, you have to be 40 to do the same job in Slovakia.

In the UK, you can be a infant and be Head of State. In fact, if your mother died in childbirth, you could be Head of State before you could breathe on your own, technically. Before you even knew your name. But I digress.

I really hope the young people of Ireland in particular vote ‘No’ to this patronising and stupid attempt to ‘get down with the kids’. I hope they see it for the distraction it is and reject its nature, which tells them they are entitled to everything, and entitled to it right now. It tells them that there is no value in maturity, experience, or lifelong commitment to a cause.

It tells them that all that matters is a faux equality and political correctness while actually dealing with young people’s issues is unimportant. And for politicians, it is. Nobody stays committed to young people’s issues, simply because none of us stay young forever.

Young people should reject this proposal as a first step to demanding that their real issues are addressed, and the more comprehensively they do that, they more they show their maturity, and ironically, the more likely they are to be heard in political and government circles.

UPDATE: You might have missed it if you live outside Ireland – this amendment was voted down by voters at a rate of 3-1 on May 22, 2015.

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