I am pleased today to provide in the Oireachtas the first Government response to recommendations of the Convention on the Constitution. The establishment of the convention was a commitment in the programme for Government. We delivered on it and despite a good deal of scepticism from various quarters the convention has successfully provided a new forum for engagement and interaction between ordinary citizens and politicians about aspects of the Constitution. The recommendations of the convention are considered by the Government and are thus adding to the deliberations of the Government on constitutional reform and amendment, a key commitment in the programme for Government.
Establishment of the Convention on the Constitution was approved by resolution of the Oireachtas 12 months ago in July 2012. The resolution states that the Government will provide in the Oireachtas a response to each recommendation of the convention within four months and, if accepting the recommendation, will indicate the timeframe it envisages for the holding of any related referendum.
The first report of the Convention on the Constitution was submitted to the Oireachtas on 26 March 2013. I am now, in accordance with the resolution, providing in the Oireachtas the Government response to the recommendations in that report. The Government welcomes the first report of the Convention on the Constitution, is encouraged by the engagement of the participants and is accepting the main recommendations of the convention in that report. These are that the Constitution should be changed to provide for a voting age of 16 years and that the presidential term should not be reduced to five years nor aligned with local and European elections.
The Government therefore commits to holding a referendum before the end of 2015 on a proposal to amend the Constitution to provide for a voting age of 16. The Government will proceed now with preparations for bringing forward the relevant legislation. This will include careful examination of the consequences of such a change across the policy spectrum including for the age of majority.
In addition to these two main recommendations, the convention made two other recommendations relating to presidential elections which it asked the Government to consider. The Government has considered these two supplementary recommendations of the convention. These are that the age of candidacy for presidential elections be reduced from 35 years and that citizens be given a say in the nomination process at presidential elections. The Government accepts the recommendation on reducing the age of candidacy for presidential elections and has decided that a proposal to reduce the minimum age of candidacy for presidential elections from 35 years to 21 years should be put to a referendum before the end of 2015.
In considering the recommendation that citizens be given a say in the presidential election nomination process the Government is conscious that the present arrangement already provides for citizens to have a say in the presidential election nomination process through their elected representatives both at national and at local level. We would encourage citizens, candidates and elected representatives to exercise fully their democratic mandate in this regard. The Government therefore proposes that this recommendation be referred to the relevant Oireachtas committee for consideration.
I will now cover these recommendations in more detail. One amendment to the Constitution would be necessary to change the voting age. The amendment would be to Article 16.1.2°, which states:
i All citizens, and
ii such other persons in the State as may be determined by law,
without distinction of sex who have reached the age of eighteen years who are not disqualified by law and comply with the provisions of the law relating to the election of members of Dáil Éireann, shall have the right to vote at an election for members of Dáil Éireann.
No other constitutional amendment would be necessary to lower the voting age at presidential and local elections and at referendums because there is a link back, in the relevant articles, to the voting age for Dáil elections.
In the event of the people deciding by referendum to reduce the voting age legislative change would be necessary to provide for persons aged 16 to register to vote and the necessary administrative arrangements for this would also need to be made in due course, but that is another day's work. In the meantime, the Government's preparations for bringing forward the constitutional amendment Bill will include careful examination of the consequence across the policy spectrum of reducing the voting age. The Age of Majority Act 1985 generally provides that adult or full age is 18. Different age limits are provided for in a range of other legislative codes in different areas across the policy spectrum.
It is 32 years since the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years. Many arguments have been made since, both for and against further reducing the voting age. I do not propose to make any of the arguments here today but I will refer to some of the arguments made at the January meeting of the convention as set out in the first report of the convention. Arguments in favour of reducing the voting age put forward at the convention included that it could help to increase electoral turnout, that reducing the voting age would be consistent with other legal rights that 17 year olds already have and that it could help to facilitate voter registration through schools.
The main arguments against reducing the voting age included that it would be a mistake to "adultify" children; that there is little public support for the proposal; that simply to reduce the voting age would not solve anything; and that 18 is the normally accepted age of legal maturity.
These are all important and valid points of view. Opportunity will be presented for further debate when the constitutional amendment Bill comes before the Oireachtas in due course. Ultimately the decision on reducing the voting age will be made by the people in a referendum on the Constitution.
The second recommendation which the Government has accepted and agreed should be put to the people in a referendum is to reduce the minimum age for presidential election candidates. Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution states: "Every citizen who has reached his thirty-fifth year of age is eligible for election to the office of President." The convention recommended reducing this minimum age but made no recommendation as to what it might be reduced to.
We have decided to accept the recommendation of the convention and to put to the people a proposal to change the minimum age for presidential election candidates from 35 years to 21 years. This is the same age as applies for election to the Dáil and to the European Parliament. As with the voting age amendment this would be a simple amendment to the Constitution. The impact of such a change on a presidential election campaign would not be known until the time for such a campaign comes. However, it would open up the office to a significant additional proportion of the population but that of course is subject to the people voting for such a change.
The Government proposes to refer the recommendation on giving citizens a say in the presidential election nomination process to the relevant Oireachtas committee. Changing the presidential nomination process was not a subject the convention was requested directly to consider. However, it is noted in the report that a very prominent theme to emerge from the small-group deliberations was whether the nomination rules should be amended to give a greater role to citizens in nominating candidates for the presidency and thus help to increase public engagement.
This matter was considered in constitutional reviews in the 1990s and the practical difficulties of implementing such an approach were recognised. The Convention on the Constitution did not offer any insight as to what might be practical. I would expect that the Oireachtas committee would include such considerations in its examination of the recommendation.
In considering this recommendation the Government noted the highest ever levels of activity in local authority nominations in the 2011 presidential election. Local elected representatives in almost every county in Ireland had the opportunity to engage in the presidential nomination process. They met many more potential candidates than those who finally made it onto the ballot paper. There may be a risk of undermining that process if a direct citizen nomination process was put in place.
Others may hold a different view, but one of the great things about our democratic system is that we can debate these issues and sometimes disagree. The convention has shown the value of dialogue. It has provided a new forum and a new way of conducting political deliberation. In the process it has proven itself to be an important and valuable addition to our democracy.
I commend the work of the convention. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to the ordinary members of the convention for engaging so positively in this important work. Participants have given up several weekends and, I am sure, time outside of those weekends in preparing for the meetings.
They are ably led by the chairman, Tom Arnold, and ably supported by his team and by the expert support group. I commend the productivity of the convention in submitting three reports to the Oireachtas in the first half of the year.