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'The presidency should be about vision and energy – not stepping towards retirement'

The opportunity to lower the age of eligibility for the president is about giving Irish people more choice, not forcing their hand.

Mairead Healy

HISTORY WILL JUDGE 2015 as the year that Ireland voted on equality. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Irish people fully endorsed equality twice on 22 May in taking some very real steps towards becoming a more equal society?

Both referendums are about sending a signal that whether you are LGBT or a young person, that you are a full citizen of the State. The current position of the presidency which places an entire constitutional barring order against every person in the country applying under the age of 35, is unjustified, arbitrary and discriminatory.

What I would like to know, is what makes you suddenly qualified at 35, not 21 or 34 – why that magic number? No other job in the country would allow this, which would be seen as direct age discrimination. There is no basis for it and that’s why it needs to change.

This is about greater choice

Let’s talk about what people are actually going in to vote for on 22 May. They are not being asked to elect a 21 year old, they are being asked simply to afford all people from the age of 21 onwards, as full citizens of the State, the constitutional right to make the choice about whether they can put themselves forward for the job.

To be sure, there is no danger in this. If someone put themselves forward, either young or old, who was not up to the job, we would have to trust that the Irish people would not vote for them. Should the Irish people not have that right to decide? The benefits of this apart from an equality perspective, is that we will have a broadened and more diverse choice at the ballot box. This is about giving Irish people more choice, not forcing their hand.

In addressing some of the falsities propagated by the No side, their primary argument appears to be that young people do not have enough work experience. First of all, the number of jobs you clock up on your CV does not make you experienced – there are many more skills required such as life experience, energy, charisma, heart and tenacity and drive. Who is to say that a young person does not possess these qualities?

Restricting the job to older candidates does not guarantee you weed out the bad candidates, what it actually does is preclude the good candidates.

Linked to this, some have said that a younger candidate would not be able to grasp constitutional complexities required of the job. By that logic, they are effectively saying that unless you are a constitutional law academic young or old, you cannot run for the presidency. That’s precisely why we have the Council of State, the body of advisers including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General, to advise the president on such constitutional matters when they arise.

Do you think young people should be seen and not heard?

There has not been a single legitimate argument as to why this should not pass, and what it boils down to is the mentality that young people should be seen and not heard and should know their place, but we all know the damage this led to in the past.

This referendum is part of a bigger shift that needs to happen. There are many who look down on young people and patronise them. This referendum is about challenging those misconceptions and stereotypes as well. This is simply not the reality of the lives of young Irish people today. Some of our most effective and engaged leaders in all areas of Irish society are in their 20s – they include Minister Simon Harris, Senator Kathryn Reilly, human rights lawyer Maeve O’Rourke, social entrepreneurs such as the Foodcloud founders who are tackling some of our biggest social inequalities. Are we saying they are not competent, they are not qualified to lead? To cast everyone with the same brush, is dangerous, patronising and dismissive.

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Others also believe that a young person does not have the gravitas for the role. If that is your view of the presidency, that it is only about pomp, ceremony and assuming a sombre role entertaining dignitaries, then maybe this should be a discussion focusing on the role of the presidency and how we view the role. That’s not my view of the president.

What I want in my president is a leader we can be proud of on the world stage, representing the interests of Ireland effectively, and with passion and enthusiasm. It is also supposed to be about a role model for our citizens. Ireland has the youngest population in the whole of the EU with 40% of our population under the age of 35, so why shouldn’t the president be a young person?

Think about the Ireland you want to create

It is about the image we want to portray to the rest of the world. Instead of an older person traditionally using the position to ease themselves into retirement, wouldn’t it be fantastic if we have a young person who was able to inject enthusiasm and energy into it, and represent Ireland at the international level which would be exciting for the world to see Ireland as in the 21st century? Who better to reinvent, reinvigorate and reimagine the role of the presidency?

On 22 May when you are alone in the ballot box, think about the Ireland you want to create. The young people I work with in Future Voices Ireland, feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the rest of the country and the decisions made about them. How do we expect them to engage with us as a nation, if we tell them they are not full citizens until they are 35?

Mairead Healy is Chief Executive of Future Voices Ireland. She is also an Ashoka Fellow and a campaigner.

Why shouldn’t a young person be able to run for president?

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Mairead Healy

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