Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015: Second Stage (Resumed)

Atairgeadh an cheist: "Go léifear an Bille an Dara hUair anois."
Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am not sure how many times over the years I have spoken on the topic of electoral or political reform but it has certainly been many times and the matter has been brought up repeatedly in different guises and by different Governments and Opposition. This clearly reflects a belief that our system is not as perfect as we might pretend it is. It also reflects a real desire to improve the system and make it more democratic, more equal, more modern, more efficient and more streamlined. There is unanimity that our system is not perfect and needs reform. That feeling was reinforced by our economic collapse and a feeling that our political and electoral system contributed to it and that led to the setting up of the constitutional convention. However, while there is unanimity that we need to do something there is far from unanimity about what reforms we should actually introduce or, indeed, even what constitutes reform.

The two most recent electoral changes which come to mind are the decision to abolish the local town councils and the proposal to abolish the Seanad. In both cases the propositions were argued for and opposed vigorously. There were two sides to the argument and the proposals were hotly debated from a variety of perspectives because people felt strongly about the issues, either for or against. Try as I might, however, I cannot think of a single argument for a change to the age at which a person may be a candidate for President. I hope I am not a person who believes our Constitution is perfect, nor am I someone who is instinctively resistant to change. However, unless I hear good reasons to change with clearly articulated arguments then I take the conservative decision to maintain the status quo.

I believe many people feel the same way and even the constitutional convention only passed the recommendation by a margin of three votes. Like most people in public life I have a reasonable idea of what people are talking about at the shops or at the water cooler and they are not talking about this. There is certainly no widespread clamour, no overwhelming demand and no irresistible groundswell of support for dropping the age of eligibility for a presidential candidate. The only value I see in this is that by putting the question now we will take it off the agenda pretty much indefinitely.

In favour of a "Yes" vote I have heard the suggestion that if a person aged 18 can vote in Dáil and local elections and be a Deputy at 21 he or she should be able to run for President at 21, but there is a world of difference in these functions in respect of their powers and the extent and gravity of their impact on people. There is absolutely no qualification required to vote and one does not need training or experience but those things are requirements for a person who wants to be President. A single 18-year old's vote will not have an impact on people's lives unless a majority votes with that person but a Presidential decision, on a constitutional matter or any other issue such as the dissolution of the Government, legislation or a serious constitutional issue, will have an impact on the lives of many. Similarly, no single Deputy, whether they are 21 or 81 years of age, will have an impact on citizens because one needs a majority in this House. The President, however, makes these decisions on his or her own and that is the crucial difference. It is a solitary job and about more than simply representing us abroad and attending functions. It is a serious job that can impact on citizens.

I have heard people say it will do no harm because people will not vote for a 21-year old President in any event. We have no guarantee that will be the case. If we do elect a 21-year old with no experience of life, no training and no expertise and we are faced with a constitutional crisis what is likely to be the outcome? It has also been said that it will never happen because the political parties dominate the selection process. That may have been true once but it is no longer true as all a candidate now needs are 20 Deputies or four county councils to give their support.

In an ever-changing political landscape anything can happen. The Irish people - all of us - can lose the run of ourselves. I am reminded that supposedly sensible, qualified people thought it was a good idea to send a turkey to represent us in the Eurovision Song Contest. We can be deluded and if we make a decision about the President in a moment of temporary delusion we will live with the consequences of it for seven years. Why should we take the risk of that happening, especially seeing as there is no clamour for it?

In its favour, the referendum is to be held in conjunction with a referendum for which there has been a clearly articulated demand. However, I agree with other speakers in that I would prefer to see other political reforms being put to Members than one reducing the age of the President. We need to look at the multi-seat constituency system and consider the possibility of a single-seat constituency because the tyranny of competition in constituencies is anathema to the national interest and the common good and again and again over the years the common good has been sacrificed to local and sectoral interests in constituencies. This would be a big step. I am aware that Deputies and the public are wedded to the system and naturally resistant to change. Despite the arguments we had at the last election about parish pump politics the reality is that it is alive and well all over Ireland, on both sides.

Some of the reforms that would be necessary to move towards a single-seat constituency have already been introduced by this Government in the form of giving more powers to local authorities, as well as revenue collection powers in the guise of the local property tax. Local authorities have been strengthened and an important aspect of moving toward single-seat constituencies whose Deputies can concentrate more on national issues is to have strong local Government so that there is no lessening of democratic representation in constituencies. The building blocks are in place for electoral change of this nature.

I will support this Bill because I believe the members of the public should have their say on the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention but I have serious reservations about supporting the referendum in question.

We have here a proposal from Government, originating from the Constitutional Convention, for involving young people in politics. The Government is able to find the time and the space for a referendum on this issue but has refused to provide a referendum for the much more urgently needed repeal of the barbaric eighth amendment of the Constitution.

We will vote in favour of this referendum but the argument made by the Government is based on two false premises.

Premise one is the idea that the Government, or any of the establishment political parties, seriously want people, in particular young people, to be involved in politics. I do not believe that they do. We can have all the reductions in the age of eligibility to allow people stand for election to the Office of President, all the civil, social and political education, CSPE, classes and all the hand-wringing about the need to involve people in politics that we want but the reality, as demonstrated in recent months, is that when people get involved in politics in significant numbers the Government is scared as opposed to welcoming. People have become involved in politics outside the framework that is safe for the capitalist establishment, which is people voting or simply standing for election and then a process of betrayal of promises and so on that we all know all too well. Instead, people have become involved in politics. Twenty-one year olds, 22 year olds, and younger, have become involved in politics in protesting against water charges, protesting and stopping water meter installation and in demonstrating their opposition to this austerity policy. For that, they faced State repression. This is a State that has stood over the dawn raids at teenagers' doors for participation in the peaceful protest in Jobstown. It is a State that saw four people jailed for a peaceful protest against water meter installation: people were protesting within 20 m of the meter installation going on. I do not believe the Government, or the establishment parties generally, are in any way serious about people actually being involved in politics. The real politics that is happening is street politics, campaigning politics and working class people power politics.

The second premise is the idea that the Government cares about or has an interest in young people. The reality is that this Government has waged a war against young people. We can consider the cutting of social welfare for those under the age of 25, which the Minister, Deputy Burton, just yesterday explained by saying this is a targeted measure aimed at protecting young people from welfare dependency. She said it aims to incentivise young jobseeker's allowance recipients to avail of education and training opportunities. One could not find a better example of a Tory argument being replicated by the Labour Party. We can consider the so-called student contribution charges, also known as registration charges, which are making third level education inaccessible. Despite the previous promises of the Labour Party, from 2015 to 2016 the maximum fee will be €3,000, which puts third level education out of the reach of many. Education cuts in general disproportionately hit young people, for example, the abolition of funds for postgraduate students. The housing crisis hits young people disproportionately, with high rents and no access to mortgages or council homes for people in their 20s. The result is that this Government has driven young people out of this country. In the course of the past five years, 165,000 have emigrated. The 15 to 29 year old age group fell from 23% to 18% of the population in 2014. If we consider the policy of JobBridge and the mandatory nature of that policy introduced by the Youth Guarantee initiative and the First Steps scheme, they are all about an attack on young people and normalising the idea of young people working for free.

Young people entering working life now face the prospect of working until they reach the age of 68 before they will be able to avail of a pension. We have had the attacks on the starting pay for teachers and nurses, which particularly affect young people, and we can reflect on the mental health impact of youth unemployment and the rise of incidents of suicide.

The Deputy is straying somewhat from the Bill.

The point is that the Government-----

The Deputy has not stuck to the Bill once.

Will he support it?

-----is not interested in dealing with young people.

With regard to the Bill, the notion Deputy Mitchell put forward that Irish people can lose the run of themselves by electing a 21 year old President - the idea that the worst thing that could possibly befall the State is that the people in a democracy would elect somebody who happened to be 21 rather than 35 or older - is bizarre. The point is that people should have a right to choose who they elect as President. The point of a democracy is that we trust the people to choose. That is the reason we have tabled an amendment to reduce the age of eligibility for election to that office from 21 to 18. We will be voting in favour of the Bill but we will not be going along with the Government's hypocrisy about involving people in politics or about caring about the conditions of young people.

I never cease to be amazed by the rhetoric of Deputy Paul Murphy. He should remember that he is not at Speaker's Corner or standing on a bully pulpit in Hyde Park. He is an elected Member of Dáil Éireann and there is a responsibility that comes with that.

We were the only ones who put down amendments to the Bill.

I wish that Members who were elected to serve would do so rather than engage in populist nonsense at times, and I say that with the greatest respect to the Deputy.

The Office of President has served us well as a State and as a country. We can think back to the night when telephone calls to the Áras were allegedly made and the then President, Patrick Hillery, allegedly said he would not take them and when we reflect on the modern day phenomenon of our women Presidents, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese, and our current President, Michael D. Higgins, we have been served well. The person holding the Office of President is our Head of State. That officeholder will represent our country as a dignitary, at civic receptions, or as our Head of State on visits across the world.

There is an obligation and responsibility on the incumbent of that office to be up to doing to that job. Apart from the ceremonial aspect of that office on engagements abroad, there is the day-to-day role the President plays in evaluating legislation with the Council of State and in performing the duty and functions of that office around our country as our Head of State. It is important we acknowledge it is an office that is apolitical, that is outside politics: it is the office of the people. That is why this Bill is very important. It asks us to reduce the age of eligibility for a person to run for election to that office.

When we consider what the office entails in terms of the tasks and duties, we could legitimately argue that in the past the holders of that office had a lived experience in terms of their personal life and their work as an academic, a politician or whatever job they held, and they brought that experience to the Office of President. If we reflect upon that, it was a very important part of what they brought to that office. A person on reaching the age of 21 can be elected to Dáil Éireann, the same age requirement applies for election to the Seanad and to the European Parliament while the age requirement for election to local government is 18. There is a discrepancy in the age of eligibility for election to our different offices or institutions which makes the point that eligibility is not age dependent or age specific. It is important that we put that as the backdrop to what this debate is about.

I was very privileged to be a member of the Constitutional Convention and I did not miss any meeting of the convention. I took my role as a member of it seriously. I believe those who will reflect on the work of the Constitutional Convention in time will ultimately acknowledge and pay tribute to the citizen members who were equally committed to their role in the analysis of and participation in the topics upon we were asked to engage. The first item on the agenda of the convention was to examine the proposition of a reduction in the term of the Office of President which the convention rejected. It rejected that proposition by 55 to 43 votes and it rejected, by a majority of 80 to 14, the proposition that a reduced Presidential term be aligned with the European and local elections.

I would have liked to see it introduced, but when we did not vote to reduce the term from seven years to five, I recognised that it could not be done.

More importantly, the Constitutional Convention did not vote to have a single term President. Those who propose term limits for Ministers, Deputies, Senators, councillors and Presidents are misguided about democracy and citizenship. Men, women and children are sitting in the Visitors Gallery and will be the ultimate arbiters of who will sit here or in any other institution when we put ourselves forward for election. We serve at the pleasure of the people, which is the way it should be. I am not in favour of term limits for Ministers, Deputies, Presidents and MEPs and the idea does not serve us well. I would like to see an analysis of what term limits have brought to the United States. I do not think there has been any material benefit for public office there. The vote to reduce the age profile was 50% in favour and 47% against, which is narrow. This underlines the difference in viewpoints within society.

I have heard speeches that this was not the most enduring or important issue. That may be right, but it is an important issue because it is about Uachtarán na hÉireann, the President of Ireland, and what he or she represents. That is why the referendum is important and the issue needs to be examined and scrutinised. If I am given a personal choice, as I will be, I will be broadly in favour of lowering the age limit. Am I 100% sure? No, I am not, but I recognise it is important that we allow every citizen to aspire to being what they can be in society. That is why it is important to lower the age limit.

Other European countries use a different age profile. In France the age limit was 23 years until 2011, but it is now 18. The age limit is 50 years in Italy, 40 in Latvia, 18 in Slovenia and 35 in Austria. There is no happy medium, but it is important that we do the right thing.

I welcome the establishment of an electoral commission. We should change the nomination process, of which the Constitutional Convention voted 94% in favour. Those who remember past presidential terms remember the farce of Members of the Oireachtas and citizens touring the country and hawking themselves to local authorities to try to be nominated. I do not think that is right and it demeans the process and the office of President. If I am wrong, I can be corrected, but I remember a Member of this House having a meeting of his supporters about whether to nominate a candidate in the last presidential election. That is wrong and we need to see the process changed in the context of the office of President. I would like to see the issue debated as part of the work of the electoral commission or to reconvene the Constitutional Convention to examine the issue of the eighth amendment and others we have not seen addressed in their totality.

This is an important office, important legislation and an important referendum. Young people will have an opportunity in the referendum to have their voices heard. If I may stray, as Deputy Paul Murphy and others have done, in the other referendum on marriage equality they will have the opportunity to leave their imprint on the Constitution by voting "Yes". Like Deputy Olivia Mitchell, I am in favour of a change to the electoral process where we would have single seat constituencies using the proportional representation and single transferable vote, PR-STV, system. It would be better for democracy and the citizens would be better represented by having single seat constituencies using that system.

I welcome this Bill which is part of the reforms brought about by the Government. Such reforms were lacking for so long and had not brought about by others in government for almost two generations and who refused to do anything. This is an important referendum and I hope it will receive the attention it deserves in this House, on the public airwaves and among the people of the country.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. Taking up where my colleague left off in referring to the demeaning of the office of President by having to go around to councils and Oireachtas Members having to seek the advice and opinion of their supporters, we can think of presidential candidates in the United States and the campaigning in which they must engage to attain the most powerful office in the world. Our candidates do not have to go to the same levels.

Thinking back to 2011, the Government was elected to office and stated it was a democratic revolution. There was a seismic change to the personnel elected to the Dáil and the composition and configuration of political parties. Four years on, we are far from the revolution promised and needed. Looking at the reforms of the political system that could be made without any constitutional change, there has been a total failure to grasp the need for real reform. The Executive retains power with a vice-like grip and has concentrated it further in four Dáil Members. The debates on some 63% of Bills introduced since the Government took office were guillotined, despite having promised not to guillotine the debate on any Bill. The Government articulated that the relevant Ministers with responsibility for a particular issue would attend Topical Issue debates, but one hour ago three of the four Topical Issues debates were not taken by the Ministers responsible for the questions raised.

The Deputy is straying somewhat from the Bill.

I am talking about political reform. The Friday sittings are the greatest farce of all. Backbenchers on the Government side articulate legislation which they say they will bring to the floor of the Dáil. If the Government was real about bringing about the changes articulated by backbenchers, these Deputies would not need to table Bills to be taken during Private Members' business. The Executive has the power to ensure any business it wishes to conduct can be conducted on the floor of the Chamber. It is hardly surprising that the Government has not lived up to its promise to provide for constitutional change. In 2011 the Taoiseach promised a programme to allow a series of constitutional amendments to be decided on Constitution Day within 12 months of the new Government being formed and including a complex question on the abolition of the Seanad. There was a referendum on the abolition of the Seanad and, thankfully, the Government was defeated. What happened to the programme for Government commitment on Constitution Day?

I compliment the citizens who served on the Constitutional Convention on giving of their time to participate in the debates which took place at it. I am sure they are disillusioned and disheartened by the response of the Government to the proposals brought forward. There were proposals to strengthen the economic rights of citizens. A recent report by the Children's Rights Alliance gave the Government an F grade for the manner in which it was dealing with the issue of child poverty. Is it not a priority to ensure the economic rights of children are enshrined in the Constitution? Would it not better to ensure the election of the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot? The proposal on the abolition of the Seanad, one full arm of the Oireachtas, was put to the people without any reference to the Constitutional Convention.

When one considers the number of people who have been obliged to emigrate from our island to far-flung destinations, one must ask whether we should examine the possibility of extending the franchise in order to allow them to participate in elections at home. Promises were made in respect of all of the issues to which I refer. Those issues could have been addressed on a constitutional referendum day such as that promised not by anybody on this side of the House but by those in government. The latter are in a position to fulfil their promises but as has been the case in so many other instances, those promises have been abandoned.

When I consider the proposal before the House and that relating to reducing the voting age, I come to the conclusion that behind both is a desire to ensure that there will be greater engagement on the part of young people with the political system. We can all agree that this is a priority. Why are people disenfranchised from the political system? They have become disenfranchised as a result of the cynical approach adopted by so many politicians in this Government and those which preceded it. I refer, for example, to the cynical approach taken by the former Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn - when he was his party's spokesperson on education in opposition - in the context of solemnly promising young people that there would be no increase in student registration fees. We know what happened to that promise.

I would appreciate it if the Deputy would return to the debate on the Bill.

I am of the view that the proposal before the House is worthwhile. It sends out a clear and unambiguous message to the effect that we value the opinions of our young citizens. The office of the President of Ireland is very much symbolic and ceremonial in nature. In that context, we should consider reducing the age at which people can be elected to it. The age relating to the office of the President of France, which is the seat of many executive powers, is 18 years. Our President can be faced with issues such those relating to whether to sign legislation into law or refer it to the Supreme Court but he or she has access to the Council of State and it can provide him or her with advice if he or she does not feel capable of making a decision in respect of such issues.

What will be the outcome of reducing the age of eligibility? First, there will be greater diversity on the ballot paper. This means there will be much more choice for the members of the electorate, who will ultimately determine who will serve as President. Under the legislation, a person will be able to put himself or herself forward for election to the office of President but he or she will still be required to obtain the support of 20 Oireachtas Members or four county councils in this regard. The Bill does not state that the next President of Ireland or some future holder of the office should be 21 years of age. What it stipulates is that anybody above the age of 21 will be eligible to articulate his or her narrative and put forward his or her proposals, vision and views on the office of the President to the electorate. I have faith in the electorate. A number of previous speakers stated that they do not trust the electorate. I trust it to be able to determine whether a candidate who is 24, 25, 44 or 45 years of age is fit to serve as President. The electorate has the capacity to determine who is suitably qualified to be elected to the office of Uachtarán na hÉireann. I have every confidence that young people will be able to articulate their message, views and vision in the context of why they would like to serve as Uachtarán na hÉireann.

Next year we will celebrate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Two of the signatories to the Proclamation of Independence, Joseph Plunkett and Seán Mac Diarmada, who were involved in leading the Rising were below the age required to serve as Uachtarán na hÉireann. Many more, including Michael Collins, Seán Heuston and Con Colbert, to name but a few, were all under than 30 years of age when they fought in 1916. Those men played a pivotal role in the foundation of the State and nobody once questioned their competence or capabilities or whether they would be able to do what they did. Those men were leaders. Sadly, we do not have such visionaries or leaders serving in the political system today. However, it must be acknowledged that the youngest Member of the Dáil is good enough and possesses the necessary capabilities and abilities to serve as a Minister of State.

I do not believe that age should be a barrier to anyone putting himself or herself forward for election to office. The history books show what young men and women can do. I believe in the electorate's capability in terms of determining who is the best person to serve. What we are doing with the Bill before the House is offering the electorate a wider choice in the context of who might be elected to serve in the highest office in the land.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for affording me the opportunity, late in the day, to offer some thoughts on the subject of this debate.

Both Houses of the Oireachtas and Uachtarán na hÉireann comprise the law-making apparatus of this country. It is they which put in place laws on behalf of the people. I agree that the contribution of young people, regardless of age, is extremely valuable within society. However, we must not become over-enthused to the point of naivety because we are talking here about the Head of State, who is responsible for signing into law all the Bills passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. The latter is a solemn representational responsibility. Uachtarán na hÉireann can call on the Council of State to assist him or her in considering and deliberating on particular legislation. He or she can also apply a brake in respect of certain matters. Any behavioural psychologist will confirm - based on evidence - that the ability to pause or reflect is sometimes not a trait which is evident in young people. However, that ability is important.

Even in the most historically long-lasting but what we would identify as primitive societies in parts of the globe that are underdeveloped in technical terms, the wisdom of the elders of the tribe or society is extremely important. There is a roundedness in life that comes with the effluxion of time and the racking up of experience. The experience of grandparents is very valuable to society. In most cases, one does not become a grandparent at the age of 21. There is great wisdom - both emotional and intellectual - in the experience of grandparents, which they garnered in the course of their working and family lives.

A situation could arise whereby a very powerful Government, such as that which is currently in office by dint of numbers, could decide that it was very important for the country to have a 21 year old President. It could harness all the resources of its constituent parties and these could call upon the expertise of their ordinary members, Oireachtas members and professional advisers in order to make that to which I refer happen. Such a course might not be wise. On January 27, Auschwitz commemoration day, a Private Members' Bill containing a proposal to insert a safeguard section into the Constitution was defeated. Said section related to the Members of the Oireachtas, which constitutes two thirds of the law-making triumvirate - the other one third being the President - of this country.

The 27 words in that proposed section, which were identical to article 38.1 of German basic law, was rejected only by the voted numbers of the Government parties. On Friday, 23 January, the day of the date, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Kehoe occupied the chair where the Minister, Deputy Kelly, now sits. The Minister of State spoke on behalf of the Government but he did not address those 27 words. The section provides that the Members of each House of the Oireachtas shall be representatives of the whole people, not bound by orders and instructions and responsible only to their conscience in this regard.

We are debating the age of eligibility for elections to the Office of President.

That is correct. The President will be signing all laws. That is why it is relevant. For the last 24 months, two Members of this House, Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace, delivered in spades in accordance with that proposed section. They were representatives of the whole people in their endeavour to pull back the curtains on shortcomings by the Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality. That is relevant to the first part of the section. They were responsible only to their consciences not to any neurotic or superstitious conscience that could be learned from a strict religion, party or any other organisation, be it a business, an association, an institute or a university. They acted with their consciences and with an understanding of the solemnity of the overarching requirement to be a representative of the whole people.

I will give another example of why that section should not have been dismissed just because the numbers on the Government benches far outweigh everyone else. The section would protect individual party members. I posit the example of a new party with 200,000 members of all ages, from 16 years to more than 100 years. The members convene for their first convention or Ard Fheis in Dublin because it is handy to get there and for three days they put forward policies for health, education and taxation. They propose policies for their manifesto, debate them and amend them before all 200,000 men and women unanimously approve them. The manifesto is, therefore, unanimously approved. That new party then decides to put up candidates for election to the Oireachtas. Let us assume that the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is unanimously approved as a candidate for the following general election. There is a unanimously approved manifesto under the aforementioned three policy areas and a unanimous candidate who wins a seat in the election. Having been duly elected, and regardless of whether he is a Minister or an ordinary Member of the Dáil, he is under a solemn obligation to be a representative of the whole people. He also carries out the mandate unanimously approved by the members of his party.

However, 12 months later a pandemic arrives in Ireland which affects not only the 200,000 members of his party but also the entire population of 4.5 million. The safeguard section for parliamentary representation confers a responsibility on him to be aware of conscience and social policy awareness. The World Health Organisation and the best medical practitioners and brains convene to help Ireland withstand this pandemic, which is far worse than the Ebola virus. It is lethally contagious. The best medical advice indicates that the party's unanimously agreed health policy is contraindicated. The Minister, Deputy Kelly, as the party's representative in the Dáil, has to refer to his overarching responsibility under the section, to act as a representative of the whole people and to listen to the medical advice. He is not bound by orders and instructions because he is being responsible to his conscience in taking on board the best advice from medical practitioners and policy makers, even though it is at odds with what his party agreed.

That is why the proposed section would act as a huge safeguard for every Member of these Houses. At present, party leaders tell Members to obey party policy or be disenfranchised from committees or be denied speaking time in statements on European Council meetings.

The Deputy's time has concluded.

This is not nice to hear but it is fundamental to democracy. Parliament must be able to debate honestly and relevantly the issues arising.

It is populist to say people are intellectually ready for any challenge, perhaps even at the age of 12 years, but they do not have generational experience. One has to punch through the hours, have the babies and the grandchildren and learn certain things about life before one can use the fountain pen on all the legislation that has to be signed off by the President or after seeking the advice of the Council of State.

These are important issues. The House is empty.

I have to call Deputy Fitzmaurice next because the Deputy's time has concluded.

These are important considerations.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this Bill. As Deputy Mathews pointed out, it is difficult to know whether an individual is fitted at the age of 21 years to know about what is involved in going through life but perhaps some people started various things at a young age. As a nation, we should start by giving the diaspora the opportunity to vote in presidential elections. I am aware that the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Deenihan, is making inroads on this issue. It is important that the people who have left the country have their say in presidential elections. I acknowledge that complications arise in this regard. We have proposed to reduce the age for voting. At present our law provides that 18 years is the limit for a wide variety of matters. It would require considerable legislative effort to change this.

We have to be open-minded on the referendum and perhaps we will decide that we should give youth a chance. We should be broad-minded in what we do because at the end of the day, it will be the people going to the polls who decide whether the President is 25 years, 75 years or 95 years. While some people would be cautious about the issue because a President has to consider legislation, Presidents have advisers who will help them understand the legislation they sign.

At 18, 19 or 20 years of age, many young people today have learned more than many would have learned at 30 or 35 in previous times. These young people are attending college and are very capable and we should be open to allowing them this opportunity. It is the people who will decide which way we go. I understand that some people have concerns that an applicant for the Presidency may be a rock or pop star and that all young people would vote for him or her because of that. However, we must take all of this on board. People who cast their vote in a ballot are grown adults who are making a decision on the best way forward. Some people of note who have expressed their views on this issue are worried, but others are very much in favour of it.

All in all, the opportunity should be there for all. Who decided 35 is the right age for being President but 30 is not? We should be prepared to reduce the age to 21 and I have no difficulty with that. I thank the Minister of State for attending to hear our views.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak on this issue and thank Deputy Fitzmaurice for sharing his time with me. I am delighted to see my colleague from Tipperary in the Government benches to hear this debate.

I have concerns about this referendum. I have the greatest faith in young Irish people. They are the brightest and most intelligent of people in every way, in sport, literature, culture and communications. I have eight children all under the age of 30, some of whom are involved in youth affairs and they and I believe 21 is far too young an age to be President and that this is a wasteful proposal. If the best the Government can do is to bring forward this proposal, a token referendum, it has failed in its promises. It promised all kinds of reform, a new era of transparency and openness and changed politics. I understand the Government held the Constitutional Convention and that this proposal came from that, but I believe that young people are neither interested in nor want to stand for office as President at the age of 21.

At that age, young people are just finishing or just out of college and may want to go on and do their Master's degree. Young people I have heard speak in debate and in national fora have said that what they want to do after college is to get a job or to travel around the world. I believe 21 is too young to take on the important role of President and to oversee the legislation that has been churned out and rammed through this House. Take for example the Children and Family Relationships Bill, a massive piece of legislation with far-reaching consequences for young people, children and families. I respect the office of President and the ability of the current incumbent to deal with Bills like this and to refer to the Council of State if necessary.

The introduction of this token referendum is farcical. The cost is also an issue. Comments have been made on the cost and while I am not aware of the exact cost, it will be a significant amount. The children's referendum cost over €3 million and I voted for the holding of that referendum. However, the money was misspent by the current Government. This was challenged by a good lady, Joanna Jordan, in the High Court and the High Court upheld the Government case. However, Ms Jordan took the case to the Supreme Court and all five judges unanimously decided the Government had erred and had misspent the money on its campaign. In other words, it was caught with its hand in the till. I do not want to use stronger terms, but that is what happened. I have told the Minister for Justice and Equality that if she does not address this issue soon, I will make a complaint to An Garda Síochána. If somebody stole bread from a shop, he would be prosecuted for it, but in this case the Government misspent the money.

The Minister of State, Deputy Hayes, is a member of the Government that stands over that decision and is now going to bring forward another referendum. What faith can the people have that this referendum or the one to be held along with it will be run properly? It will have none whatsoever, since the highest court in the land found the Government had misappropriated the money. That children's referendum should have been stopped. A legal challenge on that issue is ongoing and if the Referendum Act is found to have been breached, that makes a farce of the two referendums planned now. It is time the Government took its head out of the sand and started listening to the people. Above all, it is time it respected the laws that have been passed by the Oireachtas, laws it is supposed to implement. The Government is not doing that. The situation is farcical.

We saw what happened in Castlebar the other day, when ordinary people were denied justice. Justice delayed is justice denied. Justice without public scrutiny or participation is not proper justice. Under the Constitution, citizens are entitled to be in a courtroom. Those good people in Castlebar were not going to intimidate, assault or threaten anybody.

That is not relevant to this Bill.

What I am saying is that there is no point in passing Bills here if we are going to break the laws ourselves. The Government of the day clearly broke the law in regard to the children's referendum. This was the unanimous decision of the highest court in this land, but there was no debate and not a word uttered on that here, yet it is an issue I have raised here 116 times. The Minister of State does not seem to know what I am talking about judging by the way he is looking at me, but what I have said is a fact. Our constituents know this yet we talk about openness, transparency and democracy.

We have seen a €15 million cut to funding for mental health, yet we have heaps of money for this referendum. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has decided to cut funding for housing adaption grants by 40% for the most needy, yet the Government has money to spend on this referendum. Nobody asked for it but we are told it came from the Constitutional Convention. We are losing €15 million in Leader funding but we have money for issues like this. There are serious issues that should be put to a referendum, but the Government runs away from those issues. We should have a referendum on Irish Water and the Bill I introduced demanded a referendum on that issue. We should let the people decide whether they want a super quango like Irish Water but we are not getting that referendum.

We have chronic shortages in social welfare and we could make a long list of cuts. The Government did away with the motorised transport grant for needy people, but the benefit was supposed to return after a couple of months. It has not been restored yet we have money to throw at issues like this. I do wish to demean any young people, but I believe they need life experience before they can become Uachtarán na hÉireann and look after Bunreacht na hÉireann and our people and representatives abroad. I am not knocking young people, but I would like to see a common sense proposal, not the patent nonsense we are getting from the Government nor its patent disregard for the laws and courts of the land.

I thank all Members for their contributions to this debate. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ann Phelan, said this morning, this is a short but important Bill to provide for a referendum to be held in May.

I take this opportunity to address some of the comments that have been made regarding this referendum. It has been suggested that rather than progressing the referendum on candidacy age for the Presidency, the Government should address some of the other recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention. In some quarters, these other recommendations have been portrayed as being more substantial than the proposal to lower the age at which a citizen is eligible for election to the office of President. I do not accept that view. Under the Constitution, the President takes precedence over all persons in the State. A President is required to make significant decisions after issues such as the referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court or dissolution of the Dáil. Taking these facts into consideration, the proposal to reduce the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the office of President must be seen as a significant proposal.

It is true that the Constitutional Convention made other recommendations. However, the impression sometimes conveyed that the Government is not responding to these recommendation is not the case. Let us look at the position in regard to some of those recommendations. We should acknowledge that all of the issues on which recommendations have been made are serious issues with implementation implications that must be considered carefully. Arising from recommendations made in the first report of the Constitutional Convention, the Government agreed to hold a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 in 2015.

However, it would be premature to proceed with that referendum in May. Consideration must be given to the possible consequences across the policy spectrum of lowering the voting age. These issues were recently debated in this House.

The Government has undertaken to look at the question of the most appropriate wording to be presented to the people arising from the recommendations in the second report of the Constitutional Convention on amending the language in Article 41.2 on the role of women in the home.

It has also undertaken to look at the feasibility of including the principle of gender equality as well as the use of gender-inclusive language in the Constitution. A task force established to look at these issues has completed a draft report which is under consideration at present. Arising from recommendations in the fourth report, the Government has commenced work on the establishment of an independent electoral commission. The Minister of State, Deputy Phelan, referred to this work in her contribution. Arising from recommendations in the fifth report that citizens resident outside the State should have a vote in presidential elections, the Government set out the position announcing our diaspora policy. Together with the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I will be carrying out an analysis of the practical and policy issues that arise from the recommendations to extend the franchise before any decision on the referendum on that matter is made.

Arising from recommendations in the sixth report on the removal of the offence of blasphemy the Government agreed to have a referendum on an appropriate date in the future after examination of a number of options and the preparation of the required legislation. This work is being carried out. Work is also ongoing on the remaining reports of the convention.

With regard to the Bill before the House, it is interesting to reflect on the number of citizens currently not eligible for election to the Office of President who will become eligible if this Bill is passed and approved by the people in the referendum. Based on the population figures from the most recent census, some 2.27 million people, or 49.5% of the population were 35 years and over. Some 3.27 million people, or 71.2% of the population were aged 21 years and over. On the basis of these figures, some 1 million additional people in the State, or 21.6% of the population, would become eligible for election to the Office of President. This is a very significant number of additional people and it reflects that this is an important amendment that is being put to the people for decision in the referendum in May.

In conclusion, the Government has committed to holding two referenda in May, one on marriage equality and the other on the subject of this Bill. I understand that if either or both of these proposals is accepted by the people, Ireland's Constitutional Convention will be the first ever citizens' assembly of its type to produce bona fide constitutional change.

Cuireadh agus aontaíodh an cheist.
Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Is that agreed? Agreed.