Regarding the Other Referendum


The Thirty-Fifth Amendment to the Constitution Bill 2015 proposes that the minimum age for the Presidency – currently 35 – be lowered to 21.  Notably, 21 currently is the minimum age for election to the Dáil.  The referendum is scheduled for May 22, the same date as the marriage referendum. So far, however, it has garnered much less attention than its counterpart.

The current minimum age requirement in Ireland mirrors similar provisions in the US Constitution, under which a candidate for President or Vice-President must be 35.  The rationale behind the minimum age requirement would appear to be that the candidate should be sufficiently mature and experienced to hold office.  Some commentators, indeed, quite fairly question whether 21 is too young to hold an office so prestigious as that of the Presidency.
The matter was considered by the Constitutional Convention, though the outcome was equivocal. 50% of Convention members supported a reduction in the minimum age, but 47% were opposed; hardly a ringing endorsement.  To date, polling shows that the amendment is likely to be defeated, despite the absence of any concerted opposition.
It is indeed curious that amongst the various creditable proposals for amending the constitutional provisions on the Presidency, this one has been prioritised. It is arguable that there would have been much more public support for an amendment liberalising the candidacy rules for the Presidency. At the moment, a candidate has to be nominated by 20 members of the Oireachtas or the councils of four counties or county boroughs, making it difficult to secure a nomination.  Notably, during the Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann, Socialist Party deputies proposed an amendment to the Bill that would have allowed a person to be nominated by at least 5,000 voters (or fewer, if permitted by law).  They also proposed removing the religious elements of the oath of office taken by the President.  Arguably, both of these proposals would have been likely to stir up greater interest and probably were of greater relevance than the current amendment.
There has been some limited commentary on the issue so far, but nowhere near the level of rigorous public debate associated with the marriage referendum.  In an intelligent and thoughtful piece in the Irish Times, Arthur Beesley leans against the proposed reduction in the minimum age.  He points out that the role is a limited and largely ceremonial one, likely to bore and frustrate an enthusiastic and able wunderkind.  The freedoms of youth, he adds, would “not sit well in high office”, with a young President likely to suffer the fate of young royals in our neighbouring jurisdictions, growing up in the glare of public scrutiny. Citing the experience of Zayn Malik, who recently left the band One Direction to resume a normal life, he concludes: 
No, the proper place for a 21-year-old is in a nightclub; or a night-train to Mongolia with nothing much to do in the morning; or a job in which mistakes can be made without major incident; or a college library; or in a band; or even a boy band.”
Beesley describes the proposed amendment as “an empty gesture devoid of meaning.” It would be better for the average young person, he maintains, if the State worked on addressing youth unemployment as well as the lack of affordable accommodation and child care.  Indeed, it is fair to say that the change proposed is largely symbolic, designed to send a signal that young people too can aspire to the highest office in the land, that they are equal citizens, but unlikely to result in a younger President being elected.
Symbolic gestures can, however, often have a powerful resonance and impact. One of the least noted but most symbolically powerful aspects of the introduction of civil partnership in 2010 was a specific provision made in the enacting legislation for the possibility that a future President might have a civil partner, and thus be entitled to a pension on the President’s death.  The message was a powerful (if hardly noticed) one; it implied that a gay or lesbian person, with a same-sex partner, could legitimately aspire even to the highest office in the land.
It is worth bearing in mind that the amendment is not proposing that any particular young person be elected President.   The simple proposition is that those aged 21 or over be allowed to stand for the Presidency, to able to put themselves forward on the same basis as a person of or over that age. The candidate would have to establish – like any other candidate - that he or she is worthy of election.  The reality is that without a substantial track record, experience and profile, a younger candidate will face a steep uphill challenge. Yet it should not be readily assumed that no young person would meet the People’s exacting standards.  Hopefully, we are beyond the days when people were appointed to roles based primarily on longevity and seniority rather than ability and competence.
The role, in fairness, is largely ceremonial, with the President being required to act primarily on the advice of Government (or, less frequently, on the advice or nomination of the Taoiseach or Dáil), with little personal discretion reserved to the office holder himself.  A young person might find this frustrating, though so too would many an older person of ability and vision.  Notably, the current and two immediately preceding Presidents have done much to carve out a meaningful role within the constitutional confines.  There is no reason to believe that a younger person with similar energy and vision would also be able to stamp his or her mark on the position.  
The President does hold significant discretion in a number of limited areas.  He can refer a bill to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality.  He may refuse to dissolve the Dáil where requested to do so by a Taoiseach who no longer has majority Dáil support, a decision with significant political implications.  He also holds a number of powers designed to protect the prerogatives of the Seanad, though these are rarely if ever exercised.  The exercise of these powers (and more so the decision not to exercise them) requires considerable political wisdom and experience. It is possible, given these factors, that the electorate would prefer someone with a proven track record and some form.
It is submitted, however, that we should not readily assume that age automatically equates to wisdom. The current economic crisis, for instance, was not fomented in student dorms or at the back of lecture halls. The boardroom tables of banks and regulators in the years leading to the crash were hardly heaving with ingénues fresh out of grad school.  Older people, in short, are not immune from making bad decisions.  Longevity does not automatically guarantee ‘a safe pair of hands’. Indeed there are a good number of potential (and not so potential) presidential candidates whose prior life experience, in my view, would decisively discount them from the role. 
The prospect of a wise and able presidential candidate of younger years should not, therefore, be discounted.  Our current President ably exhibits that energy, vision and zeal are not qualities confined to the younger politician.  Why then should we assume without enquiry that younger people will lack the wisdom of an older President?
If it is the case that electors see the Presidency as a ‘reward’ for good service, as a form of retirement present, the case for maintaining the current age restriction might more easily be sustained.  It is arguable, however, that the responsibilities of the role are such that past triumphs alone should not be the sole reason for appointment.  
Nonetheless, in practice, given the restrictions on candidacy, any reform is likely to attract an infinitesimally small coterie of under 35 year old candidates.  There were 7 candidates in 2011, which was a record (the previous record, set in 1997, was 5). Indeed, even if there were constitutional change, the age profile of candidates is unlikely to fall significantly.  In the 2011 election, the average age of the candidates was 60.  The youngest candidate (Mr Seán Gallagher) was 49, a clear 14 years over the minimum age; the remaining candidates were 57, 59, 60, 61, 67 and 70. The winning candidate, President Michael D Higgins, was 70, twice the current minimum age, though the second placed candidate happened to be the youngest.  President Robinson and President McAleese were both 46 at the time of their respective elections, but this was considered a departure from the norm.  President de Valera took office at the age of 77; President Hyde was 78 when deemed elected in 1938.
In practice, therefore, little might change though symbolically, the change would be important.  It would serve to signal that longevity and seniority alone are not a good enough basis for promotion, still less to elect a person to high office.  It sends out the signal that the contribution of young people in society is valued and that energy and vision count as well as experience in choosing a President.  It is disappointing, however, that the Government did not choose to make further and perhaps more practically important changes to the Presidency, not least to reform the restrictive methodology for nomination.
The amendment, incidentally, resolves a potential anomaly in Article 12.  The current English text speaks of the candidate having reached his thirty-fifth year of age, during which he or she may presumably be 34. The Irish text, however, seems to make it clearer that the person must be 35. In cases of conflict between the Irish and English texts, the Irish text prevails and, as such, it is readily accepted that the minimum age is in fact 35. The amendment, however, makes it clear in each language that the candidate must be 21 and, if passed, would resolve a long-standing constitutional quirk.

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