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.