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What is the point of the upcoming referendum? (No, not the one you're thinking of)

On 22 May we’ll be asked to vote on same sex marriage… and also about lowering the age of eligibility for presidential candidates. Why is the latter is a priority?

THIS REFERENDUM ON May 22nd could be the first referendum in the history of this country where absolutely nothing is at stake. I’m not talking about the marriage equality referendum – that’s an important moment where we choose to be a welcoming nation that values equality or an international pariah that rejects it.

The passionate campaigning and discussion it is generating stands in stark contrast to the other referendum on that date and the heavy, draining boredom it brings to even type these words: “Lowering the age of eligibility for presidential candidates from 35 to 21”.

Consider how nothing is at stake, insofar as any objections the No side would raise and any benefits the Yes side predict would be very unlikely to happen if this proposal did pass. It has yet to be explained what the relevance of this proposal is to the pressing need for political reform or how it would have influenced the financial crisis that so demonstrated this need. Yet we are expected to vote on this issue without a clear rationale for its timeliness.

Why is this being prioritised? 

To give a generous benefit of the doubt and presume that this is timely, surely you could count on the fingers of one hand the people under 35 who would want the job of president? Take me for example; I am 24 years old, I have volunteered in civil society and two political parties, I have written about politics before – I am what you would call “politically engaged”, a quality supposedly lacking amongst young people despite research to the contrary. I would have no interest in running for president.

Your twenties are a time for personal development. The presidency is a role under public scrutiny in which you represent the entire country as first citizen, occasionally consulting the Council of State on legal matters. Recent years have shown us that old age is no guarantee of good judgement so I don’t doubt that a suitable person under the age of 35 would be capable of doing the job; I am questioning whether someone under the age of 35 would want to live under that kind of pressure.

It is unlikely to me that a candidate under the age of 35 would put themselves forward for the role, yet the government still seem to suggest that this reform would send an important message that Ireland values the young people it drives into unpaid internships and emigration. This hollow gesture would not impact any but the smallest number of young people’s lives in this country and should not be accepted as a genuine step towards change in this country.

Encouraging youth participation in politics?

I was personally prepared to support it when the government committed to holding it alongside a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16. The experience of Scotland, Austria and elsewhere suggest that this would have a demonstrable benefit on civic engagement and, were the government introducing that alongside a reduction in the age of presidential candidates, it could be seen as part of a broader programme of encouraging youth participation in politics.

Yet out of the blue the government announced at the start of this year that only the referendum on the age of presidential candidates would be held alongside the marriage equality referendum, reneging on a clear commitment they made. When faced with the obvious question of why the more impactful of the two proposals was dropped, the President of Young Fine Gael concluded that “some issues require priority and voting at 16 isn’t as high on the list as others”. Is there a conceivable way, in this universe, in this configuration of history, at this point in time that a single person considers the age of Presidential candidates a priority?

The Constitutional Convention 

It was not even considered a priority by those who originated the proposal. The Constitutional Convention was a forum of 66 citizens and 33 politicians who worked surprisingly well together in discussing ideas for political reform. For those questioning why they would prioritise the age of presidential candidates as an issue, they actually didn’t. The Convention voted 50% in favour of lowering the age barrier for presidential candidates yet voted 78% in favour of allowing citizens abroad to vote in presidential elections and 94% in favour of giving citizens more of a say in the nomination of candidates! They also voted 89% in favour of amending the Constitution with gender-inclusive language, 84% in favour of more free votes in the Dáil and 83% in favour of allowing citizens to petition for referendums as practised in Switzerland and elsewhere.

This is coming from a forum that had its agenda set by the government and had 1 in 3 members serving in the current Oireachtas, yet it still demonstrated the potential for real reform in this country. It is therefore a tragic waste of a referendum to be asked to vote on an issue where the result would not matter one way or another.

Make it count!


It is not impetuous to want one’s vote to matter. In that spirit I have a suggestion for anyone on May 22nd who is voting thoughtfully on the marriage equality referendum only to find that other ballot paper before them.

One could spoil that ballot by writing the words “Make It Count” followed by a single issue they actually want to see a referendum on. Then that day they could take to social media using the hashtag #makeitcount and share what they wrote on the ballot (though I would advise against photographing the ballot as this could land you with a heavy fine under Irish law).

You could organise this among your friends, family or a group you are involved in. Say that you are a part of a group campaigning around Irish Water or repealing the 8th amendment or so on, you could publicise your campaign by agreeing on a short, simple wording to write on the ballot paper of a referendum that would have otherwise been a waste. I, for example, intend to write the words “#makeitcount Citizen-initiated referendums” as I believe we should be able to have input into what referendums get held.

This could be the first step towards that kind of political culture. With enough people marking the ballots with an issue that’s important to them and with enough trending on social media, we could have a range of ideas for reform that could guide an inclusive national discussion on change we actually want to see. You may even demonstrate to your secret allies in Oireachtas seats that the Irish public want to engage seriously with reform and that we’re done with hollow gestures.

Jonathan Victory is a writer living in Dublin.

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