On behalf of the Labour Party I welcome the change proposed in this Bill. It will bring this country into line with the minimum voting age at parliamentary elections now in operation in Northern Ireland, in the UK, in Germany and in Luxembourg. I am pleased in particular that it will bring about a uniformity in the parliamentary franchise minimum voting age in both parts of this country. We expect our young people to join the Army at 18 years of age and to risk their lives for the security of the State. People of that age may be sent to prison for breaking the law. A young man or woman may be paying their full share of income tax at 18 and also their full share of social insurance. They may purchase intoxicating liquor. They may drive cars. Many people at that age are already married and there are many thousands of Irish women who, at 19 or 20 are rearing children. Yet, we do not give these people the simple democratic privilege of voting in an election. There are very many other obvious reasons why this measure should obtain widespread national support.
If, for example, young people are considered old enough to look after the aged and the sick in our community, they should certainly be entitled to vote. Also, if they are old enough at 18 to undergo training as airline pilots, surely they are old enough to vote in parliamentary elections. I would point out to the House that in practice the 140,000 young citizens who will be put on the national voting register as a result of this measure will, on average, be about 20 years of age before they exercise the right to vote. I recall that I was more than 23 years of age before I voted in a general election. Only a small number would be voting at the age of 18 or 19.
It is important that the people of the country as a whole should appreciate the feudalistic background to the decision arrived at originally to permit parliamentary votes at 18 years of age. That was laid down originally as far back as 1696. It was in section 7 of the Parliamentary Election of Members Act of that year. It is rather a poor reflection on our society that it has taken until 1972 to change that Act. It was laid down that no person under the age of 21 would be allowed to vote in a parliamentary election. The age of 21 seems to have been based on an old Anglo-Saxon system whereby a young merchant's son became of age as soon as he could count properly; a peasant's son became of age as soon as he was 15 and the son of a knight became of age at 21. By all accounts, that is how the age of 21 was decided on for parliamentary elections.
There are not many sons of knights in this House at present or on the parliamentary register and in that context it is overdue that we should change the legislation. It is also undeniable that young people today mature at a much earlier age. Their incomes are increasing rapidly and their increased spending power has given them a much greater responsibility in the community. I think it is also true that young people now, with what one might call the educational emancipation which has occurred in the past few decades, are showing much greater awareness and interest in public affairs, in political affairs and in Dáil Éireann itself. It is, therefore, eminently fair that they should be given the democratic means to express their particular interest.
I suggest that the 18-21 population group is subject to greater pressures than any other in our community and no segment of our population is more uncertain about its domestic, financial, legal and political status. This is universally true. The community at large are continually exhorting the 18-21 age group towards responsibility and encouraging them to take the fullest possible advantage of higher educational opportunities. Simultaneously, they are being coaxed, cajoled, blackmailed by the commercial world now only too well aware of the enormous purchasing power of this age group. In many ways, and rather superficially, other sections of the community and other age groups frequently attack the 18-21 age group because it allegedly fails to live up to the conventional norms of behaviour and adult attitudes. We expect a great deal more from our young people than ever before and, if so, we should place responsibility on them in the form of parliamentary franchise.
Unless this is done willingly and openly by the community at large in a referendum in October—and I hope every adult citizen will vote in that referendum—the genuine eagerness and concern of young people in respect of political issues could very easily be frustrated, lacking the means of self-expression socially and electorally, and this could induce cynicism and distrust among young people. Our society has brought about a great change in the social consciousness of young people particularly through educational emancipation. The next stage is political emancipation of young people and it is right that we should give this ultimate recognition to their new status and give them the opportunity to choose their own leaders and initiate control over their own affairs.
I am sure we now see the anomaly in our parliamentary structure whereby a person aged 18 will have the right to vote in parliamentary elections but cannot become a Deputy or Senator or local councillor until he or she is 21 years of age and cannot stand for the Presidency until the age of 35 years. We have rather different age groups of political responsibility. Our party is at present considering the position in relation to this Bill as to whether we should put down an amendment to enable young people to become local councillors at the age of 18, and stand as candidates for the Dáil and Seanad also at that age. We should consider this matter in the light of the anomalies I have pointed out.
Many people seem to assume rather superficially that because we have votes at 18 automatically we shall have a large body of young radical, utterly progressive persons either entering Leinster House or voting in the constituencies. There is a great deal of fresh political idealism in young persons but it is also true that many, in fact, do not vote in parliamentary elections. This has been shown in the UK elections. Young people are very mobile and although on the register may not necessarily vote and a high proportion of them do not. It is also true, and it has been shown to be particularly true in Britain, that many, notwithstanding the alleged progressiveness, vote in accordance with family patterns, and vote as their parents voted. I state these reservations but we welcome the fact that we shall have an extra 3,000 to 4,000 electors in the three or four seat constituencies or an increase in these constituencies of from 5 per cent to 7 per cent on the register.
Finally, I urge that there should be further consideration by the House of the amendments urgently required in parallel legislation. In Britain, not only was the parliamentary franchise introduced at 18 but they also brought in the Family Law Reform Act, 1970. It is a bit ironic that we give votes at 18 and, at the same time, if a person wants to sue for damages arising out of a car accident he must sue through his father. There is the question of the entitlement of a person between 18 and 21 to take out a house mortgage. There is the question of owning a house at 18. If you give people the parliamentary franchise, why should they not be in a position to own a house? Should they not have the right to give jury service, to enter into contract with the growth of hire purchaseet cetera? Surely it is ridiculous that a person can vote at 18 and yet cannot make a will? Many people between 18 and 21 are married. Should they not have the right to have a passport? These are matters which should be the subject of extensive family law reform legislation which I hope will go through this House in the near future.
I hope this Bill will get a speedy passage through the Dáil and Seanad and that we will have the referendum in September/October. I hope the new electoral register for 1973-74 will contain the 140,000 new parliamentary citizens. I extend a welcome to them and a welcome to this Bill.