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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Feb 1972

Vol. 259 No. 2

Private Members' Business. - Fourth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1972: First Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed:
That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to Amend the Constitution.
—(Deputy Corish.)

I am allowing two members from the Labour Party who are promoting the Bill, a member from the Fine Gael Party and the Minister, who is opposing the Bill, to make short statements and I shall then put the question.

Is the Minister opposing the Bill?

Yes, I believe this is so.

But he agrees with it!

They disagreed with people and shook hands with them before the whole world last Sunday in spite of past disagreements.

My colleagues in the Labour Party and I are, I suppose, technically asking for the permission of the House to have published a Bill to provide for votes at 18 years of age. The Minister for Local Government indicated last week, or the week before, that the Government had no intention of allowing the Bill to be published. This has been the regrettable practice of Government Ministers for quite a long time. We saw this particularly in the case of the Bill promoted by Deputy Dr. Browne and others where the Government would not allow the initiative to lie with individual Opposition members in Private Members' Time. As I said in a short intervention last night the Government should have more respect for the rights of private individuals and Opposition parties.

Ours is a simple proposition. I do not know why the Government are reluctant to accept it. If they want to show goodwill as regards the local government elections in this matter they could introduce a Bill which, I am sure, would pass in record time providing for votes at 18 in such elections. The proposal to grant votes to those aged 18 would, as regards general elections and referenda, necessitate a change in the Constitution which would require a referendum. Again, there seems to be reluctance by the House and by the Government to allow the ordinary people to be involved in decision-making. We should not be deterred by the fact that this change would necessitate a referendum. It could be done quickly and would not involve much expense either to the State or the political parties because I believe, from an interjection by the Minister for Local Government a week or two ago, that it will be done. We do not know whether it will be done this year, in five years time, or in 15 years time. I suggest to the Minister and the Government that there is now urgency in the matter of granting votes at 18. I believe it should be done particularly before the referendum is held on the Government's application for EEC membership. We must remember that the young people about whom we now speak, aged between 18 and 21, are the people who will have to live and work within the system, whatever it may be, whether we join the EEC or not, and who will have to work in a world that is undoubtedly changing very rapidly.

These people should participate in such a momentous decision as whether or not Ireland should become a full member of EEC. There are 170,000 of these people to whom the franchise could be given if our proposal were accepted. It should not be a difficult or expensive operation because I believe it coincides with the general concensus of opinion among the parties in the House and among the people. Some time ago I asked during a debate why the age of 21 was fixed and it was said it was fixed arbitrarily many years ago. It was the age at which it was believed young people reached maturity. But I see nothing sacrosanct about the age 21. I am informed by one of my colleagues that the 21st was a very significant year in the life of males particularly in mediaeval times: it was the age when they were deemed fit to bear arms for the lord of the manor or whoever would lead them into battle.

The age of 21 for the franchise has been accepted for a long time but not any longer by many countries including some of the European countries. For example, in Belgium in municipal elections those aged 18 or over are allowed to vote. In Germany, the vote is given at 18; in Sweden, it is 19; in the United Kingdom it is 18 and also in the USA. In the last British general election the 18-year-olds voted for the first time. In the presidential election and, I assume, in elections for Congress and the Senate in the USA, those of 18 and over will vote. Nobody could say now that to give votes at 18 would be giving votes to those who might be deemed to be irresponsible particularly when we recall the result of the last general election in Britain which returned the Conservative Government.

There is an unanswerable case for our proposition due to changes in the living habits of younger people, and the more general education of young people. It is now recognised that restricting the vote to those who are 21 and over is unfair and unjust. In modern times—and the evidence is all around us—young people mature earlier, physically and mentally. These factors must be considered. Earlier maturity is demonstrated by the participation of young people in various movements. Some will say these are mostly protest movements but in many cases—and again there is evidence of this not only here but all over the world—they protest in very many cases for just and positive causes and against powerful social injustices. I would interpret the activities of these people as a longing for participation and that longing for participation should, in my view, be channelled properly. Young people should be allowed to vote at 18 to bring them within the democratic process. If we do not do that, then there is no use our condemning them and describing them as irresponsible. We advocate votes at 18 so that these young people will be involved, so that they will not be, as they are in so many cases, frustrated.

I have said that they are more mature. It should also be recognised that there is an injustice towards these young people when we remember that the vast majority are workers and are paying taxes. Some of them are married and have the responsibilities of adulthood. They pay income tax. They pay other forms of taxation. They pay rates. Surely they should be given the right to choose those who should represent them in Dáil Éireann, those who become Ministers and members of Government, those who levy the taxes they are required to pay and those who make the laws they are expected to obey. If they have responsibilities then they should be treated responsibly.

There is a special case here in this part of the country for granting the vote at 18. Their counterparts in Britain can vote at 18. So can their counterparts in Northern Ireland. To refuse to lower the age here is to maintain still another barrier between the two parts of our country. This is a barrier that could easily be removed if the Government would agree to accept this Bill and provide for the necessary constitutional change. Again, a person can be 23, 24 or 25 years of age before he gets his first opportunity to vote. This is a source of annoyance, especially when one remembers the responsibilities these people have.

It has been said that this change in the Constitution should be considered with other changes in the Constitution. To that I say an emphatic "No". We are pressing for a new Constitution. If we make what I hope will be a dramatic change in our Constitution these people should be involved in that change. It is approximately 36 years since we had an opportunity of adapting the Constitution under which we operate. Surely we are not going to deny the right of these young people to have a say in what should go into our Constitution or what should be deleted from it.

The Deputy will appreciate that statements must be short.

That is a purely relative term. However, I will be as brief as I can. I describe this Bill as non-controversial. Obviously the Government intend to put this on the long finger. Young people should be given the right to vote, first, on a new Constitution and, secondly, on the question as to whether or not we should become full members of the EEC. If we deny them that right that will be interpreted by our youth as a sign of total indifference to their needs and feelings. We need their support and their interest, not their hostility and indifference.

There are two issues before the House. The first and most important is the right of Opposition parties to introduce legislation. For the second time tonight it appears that the Government will refuse to allow legislation to be enacted by anybody except themselves.

And they will not do it themselves.

The aggravating thing is that on each occasion they have decided that this is something they want to do themselves and they will not let anyone else do it. If the Minister says that the Government propose in this session to introduce the necessary legislation for votes at 18 we will have nothing to say. We will be quite satisfied. But there is a dog-in-the-manger attitude on the part of the Government; they will not do it themselves and they will not let anybody else do it.


Hear, hear.

Last week the Minister and, on an earlier occasion, the Taoiseach said that they agreed with the idea of votes at 18. Why would they not? Youngsters at the moment are required to do practically everything from 17 years of age onwards. They can carry arms to defend their country at 17. There is, of course, an anomaly; 21 is the age for voting but the register is made up in the previous September. Those who are 21 before the 14th of April are entitled to vote on or after that date when the new register comes out, but that means that, until after the 14th April in the following year, the life of that register runs and if an election takes place in early spring they cannot vote and they will be 22 years, or perhaps more, before they get an opportunity of voting. If they are not around when the register is made up they could be 24 or 25 before they get an opportunity of voting. These young people are asked to carry a great many responsibilities and to do all kinds of work but they are not allowed to vote.

People are talking about the relevancy of this House and saying that Dáil Éireann is no longer the most important place in which decisions are made. In the light of that, surely we should bring in these young people and give them the right to say who comes in here. Even if they replace everyone here with the people of their own choice they are entitled to do that. It is ridiculous that people who are adults in everything except this are refused the right to vote. Simple legislation would entitle these people to vote in local elections and the Taoiseach agreed that should be done, but he does not propose to introduce that legislation this year. Why?

Standing idly by.

There are people who go around the country talking about how irresponsible young people are. I do not think they are irresponsible. A certain few, as in every country, are irresponsible because they can point to the fact that they are not entitled to participate in the formation of a government or in the election of representatives unfortunately they are able to influence others who would normally be prepared to look in a reasonable way at what is being done. For that reason it would help in the stability of our society if we gave the vote at 18 years.

I can see no reason why it should be denied except that the Minister and the Government say they want to do it. Deputy Corish referred to the fact that the Common Market vote will be taken this year. The people most affected will be the young people. They will have to live with the situation long after we are gone and it is right that they should be allowed to cast their vote with regard to this matter.

On a number of occasions we have heard about the necessity of having young blood in government. One cannot expect that there would be many young people in government when we are preventing those who have the most agile minds from voting—the 18 to 21 year olds. We are not giving them any voice in the election of their representatives. There would be a tremendous change in political parties and in the political life of this country if we gave young people the right to vote. There is nothing controversial about it; it is a simple matter of commonsense and I should like to hear the Minister explain to the House why he thinks we should not allow votes at 18. I propose to give the Minister the opportunity of explaining this to the House; he has slightly more than 15 minutes in which he can decide whether this can be done.

We have been speaking about a new Constitution. I assume from what has been said by the Minister and by the Taoiseach that it is not proposed to change the voting age before the changes in the Constitution have taken place. Does that mean that with regard to the new Constitution the people of 18 years will be deprived of voting? The Minister shakes his head. Are we to assume that we will have votes at 18 years introduced almost immediately, or are we to assume that the new Constitution is a long way distant?

We welcome this proposal. At the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis in 1965 the party unanimously accepted the proposition that votes should be given to people at 18 years. In fact, we were the first political party to do this and we made the suggestion before the British took up the idea.

I do not know why the Government are opposing this proposal. At times they have given lip-service to it. We understand, of course, that as a party they always resist any proposal coming from this side of the House and then when they see the idea is acceptable they introduce it themselves at a later stage. There may be a second reason for their refusal in this instance, namely, they may be afraid. Youth abhors equivocation. Youth is generous but it will not be generous when it comes to judge Fianna Fáil. That is primarily the reason the Minister wants to put off the evil day when he will have to face the people of 18 years. It is not easy to change an old person but youth is adaptable. I believe that the youth have learned to judge Fianna Fáil and Fianna Fáil have learned to judge youth.

As mentioned by Deputy Corish and Deputy Tully, people at 18 years accept all the responsibilities of adult life. Many of them have to work when they are 16 years, they have to pay for their social welfare cards, they have to pay income tax and they are eligible for military service. If conscription were introduced in the morning, as has been rumoured, they would be conscripted. They have to do all these things but they are not allowed any voice in the government of this country.

There has been much talk about youth being difficult. Every generation complains about the young people; they say they are not responsible. We have had a spate of such remarks here. We all recognise that the best way to deal with anyone who is considered irresponsible is to give him responsibility. When Fianna Fáil came into this House they were an irresponsible party. We gave them responsibility, we civilised and tamed them. Now they are the greatest exponents of law and order in the country. In fact, they are a bit of an embarrassment they are so strong on the subject, at least they have been in the last few hours.

They might be now but they are two years too late.

Adolescent unrest, which can manifest itself in any society, is best dealt with by giving the adolescent an opportunity to participate in the ordinary affairs of his country, by allowing him to vote in a disciplined fashion. The alternative is that he will be tempted to indulge in less lawful methods of expressing his point of view. Nowadays, votes at 18 years are accepted in all the more modern states and it is only right that we should extend the same advantages to our own citizens.

Article 16.1.1º of the Constitution states:

Every citizen without distinction of sex who has reached the age of 21 years, and who is not placed under disability or incapacity by this Constitution or by law, shall be eligible for membership of Dáil Éireann.

I do not know if that means that it needs an alteration in the Constitution in order to give the vote at 18 years. Doubtless the Minister will have legal opinion on this matter and I imagine legal opinion will be that it needs an alteration of the Constitution. As a layman it appears to me that it does not state this is a constitutional issue. However, doubtless the Minister will give us the views of the Attorney General or whoever advises him on these matters. This is a very important subject. I do not know what percentage of the population would be covered by people of 18 to 21 years——


We will not argue about it. It would elect a few TDs.

We are to have short statements.

It is a substantial percentage of our population. The Minister should grant this not as a concession but as a right. He should allow these people to go into the polling booths and cast their votes for Fine Gael, for Labour, and against Fianna Fáil. The matter is so important that I would plead with the Minister to give the public an opportunity of expressing their opinion on it. In order to find out public opinion we should have a Second Stage discussion.

This is not a Second Stage discussion.

There are practical reasons why I have to oppose this Bill at this time. The House knows that the Government have already announced that they are in favour of reducing the voting age to 18 years for all elections, and that the question will be referred to the people in a referendum. Deputies opposite quite conveniently made very little reference to the fact that a referendum is necessary to decide this matter. It is now clear that all parties are in agreement with the Government on this matter.

It took Fianna Fáil eight years to agree with us.

It will be possible then for all parties to unite in advising the people to vote in favour of the necessary changes in the Constitution to bring this about. I must oppose the introduction of the Bill at this time. I want the House to listen carefully. I have not got much time to deal with it. If this Bill were passed by both Houses, I would be required to make an order under the Referendum Acts fixing a date for the taking of a referendum which would have to be held between 30 and 90 days from the date of the making of that order.

Obviously difficulty would arise immediately in relation to the timing of such a referendum. The referendum on accession to the European Communities will be held shortly. As far as this House can foresee that is a fact. The people will be voting in that referendum on a question of fundamental importance for the future of this country and all its citizens. It is obvious from the debate on the Third Amendment of the Constitution Bill that all sides of the House are anxious that this very important issue should be put before the people in a clear and unambiguous way and that anything which might tend to complicate or confuse the issue in the minds of the electorate should be avoided. The House will agree that there can be no question of having a referendum on any other matter on the same day as the EEC referendum.

Hear, hear.

It would not be practicable to hold a referendum on the voting age before the EEC referendum. It would be quite unreasonable to put the Government, the Opposition parties, and the electorate, to the expense and the inconvenience of a second referendum very shortly after the EEC referendum. The holding of a referendum on the voting age should not be considered just now. It would be inappropriate for the House to discuss another Constitution Amendment Bill at this time. Time and again in this House and elsewhere, Opposition speakers, opponents and supporters of EEC membership, have emphasised the gravity of the decision the people are being asked to take in relation to the European Economic Community.

I should like to quote, if I may, statements made by the leaders of both Opposition parties. As reported at column 1111, Volume 257, of the Official Report of the debate on 2nd December, 1971, Deputy Cosgrave said:

At the outset I want it to be clearly understood that we favour a referendum. We have consistently expressed the view that the people must decide the issue. Consequently, we approve the task of putting clearly before the electorate in simple language a single question....

As reported at column 1374 of the same volume Deputy Corish said:

One of the few merits I see in this proposed referendum is that it is being presented on its own, not tied up, I hope, with local elections or a general election.

So what?

So, quite rightly, they have been anxious to ensure that this issue will be put to the people in as clear and unambiguous a way as possible in order to avoid misleading the people or confusing them. The question which must be asked on the ballot paper in the coming EEC referendum is: "Do you approve the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill?" The short title of the Bill, that is, the Third Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1971, will be printed immediately beneath that question. The ballot paper cannot contain any explanation or summary of the proposal contained in the Bill. There can be nothing on the ballot paper to show that it relates to the question of accession to the European Economic Community.

We want a separate referendum on this.

It is all a smoke screen.

It is not on to have the two on the same day.

Did we not make it clear that we want a referendum on votes at 18 so that these young people can vote in the EEC referendum?

I will answer that point. It has been argued that accession to the Community will affect young people to a greater degree than any other category and that they should be allowed to vote in the referendum. Even if the present Bill were accepted, 18 year olds could not vote in the EEC referendum because they could not be put on the register until the people approved, in a referendum, of a reduction in the voting age. If the people approved the reduction in the voting age, in a referendum, the names of persons aged 18 to 21 years would not be on the new register which will come into force in April next.

It could be done by legislation.

In the normal course these young people will not be able to vote until April, 1973.

A special register.

I yield to nobody in my advocacy of lowering the voting age. Very shortly after my appointment I put it on the record of the House that I was in favour of reducing the voting age to 18 years. In all the circumstances I think the House should not give consent to the First Reading of this Bill at this time. As soon as it is practicable I will introduce a Bill to do exactly what is proposed in this Bill in relation to reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 years.

A smoke screen. Not one decent argument. Not one honest argument.

Question put.
The Dáil divided: Tá: 51; Níl: 65.

  • Barry, Peter.
  • Barry, Richard.
  • Belton, Luke.
  • Belton, Paddy.
  • Browne, Noel.
  • Bruton, John.
  • Burke, Joan.
  • Burke, Liam.
  • Burke, Richard.
  • Burton, Philip.
  • Byrne, Hugh.
  • Clinton, Mark A.
  • Cluskey, Frank.
  • Collins, Edward.
  • Conlan, John F.
  • Cooney, Patrick M.
  • Corish, Brendan.
  • Creed, Donal.
  • Cruise-O'Brien, Conor.
  • Desmond, Barry.
  • Dockrell, Henry P.
  • Donnellan, John.
  • Dunne, Thomas.
  • FitzGerald, Garret.
  • Fitzpatrick, Tom (Cavan).
  • Flanagan, Oliver J.
  • Governey, Desmond.
  • Hogan, Patrick.
  • Hogan O'Higgins, Brigid.
  • Jones, Denis F.
  • Kavanagh, Liam.
  • Keating, Justin.
  • Kenny, Henry.
  • L'Estrange, Gerald.
  • McMahon, Lawrence.
  • Malone, Patrick.
  • Murphy, Michael P.
  • O'Connell, John F.
  • O'Donnell, Tom.
  • O'Donovan, John.
  • O'Higgins, Thomas F.
  • O'Leary, Michael.
  • O'Reilly, Paddy.
  • O'Sullivan, John L.
  • Pattison, Séamus.
  • Ryan, Richie.
  • Taylor, Francis.
  • Thornley, David.
  • Timmins, Godfrey.
  • Treacy, Seán.
  • Tully, James.


  • Aiken, Frank.
  • Allen, Lorcan.
  • Andrews, David.
  • Barrett, Sylvester.
  • Boylan, Terence.
  • Brady, Philip A.
  • Brennan, Joseph.
  • Briscoe, Ben.
  • Brosnan, Seán.
  • Browne, Patrick.
  • Browne, Seán.
  • Carter, Frank.
  • Carty, Michael.
  • Childers, Erskine.
  • Colley, George.
  • Connolly, Gerard C.
  • Cowen, Bernard.
  • Cronin, Jerry.
  • Crowley, Flor.
  • Cunningham, Liam.
  • Davern, Noel.
  • Delap, Patrick.
  • de Valera, Vivion.
  • Dowling, Joe.
  • Fahey, Jackie.
  • Faulkner, Pádraig.
  • Fitzpatrick, Tom (Dublin Central).
  • Flanagan, Seán.
  • Forde, Paddy.
  • French, Seán.
  • Gallagher, James.
  • Geoghegan, John.
  • Gibbons, Hugh.
  • Gibbons, James.
  • Gogan, Richard P.
  • Haughey, Charles.
  • Healy, Augustine A.
  • Herbert, Michael.
  • Hillery, Patrick J.
  • Hilliard, Michael.
  • Hussey, Thomas.
  • Kenneally, William.
  • Kitt, Michael F.
  • Lemass, Noel T.
  • Lenihan, Brian.
  • Loughnane, William A.
  • Lynch, Celia.
  • Lynch, John.
  • McEllistrim, Thomas.
  • MacSharry, Ray.
  • Meaney, Thomas.
  • Molloy, Robert.
  • Moore, Seán.
  • Moran, Michael.
  • Nolan, Thomas.
  • Noonan, Michael.
  • O'Connor, Timothy.
  • O'Kennedy, Michael.
  • O'Malley, Des.
  • Power, Patrick.
  • Smith, Michael.
  • Smith, Patrick.
  • Timmons, Eugene.
  • Tunney, Jim.
  • Wyse, Pearse.
Tellers: Tá, Deputies R. Burke and Cluskey; Níl, Deputies Andrews and Meaney.
Question declared lost.