We will now take Second Stage of the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015. No. 4, a motion pursuant to section 23 of the Referendum Act 1994 on the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015, will be debated in conjunction with Second Stage but will not be moved until Fifth Stage has been concluded.
Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015: Second Stage
The Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution. It provides for the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the Office of President to be reduced from 35 years to 21. It is a short but important Bill in the context of the Office of President, as provided for in the Constitution.
In drawing up its first report the Constitutional Convention gave consideration to the current age requirement of 35 years, which applies to citizens who wish to be elected to the Office of President. The convention recommended that the age of candidacy be reduced, but it did not suggest a specific age to which it should be reduced. The Government accepted the recommendation and agreed that a referendum should be held in 2015 on reducing the age from 35 years to 21, the same as the minimum age for Dáil and European election candidates. As the Bill has emerged from a recommendation of the convention, I take the opportunity to acknowledge the work done by the convention in bringing forward proposals for constitutional change. The impact of its work is clear. The two referendums to be held in May are based on recommendations made by the convention.
In addition, the convention recommended in its fourth report that an electoral commission be established. The Government accepted this recommendation and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, recently took the first steps towards establishing an independent electoral commission when, on 27 January, he published a consultation paper. The paper was discussed in the Seanad on 4 March and on 10 March the Minister met the Joint Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht to discuss it as part of the pre-legislative process. The joint committee will engage in a consultation process and report to the Minister with recommendations.
On the Bill before us and the specific proposal to lower the age at which a citizen becomes eligible for election to the Office of President, I note that the issue was considered previously in Constitution reviews undertaken in the 1990s. The members of the 1996 Constitution review group were divided on the issue. Some members considered there was not sufficient reason to differentiate between eligibility for Dáil membership and the Presidency. They were prepared to rely on the judgment of the electorate to make a proper choice between candidates. However, other members considered that the presidency called for special qualities which were more likely to accrue and mature over a longer span of years than 21. The majority of members ultimately favoured no change or only a minor reduction in the age limit.
The all-party committee on the Constitution took a different view in its 1998 report on the President, in which it recommended that any citizen who had reached the age of 18 years should be regarded as eligible for election to the Office of President. The committee found that there was no logical reason for setting the age at which one became eligible to be President at a greater age than that at which a citizen might exercise the right to vote in elections. In making this recommendation it concluded that young people should be encouraged to engage in politics. It took the view that any young candidate who succeeded in being nominated would be an exceptional and worthy candidate. These recommendations were not taken up at the time and lay dormant until the Constitutional Convention considered the question again 14 years later in 2012. A narrow majority of the members of the convention - 50% versus 47% - found in favour of lowering the age at which a citizen could become eligible for election to the Office of President. While the convention's report did not advance any argument for or against lowering the age threshold, the proposal has since generated debate among political commentators and in the media. I propose to share with Senators some of the points that have been aired.
Those in favour of lowering the age threshold from 35 years point out that doing so could generate a greater diversity of potential candidates, thereby providing a greater choice for the electorate. The view is advanced that the electorate can be trusted to judge the suitability of candidates, irrespective of their age. It is also argued that capacity to undertake the job need not be age related and, more generally, that it could encourage younger people to engage in politics. On the other hand, those against lowering the age threshold suggest there is no public demand for change. It is argued that lowering the age threshold could weaken the Office of President as considerable experience is considered desirable in making decisions on such matters as the referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court or the dissolution of the Dáil. There is also the view that the older age brings a certain gravitas to the office that may be absent among young persons.
The wide divergence of positions taken on this matter in other countries does not offer us any guidance. The age of eligibility for holding presidential office ranges from 18 years in Croatia, Finland and France, for example, to 50 years in Italy. In the case of France, the President has wider executive powers than our President. Most countries have a minimum age requirement of 35 or 40 years for eligibility for the office of President. The age of Presidents in Ireland has ranged from 46 to 78 years. The Government, in accepting the convention's recommendation to lower the age threshold, agreed that a minimum age of 21 years would be appropriate as it matched the minimum age for election to the Dáil and the European Parliament. It will only be possible to gauge the impact of the change over time if the Bill is passed and subsequently approved in the forthcoming referendum in May. In the event that it is approved and a person younger than 35 years is a candidate at a future election, people will ultimately decide on the suitability of that person for election to the Office of President.
On referendums generally, I have noted the commentary in the media on other recommendations of the Constitutional Convention and, specifically, when referendums on these might be progressed. As Senators are aware, the Government has run six referendums since taking office and a further two will be held in May, both of which arise from recommendations of the convention.
Earlier this year the Taoiseach indicated in the Dáil that, while he did not envisage any further referendum being held in 2015, this was a matter for the Government to consider at a later stage. It is the clear Government position that the best approach is for only two referendums to be held in May. This is a reasonable position. While the Government agreed to hold a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 years in 2015, it would be premature to proceed with the vote in May. This matter was discussed and the Government's position outlined in the Dáil in February and March when Private Members' Bills on lowering the voting age and voting by citizens resident outside the State were debated.
I have also noted commentary in the media and elsewhere that the referendum proposal in the Bill is, in some way, not as significant as some of the other proposals for constitutional reform that have emerged from the Constitutional Convention. I do not accept that view. Article 12 of the Constitution provides that the President shall "take precedence over all the other persons in the State" and "shall exercise and perform the powers and functions conferred on the President by this Constitution and by law". Given this position in the Constitution, the proposal to reduce the age at which a citizen is eligible for election to the Office of President is significant. Moreover, proposals to change the Constitution are always significant milestones in the ongoing development of the State.
The debate on the proposed amendments to the Constitution in the referendums in May has begun. Following publication of the constitutional amendment Bills, the Minister established, on 27 January, the Referendum Commissions for both referendum proposals. It is the task of the commissions to explain the subject matter of the referendums to the electorate, promote public awareness of the referendums and encourage the electorate to vote. The commissions' preparatory work is under way.
I will now outline the details of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the amendment of Article 12 of the Constitution, as set out in the Schedule to the Bill. Section 2 provides for the standard citation of Constitution amendment Bills. The Schedule, Part 1, provides for the substitution of the Irish text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years is eligible for election to the Office of President. The Schedule, Part 2, provides for the substitution of the English text of Article 12.4.1° of the Constitution. The new text provides that every citizen who has reached the age of 21 years is eligible for election to the Office of President.
The opportunity is being taken to correct a possible conflict between the Irish and English texts of Article 12.4.1°, as they stand.
While the Irish text requires a candidate to have completed 35 years of age, the English text requires a candidate to have reached the 35th year, which would happen on his or her 34th birthday. In the amendment to the Constitution now proposed, the Irish and English texts of the Bill are aligned. Attention was drawn to this possible conflict between the Irish and English texts in the Constitution review reports undertaken in the 1990s that I mentioned. The all-party Oireachtas committee noted that the issue had been raised by the eminent constitutional lawyer John Kelly, a former Member of both Houses of the Oireachtas, in his book The Irish Constitution.
On which side did he come down?
In concluding, I repeat that this is a short but important Bill. Our democratic processes and our full participation in them are important for all of us. I take the opportunity to encourage people to vote in order to have their say in the outcome of the referendums. I commend the Bill to the House.
Tá fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State for outlining the Government's position on the referendum. Fianna Fáil is not opposing this and supports the idea of a referendum being held. It is also clear from the presentation that we are endeavouring to balance how to recognise youth and enable it to take up positions that require responsibility and experience. The position of President is the most important office anyone can hold and we have been very well served by Presidents in the past. They have done us proud at home and abroad and are very often the face of Ireland. We are well aware of the manner in which they avoid unnecessary controversy and fulfil the obligations the office places on them.
The Constitutional Convention was a good idea and even if it had not been part of the programme for Government, the changes in society and attitudes and our position internationally mean it was important to examine the Constitution and see how it might be improved. We should compliment all those who participated in the convention because they had to give a lot of their time and attention and much of it was during a vacation period.
Some of the recommendations from the convention were decisively passed, but in this case it was a 50:50 division. There is nothing particularly wrong with that or with people expressing their views democratically in such a forum. It will also spill over into the voters' area because the same will apply. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. No person interested in enhancing democracy would suggest that young people should not be given the opportunity to play the fullest role in public life. No one suggests a young person of 28 years would be less idealistic than someone of 35 years or any other accepted age. I see that forming part of the debate during the referendum campaign and it is understandable in a way because, generally speaking, one must look at the experience, expertise, track record and understanding of any office. All of this is exceptionally important and particularly with the office of the Presidency. I am sure it is the same with other offices where people are subject to constant appeals for representation from lobby groups. We have seen that with legislation passed in the Oireachtas and the manner in which the President is brought into focus immediately. While the Council of State is available, it is not brought together on a regular basis, except when there is some issue the President is not particularly happy or clear on. In the main, the President must make the decision and must draw on a huge body of experience gained before taking up the office. Looking at the holders of the office, that is what happened. It gives people a sense of confidence in the Presidency, the political system and whatever decisions the President might make. It is a particular confidence when representing Ireland abroad. We look at presidential visits to other countries and we watch carefully the protocol, decorum and presentation and we are seldom disappointed. Often, the pictures are going worldwide and are the pictures of Ireland at that point. We can see the need for a wise head and I am not suggesting a 21 year old does not have a wise head. A wise head is needed on that occasion and people feel that we cannot put an old head on young shoulders. I do not mean the term old in a derogatory sense but what is intended is to embrace age with experience and expertise.
Having said that, the Minister has pointed out clearly that this is a matter for the people and the people decide on a number of fronts, whether we recognise youth in the context of being eligible to go forward for the office. We can point to Italy, where the age is 50 years, and many others where the age is 30 or 35 years, which is what the minimum age was. In Croatia and France, the minimum age is 18 years, but they seem to be the exception in many ways. That is precisely what people will consider and, in fairness, once the Constitutional Convention gave so much time to issues of this kind, it is important that there is an opportunity for people to consider the issues. The media and other people say there are major constitutional issues discussed and were clearly passed, some of which are acknowledged and are being progressed. However, others seem particularly important and raise the question of why this particular one was raised at this particular time. I speak in the same tone as the Minister of State. There is a degree of caution and the measurement of the vote at Constitutional Convention. That is the case with the referendum where the ball is being kicked to touch. It is being given back to the people and my main hope is that it will not be seen as lowering the status of the Presidency or raising question marks about the Presidency. We must avoid misunderstanding when the referendum is being put to the people because the Presidency has served us well. We are lucky to have such an institution and there is no doubt that, where Ireland is concerned, we still need that image and status for the Presidency. I hope the debate does not go off track and remains on the main issue asked in the referendum.
I wish the Minister of State well in what he is doing and the same for the Government.
I thank the Senator.
I do not think this is the type of issue on which we should have a political division, given where we are at this time.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit inniu. It is appropriate after the death of the Minister of State's mother to sympathise with him now and I have not met him since. They say behind every good man there is a good woman, but the Minister of State has a good wife also. Having lost his mother this week, I extend my condolences to him.
I welcome the Minister of State to debate the proposal to amend the Constitution to reduce the age of eligibility for the election to presidential office from 35 years down to 21. As he has said, there will be two referendums on 28 May or whatever the date is. Two referendums on the same day are enough because there has been confusion, in referendums, when too many questions are put on the table at the same time. Two referendums will be held on the same day. Again, the proposal came not from this House or Houses but from the members of the Constitutional Convention that was established by both Houses in July to consider a list of matters. Obviously this is only one of the matters it has considered and there are others to be actioned later. To action all together would be confusing.
The Minister of State has mentioned that 17 years ago the Oireachtas committee discussed age limits. It recommended at the time that the age to qualify for election to the Office of President be reduced to 18 years. Things have moved on and one can see how youth is viewed now versus 17 years ago. There was a recommendation 17 years ago to reduce the age of eligibility for election to the Presidency to 18 years so a proposal for 21 years seems worthy of recommendation, which is why I support it here today. Years ago it was said youth were to be seen and not heard. I believe what the youth of today have to say must be listened to. I support both findings, the one put forward years ago by an Oireachtas commission but particularly the more recent one by the Constitutional Convention.
The political scientist, Professor Melanie Scully, has found that most European countries have a relatively high age threshold for the presidency role. At the same time, she has pointed out that a high age requirement does seem and might seem increasingly anachronistic in the context of lowering the age. Capacity and ability to deal with the issue should be most important, rather than a focus on ageism in terms of youth or the elderly. While it is the norm, in the European Parliament, where 19 democracies have higher age limits some European states have a much lower age. France, in particular, reduced its age limit of 23 years to 18 in 2011; it had a much lower age threshold than we had. When one compares the powers of the president in France with the powers of the President here one discovers they are much more onerous. A French president has much more power, yet the age of eligibility in France has been set at 18 years. We do not have anything to fear by agreeing with the Constitutional Convention that the age of eligibility to be elected President here should be reduced from 35 years down to 21.
On the nomination process, let us first look at the presidential candidates heretofore. The Minister of State mentioned that the oldest candidate we have ever had was 78 years and he was Dr. Dubhghlas de hÍde. As his name is still remembered, that proves age is valuable also. The youngest Presidents we have ever had in this country were two women. What does that say about us? Does it mean that women are better than men because they can get elected President when younger? The two women were 46 years old when they were inaugurated but most of the men were older. President Michael D. Higgins was 70 years old when he was inaugurated in 2011. The youngest candidate in the last presidential election was Seán Gallagher who was 46 years old. On that occasion the electorate had the choice of a younger or older President. The electorate chose the best candidate and did not opt for age, which is the right way to do things. I think it will be the same in future, people's ability will get across to people.
Arguments have been advanced in favour of a lower age threshold which will generate a greater diversity of political candidates. Diversity is important. There is a diversity of minds when one opens the presidential election up to a further age group. The measure would provide a greater choice. The electorate can be trusted to judge the suitability of the candidates, regardless of their age. The ability to do the job should not and need not be age-related. I agree that young people now are better educated and informed.
As the Minister of State said, lowering the age threshold might encourage more young people to participate in the political process. Somebody said to me that if one opens the Presidency to people who are 21 years then somebody from One Direction or whoever could be elected on popularity grounds. That opinion has been expressed before. Irish people are well informed enough to be judgmental and to select the best candidate rather than a popular one. Given the intense focus on candidates during election times, particularly for presidential election campaigns where there are television debates, radio and social media, it is unlikely that a candidate who does not possess the experience and qualities needed to undertake the duties of presidential office - earlier the Minister of State outlined the duties of the presidential office - would be selected in the first instance or elected if they were selected by the people.
The political scientist, Professor Robert Elgie, has noted that while there may have been unpresidential candidates or unsuitable candidates in America, with a lower age threshold, none of the ones deemed unsuitable would be elected. He was not referring to Ireland or the European states. Analysis of the 2011 presidential election in Ireland shows that candidates were persistently criticised for being ill-informed about specific responsibilities and powers of the role. There is good critical analysis and critical critique of the suitability of the candidate for the role which has shone through in each presidential election.
One interesting feature of the Constitution as it stands, and the Minister of State referred to it, was that the Irish and English versions differ. A person reaches his or her 35th year at his or her 34th birthday and the Irish version would have a person elected a year earlier than the older version, "[g]ach saoránach ag a bhfuil cúig bliana tríochad slán". The Irish version means people would have to be older and have completed their 35th year. The Minister of State stated earlier that the terminology will be corrected by the translation service.
The legislation is based on the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention which is comprised of 66 ordinary citizens. There were also 30 politicians, but they were not in the majority and there was an independent representative from Northern Ireland. There was a broad range of people involved. We are always talking about inclusive and participative democracy and the convention is an example of that at work. Citizens of the country recommended that something should be done, the Government has acted on it and it is now up to the wider cohort of the population to vote on this proposal and take a deliberative decision on same.
We should have no fear at all that reducing the age will lead to unqualified candidates. The selection process for selecting the candidate to go forward for President is quite restrictive and onerous. A candidate needs the nomination of four county councils or 20 Oireachtas Members. The selection process is on the agenda also.
The Government ruled it out.
The Government ruled it out-----
Senator Cáit Keane to continue, without interruption.
A candidate needs the nomination of four county councils or 20 Oireachtas Members. There are two issues up for decision on this occasion. Two issues at a time is enough to deal with because it would be confusing and virtually impossible to decide five or six issues at one time. Seven or more issues were put forward previously. It would be virtually impossible for people to get through that number without the requisite skills.
I firmly believe the people of Ireland, when given the choice of a younger candidate on the ballot paper, will be able to decide for themselves whether that candidate has the required level of skill. Dr. Eoin O'Malley, in a 2011 article, said that the presidential election in Ireland shows that candidates were persistently criticised if they did not have the requisite specific responsibilities or qualifications for the role and those criticisms helped people decide whether or not to vote for a particular candidate. The evidence suggests that in Irish presidential election campaigns voters take a candidate's experience and qualifications seriously and focus on a candidate's suitability for the post.
Honesty and the question of who is the best candidate to represent Ireland abroad were key criteria and young people have represented us ably abroad on many occasions. They would not let us down as President, but it will be up to the people to decide. The Constitutional Convention will be discussed at a later date, but I will support the Bill and hope it is supported throughout the House.
I welcome the Minister of State. I support of the Thirty-fifth Amendment of the Constitution (Age of Eligibility for Election to the Office of President) Bill 2015. I, too, was a member of the Constitutional Convention; therefdore, part of me is disappointed because it made two recommendations, namely, that the voting age be lowered to 16 years and that the presidential term be not reduced to five years or aligned with local European elections. As part of that weekend's consideration the reduction in voting age was a supplemental issue, as were the proposal that citizens be given a say in the presidential nomination process and the issue we are discussing.
I tabled an amendment after the Constitutional Convention on the subject of reducing the voting age to 16 years in European and local elections because such a change would not require a constitutional amendment. We could put it into legislation and trial it for local and European elections to see whether we would wish to do it on a permanent basis. The Government needs to give it greater consideration, as they have done in other countries. We had some important inputs from the convention on the issue.
Today's issue is to reduce the age for presidential candidates I am disappointed with some of the commentary in the media which dismisses this as a joke. Anything that changes the Constitution is extremely serious and we need to take each issue on its merits. I believe the Irish people could handle several referendums on one day if we had a permanent electoral commission looking at elections and referendums to ensure they are carried out appropriately and fairly. We saw in the referendums on judges' pay and Oireachtas inquiries how the people can decide which way they want to vote on each issue.
A greater issue is the question on the ballot paper because sometimes that is not always clear which question a voter is answering. I also have a difficulty with how we provide information. All too often the option is a binary "Yes" or "No" but without any reasoning or other information. It is as though we have to have panels that require "Yes" or "No" and I wonder about how this will work on the question of presidential age. Some people will turn it into a joke so that they can get onto the "Yes" or "No" side of the debate.
I have looked at other European countries. In France the age limit was 23 years until 2011 and 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 and it is quite an arbitrary issue depending on the country. Other countries are looking at the issue at the moment. Across the water, Queen Elizabeth became Queen at 25 years, although that was not in an election and I do not necessarily want to draw the comparison. If we look at history we would see people whom we would currently preclude from being President. For example, two signatories to the Proclamation of Independence, Joseph Plunkett and Seán McDermott, who were leading figures in the Rising, were below the age required to serve as Uachtarán na hÉireann. Michael Collins, who was taken at the young age of 35 years, never could have been President of Ireland. In these cases the Irish people would never have had the choice and that is the point. Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, a suffragette, was 34 years old when she founded the Irish Women Workers Union. Rosie Hackett was 19 years old when she co-founded the union. Charles Stewart Parnell was 34 years old when he became leader of the Home Rule League. I do not want to point to people around at the moment because I do not want to be seen putting forward candidates but maybe others have some great suggestions.
In the world of business, people of a very young age lead multi-billion dollar, pound or euro businesses. I do not say they would necessarily be great Presidents but young people are in leadership positions across the world and this referendum is about widening the choice for the people. Surely age has become much more arbitrary now. A person's suitability depends on their life experience and what the Irish people believe they need in a President at a given time. At different times the people have chosen different leaders to suit the time. They have made excellent choices so I stand in support of opening up choice and waiting to see what candidates come forward. Why should the age be 35 or 36 years, depending on what language one reads the Constitution in? Why not reduce the age and allow candidates to come forward? There are issues around the nomination process, on which I have no doubt Senator David Norris will elaborate. We should open the process out in order that the people of Ireland have the choice of whom they wish to be President of Ireland. I support this amendment and will be encouraging a "Yes" vote.
I welcome the Minister and reiterate the comments of Senator Cáit Keane on his recent bereavement. In every organisation and every walk of life there are rules. The Minister of State will know as a lover of hurling that there are rules for the ages of teams, such as an under-21 rule where Waterford have a good crop at the moment. Players under 21 years can play senior hurling but players over 21 cannot play under-21 hurling.
In this situation the rule according to the Constitution is that a person has to be over 35 years to stand for the Presidency. The age at which one may stand for the Seanad or the Dáil or in the European elections is 21 years and for local elections it is 18. I know of one or two who have been elected at that age but there are not too many.
The decision of the Government to bring forward this amendment has been well explained by the Minister of State and other speakers as arising from the Constitutional Convention. Many things were discussed at that convention and this is but one of them, but this is the one that presents before us for a referendum in May. No one of us is, so to speak, more equal or less equal than any other citizen in a vote in a referendum and that is the great thing about the Constitution. Each one of us has a vote in the ballot box.
Were one to judge by the decision of the Constitutional Convention, I understand there was a majority of 3% in favour of recommending this proposal. I am aware, from discussions I have had with people on this issue across various spheres of society, there is division regarding this issue also. It has been well noted by other speakers that the youngest ever President was 46 years old, while the oldest was 78. I read the transcript of the contributions in the Lower House on this issue of which there were very few, that is, four excluding those of the Ministers. I hope interest in the referendum among the public will be greater than that and I believe it will. I believe there is good interest in this issue. I have come up through youth organisations and was involved in representing young people in various organisations in my younger years. However, I also respect views expressed by other speakers on this issue to the effect that when people get greater experience, they perceive matters differently. Gravitas was the word used and people have life experience to enable them to handle issues differently. I also believe there is a vibrancy, vitality and energy in young people that perhaps one loses as one gets older.
What is the correct mix to represent this country as President? For me, the jury is out on that although obviously, I will make a decision and will vote on the proposal when the time comes. In Ireland, however, we always seem to look to other countries for guidance. Much has been made here today about the various age limits such as those in France and Italy of 18 and 50 years, respectively, and so on. That is the beauty of the Constitution and of the sovereignty of the people of Ireland. We will decide ourselves what is best for us. This issue will be decided on 22 May, along with the marriage equality referendum. I will respect whatever the people decide. To be honest, at present I am in favour of retention of the 35 year age limit. However, I am open to being convinced as the debate progresses. It is an apt selection by the Government from the various issues that were brought up at the Constitutional Convention. I believe there will be a good debate on this issue in the coming weeks and that a decision will be made by which people can stand.
We have seen great Presidents and all our Presidents have been great in the era they represented. While I will not single out any President, the Presidents of the current era may not have been suitable for the times at the beginning of the State and vice versa. However, each of them served this country well in his or her own way. As Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú noted, when they travel across the world to represent Ireland, they do us proud and all of them have done that. I do not remember any issue in respect of any President where I suggest the country was poorly or badly represented or that something happened with which one could not agree. I am proud of every President of this country to date and will go along with and support whatever decision the people come up with on this referendum. I will view the decision as the voice of the people of this sovereign State.
I also welcome the Minister of State back to this House and remember the days when he sat before me in the Chamber. I also extend my sympathy to him on his recent bereavement.
I am pretty indifferent to this legislation and the referendum. I do not believe it has great wide appeal and do not believe people are that interested in it. I consider it to be ludicrous and unnecessary. Reference has been made to how France lowered the age to 18 years and how the French had the limit at 23 for many years before that. However, they never have elected a President under the age of 35 years. Even if it is changed, I rely on the judgment of the people. I think they will make a wise decision and it would be highly unlikely that they would produce somebody who is 18 or 21 years or whatever the age is. Moreover, I detect a notable lack of enthusiasm in the Minister of State's speech for this proposal. He is saying things like "on the one hand and then on the other hand" and it is very like the McKenna judgment-----
The Senator is a mind reader.
----- with 50% here and 50% there. Senator Denis Landy's contribution was interesting because he stated the jury was out and then indicated that he was thinking about voting against the proposal.
The jury is out until 23 May.
Exactly. The jury is still out.
It is not my decision; it is the people's decision.
That is an important consideration.
The Minister derives all this from the Constitutional Convention and refers to the importance of the convention, the wonderful work it did in bringing forward proposals and so on. However, the Government is highly à la carte about the proposals which it took up from the convention. If one examines the figures pertaining to this particular debate, it was the most narrow of all the debates. It did not even secure a majority but got a plurality of votes, as a majority would have been 51%. Instead, it got a plurality and even that plurality was within the margin of error statistically for an election. That is a rather interesting point. The Minister also made reference to commentary in the media about other recommendations of the convention, to which I will return in a moment. He spoke of people having stated it was not a highly significant amendment and his answer to that was the fairly bland response that all constitutional referendums are important. There is a certain lack of logic.
Then there is the issue of the difference between the Irish language and English language versions. Instead of including the proposed clause in Irish, "Is intofa chun oifig an Uachtaráin gach saoránach ag a bhfuil bliain agus fiche slán", it strikes me it would have been a far more sensible amendment for the Government to have changed it from "blian agus fiche" to "chúigiú bliain is tríocha". This would make the two versions of the Constitution coincide. I understand that the Irish version takes precedence anyway so presumably, one could run at the age of 34 years, if one so wished. The Minister of State also mentioned that the late Professor John Kelly referred to this issue in his book, The Irish Constitution, but did not state on which side, if any, Professor Kelly came down.
I mentioned the Government's à la carte approach to this issue and it certainly was. It neatly tailored and micromanaged the convention to make it do what the Government wanted it to do. I was present and saw all this happening before my eyes. Moreover, the staff openly took sides with the Government in this matter. As for the figure of 47% to 50%, the Minister of State should know I managed to get a motion before the convention. Despite the management of the platform party, I managed to have an amendment recommendation discussed to the effect that the process of nomination to the Presidency should be opened to the citizens of Ireland generally. The nomination process was too difficult and too demanding and it is for this reason that we have never once in the history of this State had an independent President, that is, a President who had a track record that was completely independent of the political parties. They all have been dependent on the political parties and that is because of this difficulty that exists in respect of the process of getting a nomination. However, the proposal before Members received the lowest vote for a proposal that was passed. On my amendment, which proposed opening up the presidential nomination process, we got the highest vote when 96% of the convention voted "Yes". That is 46% more than the 50% who voted for the proposal before Members. It is astonishing that something that was so narrow and so fuzzy has been put forward. Even the language in which it was discussed was fuzzy. No specific age was suggested and no arguments were advanced in its favour.
However, arguments were certainly advanced with regard to the opening up of the presidency to the citizens of Ireland. I remind the Minister of State that an all-party constitutional review committee issued a report in 1998 in which it recommended this change, namely, that nominations for the Office of the President be opened up to the citizenry. The Minister of State's party produced detailed legislation in respect of this matter, as did Fianna Fáil. When I raised the issue during Private Members' time, the Government sent the former Minister of State, Deputy Fergus O'Dowd, to the House to indicate that no action was going to be taken on it because such action was not necessary. Deputy Fergus O'Dowd signed the original legislation brought forward in 1998. It was brought forward in his name; therefore, it was quite a volte face on his part.
It would be much more significant if we were to take measures to open up the Presidency and allow nominations by citizens. That would be much more democratic than this arbitrary and unnecessary reduction in the age of eligibility, particularly when we all know that no one under the age of 35 years is going to be elected President. It would be far more significant were the Government to consider the possibility of opening up the nominating process. It will not do so, however, because since 1998 successive Governments have tumbled on the fact that this is one of the offices over which they have control. Governments are not likely to surrender that power. It is my strong belief there would not have been a presidential election on the most recent occasion had it not been for my intervention. The parties were canoodling with each other to come up with an agreed candidate. Negotiations took place and it was obvious that a fix was being put in place. When I threw my hat into the ring, however, the campaign opened up.
What I have suggested underpins my belief that the nominating process is faulty. There is universal agreement on this matter and the Government is simply reluctant to move on it. Despite the faulty mechanism of nomination, we have had a succession of outstanding Presidents. There was not a dud among them. We should be very proud of all of those who have held the office, from Douglas Hyde through to the current incumbent, President Michael D. Higgins. We have been very well served by our Presidents. That said, the situation would be further improved if the Government opened up the nominating process to the citizens of this country rather than fiddling around with the age of eligibility of candidates.
I welcome the Minister of State. On behalf of the Fianna Fáil group of Senators, I express our sincere sympathy on his very sad loss. I have experienced a similar loss - as, I am sure, have other Senators - and know that it is not a pleasant time. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.
While I support the legislation and have no difficulty with someone over the age of 21 years being nominated to contest a presidential election - ultimately, it is the people who will decide whether such an individual is fit to serve - the subject with which we are dealing does not even register on the radar when it comes to the wider context of the economic cycle and the issues which citizens have indicated that the Government should treat as priorities. We suggest what is proposed is somewhat patronising to young people who were promised a much broader slate of political reforms, including a reduction in the voting age to 17 years. We must also remember the many people, a large proportion of whom were young, who left the country during the past six years in the aftermath of the economic crash. The young people who left were denied a franchise.
I hope the Government will make some positive moves towards introducing votes for members of the diaspora. It would be relatively easy to extend the franchise to allow Irish citizens not resident in the country to vote in presidential elections. I see no difficulty in this regard. It would be very easy to draw up a list of the criteria that would obtain were we to take this route. For example, a time limit could be put in place to allow only those who left the country in the past five to ten years to vote and the franchise could be extended to those who hold Irish passports. Those to whom I refer would also be required to register in their country of residence before they could vote. All of these are measures which have been implemented in other countries. I see no threat whatsoever to the Irish political system as a result of an extension of the franchise. However, there would be enormous positives from an international perspective. As a former emigrant, those who have left the country would welcome an extension of the franchise as an acknowledgement of their position. In the main, those who emigrated did so for economic reasons. I fully accept, however, that a considerable cohort of young people leave the country to gain further experience abroad. In any event, a large number of those who have settled abroad still have a very keen interest in Irish affairs. I ask the Minister of State to take note of the fact that there is a significant level of support for extending the franchise to members of the diaspora to allow them to vote in presidential elections.
I do not agree with my colleague, Senator David Norris, and others who propose that the current system of nomination should be dismantled. I came to this view after some reflection. My initial knee-jerk reaction was to ask why the nominating process should not be open to the wider public. I then examined the results of various elections at local level in both this country and on the neighbouring island where the nominating process had been opened up. Senator Denis Landy captured it perfectly when he referred to the Presidency and the fact that it was very special. Following a slow start, it now holds an extremely special place in the affections of the people. The mere thought that it might be abolished - a matter which was a political football for some time a few decades ago - is anathema to citizens in the light of the superb work done by a succession of Presidents, particularly in the modern era. In saying this I intend no reflection on those who went before. If the nominating process were opened up, it is inevitable that frivolous candidates would be put forward, but the presidency should not be about frivolity.
Under the current system, someone must engage with local councillors in order to seek a nomination. It must be remembered that the people elect councillors to represent them and that the actions they take are taken in the name of the people. If the people do not like the decisions their councillors take, they can turf them out of office at the following election. The position is similar in respect of both the Dáil and the Seanad because the Members of both also represent the people. The way the system has been designed means that there is no elitist closed shop. Senator David Norris was absolutely correct to highlight his own experience and the fact that he had managed to overcome what might have been seen as obstacles to people seeking a nomination to stand in a presidential election. Dana Rosemary Scallon also overcame them. Friends of mine in the Seanad bucked the system and, despite their parties not wanting them to run for election, they managed to encourage other Senators to have their names included in nomination forms. That has happened across all parties. The system, as it now works, can be challenged. This is despite the fact that there are what are perceived to be major obstacles in the way. As stated, Senator David Norris, Dana Rosemary Scallon and a number of other Members of this House are perfect examples of how the system can be challenged.
While I support the view that people from the age of 21 years and upwards should be allowed to be nominated for election to the Office of President, as previous speakers pointed out, it does not necessarily follow that someone aged 21 years is going to be nominated. It is most unlikely that such an individual would be nominated. What is proposed in the Bill will, however, open up an interesting vista for those under the age of 35 years. Senator Jillian van Turnhout highlighted a number of historical figures who would not have been able to stand for election to the Office of President if the existing rules on the age of eligibility had been in place. From that point of view, the legislation is important. In addition and as Senator Denis Landy pointed out, a person can be elected to serve on his or her local council at 18 years of age. I recall a time before the relevant law was changed when a former colleague of ours in this House was elected to fill his father's seat but could not do so because he was between the ages of 18 and 21 years. His uncle was obliged to take the seat until he turned 21 years, which was ludicrous.
Overall, what is proposed in the Bill is positive. However, an interesting question arises as to how the McKenna judgment will be applied. We must consider who is completely opposed to what is being done. I refer to the media, particularly the electronic media.
Perhaps this will be clarified by the Minister. My understanding is that the McKenna judgment applies only to RTE. For example, it does not apply to the newspapers but they still operate it. They always go searching for the other side.
In this instance, it will be a major problem to find somebody who will state he or she is totally opposed to this in order to provide balance. It again points up the all-embracing nature of that judgment. There was no flexibility built into it. It was either "Yes" or "No". One had to ensure there was balance. It is ludicrous. The motivation behind it was fine, but I question the practice. There is a need for the Government or somebody to look at the McKenna judgment again and go back to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will not reverse its own judgment. It does reverse its judgments, but it can only do so if somebody brings the issue before it. In the overall context of this debate, the McKenna judgment will be shown to be ludicrous in this respect.
As everybody here has stated, this is an issue that animates, excites and enthuses the Irish electorate. According to the most recent opinion poll, they would be much more interested in proposals that would put more money in their pockets and more jobs in the economy rather than this sop to the young people of Ireland. In that wider context it is irrelevant.
I welcome the Minister of State. My party and I will be supporting this legislation.
I, too, express my disappointment that we will not be having a referendum to reducing the voting age to 16 years, but I acknowledge that in the other House the Government accepted legislation that my party put forward on the Friday sitting.
The lowering of the age for presidential candidates would serve to empower young people. It would also serve to kick-start the promotion and awareness of and participation in politics among young people in terms of the issues affecting them. The earlier we engage young people in democracy and politics, the greater the chance that we will promote and sustain a lifelong interest in and commitment to voting and participating in the democratic process.
Unlike previous generations, modern young people are much more informed, for example, by civic, social and political education courses in schools. Today, young people have a wide range of access to media and social media networks, for example, Twitter and Facebook, and many other media that I myself do not fully understand even though I am quite young. Young people are able to get this information, engage and debate on political issues in their own way through these fora.
At this point, I highlight an article that was in The Irish Times last week, entitled "Zayn Malik's move points us in one direction on presidential age referendum". There are not many journalists who could tie in the exit of a member of one of the most popular boy bands currently with politics but, alas, it was done. While Zayn did leave One Direction, this article went completely down the wrong direction. When, for example, on the same day a certain television presenter was sacked from his job for misconduct in attacking his producer, are we able to tie that into some other referendum on how perhaps we should vote? The article stated:
In short, the proper place for a 21-year-old is not in Áras an Uachtaráin. It's not even in the Dáil, Seanad or Cabinet.
No, the proper place for a 21-year-old is in a nightclub; or a night-train to Mongolia with nothing much to do in the morning; or a job in which mistakes can be made without major incident; or a college library; or in a band; or even a boy band. Vote No.
This piece is not only highly offensive but condescending and degrading towards all young people in Ireland who are working hard to make a difference. Personally, I find it insulting.
Most Senators and Deputies, including the Minister of State, the Cathaoirleach and me, probably entered politics young. Most of us became interested at a young age, probably in our mid-to-late teens. I have been working in the Houses of the Oireachtas since I was 20 years old. I was elected to this House at the age of 22 years. If I have electoral ambitions to be President, after having gone through college and acquiring experience in these Houses, why should my age preclude me? Why should I have to be older if the electorate itself feels I can do a good job? Should it not be the electorate who judges each candidate on his or her merit rather than having a restricted choice only based on age available to it on polling day? Why should I, or any other young person in Ireland, be discriminated against by ageist policies? We would not discriminate against people because of skin colour, religion or sex, and why should we accept discrimination because of age?
The Constitution permits a 21 year old to serve as a Minister and, essentially, exercise more political power on a daily basis than the President. Why should we discriminate against someone below the age of 35 years exercising the functions of a President? If a 21 year old can theoretically deliver the budget, I am prepared to trust such a person in the Áras for a number of years.
To go beyond my political party, the current Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, public procurement and international banking, Deputy Simon Harris is 28 years old and he has been a Member of the Oireachtas since 2011. As we all will be aware, he has been in this House for the passage of a number of important Bills and while I would not agree with him on the content of some of that legislation, no one could deny that he is able and articulate and one of the most intelligent Members in the Houses. Prior to his election to the Dáil, he was elected to Wicklow County Council in 2009 with the highest percentage vote of any county councillor in Ireland. It sounds like a party political broadcast for Deputy Harris, but would anyone question his ability because of his age? Should he have been in nightclubs or out Interrailing instead of putting himself forward for election and getting elected by so many of his peers? Would it be better if the Minister of State was in the out-and-about sections of the newspapers falling out of nightclubs with the glitterati or in these Houses using his experiences, wisdom and knowledge to influence legislation?
I heard a lot of Deputies in the Dáil, and one or two Senators here, state that while they are supportive of the Bill, they would be unlikely to vote for someone under 35 years of age and that is fine. I accept that. However, allowing someone younger than that to stand is important and the involvement of more young people in politics would introduce innovative and fresh ideas. My party will be supporting this legislation wholeheartedly.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Paudie Coffey, and offer my condolences to him. I have not had the opportunity privately to do so. As he will be aware, I served with his father for many years on the then General Council of County Councils and we were good friends. I sympathise with him on his bereavement.
All parties are supporting this amendment of the Constitution. A little like the other amendment, it is almost as if political parties are afraid to say "No" anymore. I can see some reasons, for example, that it was proposed by the Constitutional Convention. It raises some questions. Why is it a good idea to have somebody in his or her 20s? When he or she is probably at university or in other education, and perhaps should be out enjoying life, why would it be appropriate for us to lock him or her up in Áras an Uachtaráin? I can think of a whole lot of things I would rather be doing in my 20s than being in Áras an Uachtaráin and making the occasional statement with all the inhibitions which are on it, but perhaps there are persons who would like to do that. The other point I would make, which has been said by some of my colleagues, is that democracy means positions should be open and maybe there should be no impediment to those in their 20s to put themselves forward if they are interested in attaining these positions.
There is a high regard, as my colleague, Senator Paschal Mooney, stated, among the Irish people for the position of Uachtarán na hÉireann. There is a long tradition where that position is seen to be above politics and is well respected. It is interesting that in the current climate, when politicians, regardless of their hue or political party, are to put it mildly not looked up to and are not the flavour of the month, the Presidency rises above this. There is a great deal of respect for the current incumbent, as there was for his predecessors. I knew the past number of Presidents. I probably would have known the late President Hillery best. He was a very fine gentleman who impressed all those who met him.
He did not project himself or seek the limelight, but he was highly impressive in the role of President. He did a lot to resurrect respect for the Presidency following the disasters of the 1970s where the position was ridiculed by a senior Minister and an incumbent had to resign. All those who have held the office have distinguished themselves and provided leadership.
A common thread that can be identified in regard to all the occupants is that they had significant life experience which they were able to bring to bear on their position as President, on the areas they prioritised and in their statements and public pronouncements. Oratory can be used to provide leadership and it certainly provides an outlet for people, particularly in difficult times. Our current President has been exemplary in that regard, making several very good speeches with which many members of the public have empathised. A young person might be able to do the same but his or her perspective would probably be a little different.
Will the Minister of State indicate why this proposal from the Constitutional Convention was selected to accompany the referendum on the redefinition of marriage, which will take place on the same day? Moving forward with another of the convention's proposals relating to the Presidency, namely, the proposal to extend the franchise to all people resident on this island, North and South, and to all members of the diaspora who hold Irish citizenship, would, in my view, have represented a progressive step towards inclusiveness as we approach the centenary next year of the Easter Rising. It would have sent an important signal to people.
We have had debates in this House on many occasions about the plight of those people who are endeavouring to buy their own houses and those who are in negative equity and paying exorbitant rates simply because the banks have not been tackled on their decisions to increase the margin they apply over the cost of funds. People who are struggling to make ends meet are suffering because of this and some are struggling to avoid repossessions. Against that background, the decision to hold a referendum on the proposal we are discussing today is perhaps indicative of a Government whose priorities are somewhat skewed. It would be far better to direct our energies towards dealing with the fallout from the economic collapse and striving to assist people.
It comes down to a question of choices. I had a discussion with a gay man at the weekend about the referendum to redefine marriage. This man noted that it will cost €21 million to run the two referenda. In his opinion, this money could be so much better spent. If, he said, the money were used to provide HIV testing to people who are homosexual, among whom there is an increase in the numbers affected by HIV, it would be a far better expenditure of the money.
Can we stay on the subject we are discussing? We have had three days of this already.
There are many people with HIV, including people who are not gay.
Senator Jim Walsh has exceeded his time.
I am raising this issue in the context of Government priorities. I accept there is support for what is being proposed in these referenda and there may be good reasons for holding them, but the decision to proceed with them at this time is indicative of a Government that has lost its way when it comes to recognising what are the priorities for the Irish people. I realise there is an ideology behind the decision. I know that a sop must often be given to a smaller party to keep it happy in government. Ultimately, however, if we do not start prioritising the issues that have a real impact on the public, the disconnect between people and their politicians will continue.
I thank all Senators for their contributions to the debate. Divergent views have been put forward but it is the people who will decide the outcome of the referendum, which is one of the great strengths of our democracy.
Senator David Norris referred to the nomination process for the Presidency. He is correct that there was a strong vote at the Constitutional Convention in favour of a recommendation to give citizens a greater say in the presidential nomination process. The Government has agreed that this recommendation be referred to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht for consideration. The issue is not being ignored and we await with interest the recommendations of the committee.
Senator Paschal Mooney has often voiced his strong views on the diaspora and I take on board what he said in this regard today. The Constitutional Convention recommended that citizens resident outside the State should have the right to vote in presidential elections. The Government's diaspora policy was announced earlier this month, on which occasion we made clear that it will be necessary to analyse the full range of practical and policy issues that would arise from any significant extension of the franchise outside the State. This would have to be done before any decision could be made on holding a referendum to extend the franchise as proposed. The Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, will be undertaking that analysis in co-operation with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora.
I ask the Minister of State to press for a timeline in this regard.
We will talk about that issue another day.
There are different views on the proposal before the House to lower the age at which citizens are eligible for election to the Office of the President. Some are of the view that we should leave well enough alone by retaining the age requirement of 35 years, while others have suggested we should be even more ambitious by lowering the age requirement to 18. The Government is proposing in this Bill to lower the age requirement to 21 years, matching the age requirement for standing for election to the Dáil, the Seanad and the European Parliament. It will only be possible to gauge the impact of the change over time, if the Bill is passed and subsequently approved by referendum. It is to be welcomed that we are taking steps to deal with the proposal to lower the age requirement in order to be eligible for the Office of President. We are all too familiar with the many fine reports on constitutional issues on which no actions were taken. I referred earlier to the work of the Constitution Review Group and the all-party Oireachtas committee on the issue of lowering the age requirement. Their recommendations lay dormant until the issue was aired again by the Constitutional Convention some 14 years later. We are finally giving the people an opportunity to have their say and the referendum will settle the matter for the foreseeable future.
If the Bill is passed and approved by the people by way of referendum, it will have a significant impact on the number of citizens who will become eligible for the Office of President. Based on the population figures from the last census, some 2.27 million people, or nearly 50% of the population, were aged 35 years and over. Some 3.27 million, or 71%, were aged 21 years or over. On the basis of these figures, some 1 million additional people in the State, or more than 21% of the population, will become eligible for election to the Office of President if this proposal is accepted by the people. That is a significant increase in the number of eligible citizens and reflects the fact that this is an important proposal that is being put to the people for decision in May.
There has been some unwelcome commentary to the effect that the referendum proposal is not substantial. It has been suggested that rather than progressing the referendum on the candidacy age of the President, the Government should be addressing some of the other recommendations made by the Constitutional Convention. We should bear in mind that under the Constitution, the President takes precedence over all other persons in the State. A President is required to make significant decisions, as referred to by many Senators, on issues such as the referral of a Bill to the Supreme Court and the 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 significant. I am not trying to diminish the importance of the other recommendations that have emerged from the convention. We should acknowledge that all the other issues on which recommendations have been made are serious issues with implementation implications that need to be weighed up and analysed carefully. Neither am I saying the Government has not progressed these other recommendations. The impression is sometimes conveyed that the Government is not responding or is ignoring these. That is not the case. If the Bill is passed and approved by the people in a referendum, it will make a significant change to eligibility for election to the Office of President as originally envisaged by the architects of the Constitution. The lowering of the age requirement from 35 to 21 years will mean that a wider range of citizens will be eligible for election to this high office. It will also mean alignment of age requirements to stand for President, the Houses of the Oireachtas and the European Parliament. The Government has committed to holding two referendums in May, one on the proposal in the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill 2015, which was passed in this House last Friday, and the other which is the subject of the present Bill. I understand that if either or both of these proposals are accepted by the people, Ireland’s Convention on the Constitution will be the first ever citizen assembly of its type to produce bona fide constitutional change.
I thank Senators for their contributions.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
Amárach ar 10.30 a.m.