Thirty-ninth Amendment of the Constitution (Right to Vote at 16) Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to amend the Constitution.

I am delighted to introduce my Private Members’ Bill on the constitutional amendment on the right to vote at 16. I am introducing this Bill today to coincide with the Scottish and Welsh elections, in which 16 and 17-year-olds are voting.

I note the great work already done by Senators Fintan Warfield and Lynn Ruane on trying to bring forward a Bill which would allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in local and European elections. The Senators’ Bill would not require a referendum but would limit the types of elections in which young people could vote. In March 2013, the first report of the Convention on the Constitution examined this issue and the majority recommended that the age be reduced to 16 and that the franchise be extended for all elections.

My Bill is a simple constitutional amendment Bill, which would put the question to the people of Ireland on whether they agree to amend Article 16 of the Constitution, reducing the age of eligibility to vote in Dáil elections from 18 years of age to 16 years of age. This change, if accepted by the people, would mean that people could register to vote from the age of 16 years and be allowed to vote in all elections, including referendums. Estimated figures suggest that upwards of 126,000 young people would be eligible to vote, with perhaps up to 5,000 of those in Donegal.

The local and European elections will be taking place in three years, a general election is probably not too far off and there are commitments in the programme for Government to various referendums. It is expected there will be a referendum on the right to housing and also on Article 41(2), on a woman’s place in the home. Why not add this issue to the priority list?

Last Friday, 30 April, my colleague, Jessica Bray, and I attended the student council meeting in St. Catherine’s Vocational School, Killybegs. The conversation was lively, insightful, and informed.

Interestingly, some students raised concerns around the idea that young people might not understand politics or the PR-STV system. We discussed the fact that young people are smarter than they are given credit for, but that they have just not been given the tools and information to understand our system yet. If teenagers can be taught to understand maths theorems, surely, they can be taught to understand PR-STV. Indeed, there are many people, politicians included, who do not fully understand it yet, so I would not worry too much about that either.

Seeing as my Private Members’ Bill is about giving young people a voice, I wanted to share some of the matters that came up during our discussion. We discussed the idea that young people are more involved in everyday life than we think, with many 16 to 18-year-olds having part-time jobs.

We explored the idea that politics is in everything we do and affects young people more than they might initially think, from the facilities they use to the student grants to which they are entitled. I will read out some of their comments. One said:

You let us have certain responsibilities, like having a job or paying taxes, but don’t give us the responsibility of having a say on worker’s rights or where these taxes should go. If we are contributing to society, we deserve to be represented!

Another stated:

People tell us that young people aren’t interested in politics but of course we aren’t interested in something that we have no say over or input in. If we were given a vote, young people would be interested and empowered!"

Young people have suffered greatly during this unprecedented pandemic. They missed schooling, social development, sport and recreational activities. I know that all of society has suffered greatly and I acknowledge that. However, there has been additional anxiety for those preparing for their leaving certificates and further education and training opportunities. Over the past year, we have heard from articulate and determined young voices who wanted to be heard in the decisions being made about their future and safety. Young people spoke up and the media wanted young voices. The mantra of listening to those most affected is a welcome change in our media landscape and it should be the same in our political practices.

Even before the pandemic, we had seen the mass mobilisation of students around the world calling for action on climate change. The school strikes for climate and Fridays for Future campaigns have been led by young people around the world. Global inaction on climate change and their fear for the future of the planet and their own futures has mobilised young voices. It is inspiring to see. Reducing the voting age to 16 would enable schools to play a part in registering students. This should be done in tandem with political education and should take place in all secondary schools, linking with local youth groups for those who may have left school at 16.

I thank Luke Casserly and his colleagues from the Irish Second–Level Students' Union, James Doorley and his team from the National Youth Council of Ireland, and the teachers and students in St. Catherine’s Vocational School in Killybegs for their time, ideas and collaboration on this important Bill. I would also like to give a special mention to a member of my team, Jessica Bray, for her enthusiastic and excellent work on this project. We look forward to it progressing through the Houses. I commend this Bill to the House.

Is the Bill opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

As this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.