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Opinion: Why has there been such silence on lowering the voting age?

Since January 2013, the issue has effectively fallen off the radar: there have been no public debates, no private conversations and little public awareness.

Kathryn Reilly

“AN APATHETIC GENERATION too self-centred, lazy or simply indifferent to care about the world outside of our current social circle and the latest PlayStation game”

May 2004. My little book of quotations. An excerpt from a piece of research I found for a debate I was doing in the Concern Schools Debating Competition on the topic of youth. I was 16 years of age and in my Leaving Cert year. This was my second and final year of competing in the debating competition.

What strikes me now looking back at this is that young people have always been perceived to be apathetic and indifferent to current or political affairs; incapable of grasping the complexities of the socio-political environment. Not mature enough to bear the responsibility of voting or having a say on the issues that affect them. But at 16 I had filled out my CAO, sat my Leaving Certificate and become a PAYE employee. I managed to navigate state examinations, decide what shape my future would take academically and ultimately in my career, and then enlist in the world of work. At 17 I moved away from home, started my degree in Economics, Politics and Law and balanced college and work.

The irony of a 16 year old voluntarily debating political apathy in a competition organised by an NGO was not lost on me then and still isn’t when I adjudicate for the very same debating competition today.

Young people getting the rights to matched their societal responsibilities

On the weekend of the 26th and 27th January 2013, the first plenary discussions of the Constitutional Convention took place in Malahide, with the issues of voting age and the presidential term on the agenda. The Convention’s mandate was to report a recommendation on reducing the voting age to 17. The Convention recommended that a change be made to the Constitution to lower the voting age by a majority of 52%. More importantly, the Convention went further than the original proposal and 48% of members recommended that the voting age be reduced to 16.

This is important as not least were young people being given the right to vote by their peers, but the group of young people was broadened further than that originally considered by the Oireachtas. The goalposts were changing and young people were to get the rights that matched their societal responsibilities.

But nearly two years on where does this stand? Since that Convention we have had a referendum on Seanad abolition and a referendum on a new Court of Appeal, there has been a local and European election – but young people aged 16 and 17 have yet to be given the right to vote. The Taoiseach made it clear that a referendum would be held in Spring 2015 on the issue but no further details have been forthcoming. Will it be a stand-alone election? Will it be early or late Spring?

There has been silence on the issue of the voting age

It has been mooted that this referendum will be held on the same day as the Marriage Equality referendum to maximise voter turnout. As we have seen, this important campaign has taken off in recent months, with efforts to maximise voter registration before the deadline of 25 November. But unfortunately, there has been silence on the issue of the voting age. No public debates, no private conversations and, most critically, little public awareness. Since January 2013, the issue has effectively fallen off the radar.

Should the referendum pass, important issues around political education, information regarding the referendum itself and the logistics of voter registration need to be considered in advance. Campaign organisations need to have clarity on when a referendum might occur so as to facilitate voter education and awareness on the issues. There is the fear that some event, perhaps related to water, could trigger an election sooner rather than later and this could leave either the referendum or the legislation to give effect to the referendum, in doubt. More importantly, there is the fear that the important issue of marriage equality will eclipse voting age and dominate public discourses completely. This could hinder the passing of the referendum if sufficient information is not disseminated though public debate.

As a 16 year old, I was debating development issues. Almost ten years later I sat in the Constitutional Convention listening to articulate 16 and 17 year olds discuss the merits of giving them the right to vote. We are fortunate that there is an appetite among young people to have a say in the issues that affect them. We saw this in the Scottish referendum: it blew the myth that young people are apathetic out of the water and it showed that they are capable of getting engaged with politics.

Kathryn Reilly is a Sinn Féin Senator.

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Poll: Should the voting age be lowered to 16?

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