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Teenagers calling for the right to vote at 16 at the recent conference

Column 16-year-olds can pay taxes and join the army - why not let them vote?

The government is making decisions which adversely affect young people but without allowing them a say, writes Maria Pia Kelly.

IT SEEMS ODD that society deems a 16 or 17-year-old citizen responsible enough to drive a tractor, join the army, work full-time, leave school, or be detained at a detention centre but questions whether or not they are responsible enough to vote.

Earlier this month, the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) hosted a conference to examine the issue of voting age and launch the Vote at 16 Campaign. A dynamic group of young people from all over Ireland were present to debate the issue with experts including TD Simon Harris, Professor David Farrell of UCD, Ruairi McKiernan of the Council of State, Niamh Gallagher of Women for Election and We the Citizens, and  Leanne Caulfield of the ISSU.

Professor Farrell said that lowering the voting age was a ‘no brainer’ and would increase democracy in our country. This was reiterated by other speakers. The opinions and research undertaken by the speakers gave everyone food for thought – at times confirming the validity of opinion previously held and also introducing the audience to new ideas in relation to the issue of lowering the voting age and expanding democracy.

Although I’m a political science student, I have never possessed any great passion for Irish politics. Party politics have never appealed to me and civil servants have tended to impress upon me more than politicians. Nevertheless, one element of Irish politics which is close to my heart is the electoral system, which is likely to mean nothings to anyone under the age of eighteen. I have been working on this issue with the National Youth Council of Ireland since I was sixteen.

Young people have no role in electing those who make decisions which affect them

Young people under the age of eighteen are widely disenchanted with the political system. It is of no significance to them because they cannot participate in what we actually get away with calling a democracy. The difference between a sixteen and an eighteen year old in 2012 in terms of being able to vote is sparse or non-existent. Sixteen and seventeen year olds can pay taxes, drive tractors and can be detained for breaking the law.

However, young sixteen and seventeen year olds have no role in electing those who makes decisions which personally affect them. Rights should match responsibilities. Current and past governments have gotten away with making decisions which have had extremely negative consequences for young people.

The current voter registration system is poor in Ireland with young people falling through the administrative cracks. Young people are often not even registered. For many, not being registered automatically means that they are disenfranchised and often remain so until later in life. Being registered whilst still in secondary school could overcome this obstacle.

The fact is, today’s government is making decisions which are affecting young people. Cuts to education and youth work have an austere impact on young people. Youth unemployment is currently 30 per cent for those aged under 25 and the average rate is 14.1 per cent.

President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barosso recently sent a letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny telling him that Ireland needs to shape up on youth unemployment, as it is presently at an extreme high level.

We are living in a country where career guidance teachers are telling young people to consider further education in areas which will be conducive to moving abroad. Considering this, I ask you – what future does our beloved Ireland have and what of our young people?

If I was a sixteen year old, growing up in Ireland I think I may begin to feel unwanted.

The government has made promises on this

When John Gormley was in government he promised me that he would put lowering the voting age in the White Paper for Government. The NYCI and I met with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to lobby for a reduction in the voting age. Additionally, the current Programme for Government states that the Government will explore the possibility of reducing the voting age to seventeen. The NYCI and I await the current Government’s proposed Constitutional Convention through which this issue will be taken forward.

As a member of the Expert Working Group with the European Youth Forum for lowering the voting age, I have the opportunity to learn about best practice in other countries, such as Norway where sixteen year olds voted in the last election. The turn-out was higher for sixteen year olds than older voters. This proves that when given the opportunity to participate, young people are enthusiastic. The current Danish Presidency is working on the issue of lowering the voting age.

UK MEP Andrew Duff is working closely with the European Youth Forum on this issue. The European Youth Forum is also holding European Round Tables and other events with MEPs and Members of the Council of Europe to push the campaign forward. The Council of Europe supports the reduction in the voting age.

Young people today are more affected by everyday life than ever before in Ireland. We are more politicised and educated to know and understand politics and issues affecting us, our families, our community, and our country.

It is time for young people to have a voice in the decisions that affect them.

Maria Pia Kelly is a youth representative on the Vote @16 Expert Group

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