Head to head: Should the age for presidential candidates be 21?
Yes, says Hugh Linehan. No, argues Arthur Beesley, in an Irish Times online debate on the referendum
Arthur Beesley (left): ‘There are greater and more pressing inequalities that should be tackled’; and Hugh Linehan: ‘There is no logical reason for the existing age limit of 35 on candidates standing for the presidency.’ Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times
Hugh Linehan: Perhaps we should begin by acknowledging that this has been the most absurd excuse for a referendum campaign in the history of the State. The Government admitted from the start that it didn’t really care whether it’s passed or not. It has insulted the Constitutional Convention by selecting this issue over a number of more pressing ones (on blasphemy, for example). So it’s hard not to conclude that the question of the presidential age was picked solely in order to give the electorate a whipping boy. We are all being invited to give our betters a kick by voting No and keeping post-pubescent politicians out of Áras an Uachtaráin, and then voting Yes on the more important (and yes, it is more important) marriage referendum. I have to admit that I stupidly fell for this at first and was planning to vote No. However, having now bothered to stop and actually think about the issue, I have changed my mind. One should vote on a constitutional change on its actual merits. In this case, there is no logical reason for the existing age limit of 35 on candidates standing for the presidency, so why should any citizen vote against removing it?
Arthur Beesley: It’s difficult to take this one seriously at all. The referendum smacks of a reform proposal being put to the people simply for the sake of proposing a reform. Any reform. As such it’s pitiful. It wouldn’t say much for the office of the presidency to throw open the election to any person of any age who fancies it. Crude as it is, the age restriction demands that candidate have done something of substance in their life other than to seek to become head of State. It also guards against fads, fashion and whimsy. That’s a good thing. Better to take the presidency seriously. You wouldn’t go under the knife if the surgeon hadn’t done the requisite training – and that takes many years. The age restriction means, in essence, that candidates must demonstrate something more than basic competence in something other than political campaigning. What’s wrong with that? This is no ordinary post and it’s certainly not to be seen as a career move for an exceedingly ambitious whipper-snapper on the up. The role and powers of the President are indeed limited, but that’s not to say they lack significance. The opposite is the case. As 21-year-old, I wasn’t exactly oppressed by the fact that I could not run for president. It was the same when I was 35 – and that’s not so long ago now. Anyone who feels oppressed by their exclusion on age grounds from presidential election will eventually find – as the years roll by – that they are no longer excluded.
Hugh Linehan: I think we can agree that this is not the measure either of us would have chosen to put to the people on this occasion. That said, we do differ on whether it should be passed. As you subtly pointed out, you’re a lot closer to the relevant age cohort than am I. And I hold no particular brief for the under-35s, with their annoying vocal inflections, craft beers and body art. However, I am perfectly happy to leave my own personal prejudices to the privacy of the voting booth, rather than insisting that they should be enshrined in the Constitution. As for experience, there are plenty of excellent surgeons out there who are under 35. And there are many other professional positions requiring high skill levels gained through practical experience, often in matters of life and death, which don’t have an arbitrary age limit attached. Let’s be realistic about this; even if some 21-year-old were to run for the presidency, it stretches credulity to think they’d have a hope in hell of even getting through the nomination process, never mind getting elected. However, it’s certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility (even if still rather unlikely) that in certain circumstances a candidate in their late 20s or early 30s might make a credible challenge for the presidency. And what’s wrong with that?
Arthur Beesley: I have no personal prejudice at all in this matter but I cannot see how this notion – above others – merits a change in the Constitution. You say a 21-year-old would find it very difficult to get through the nomination process and even more difficult to win the election. So a Yes vote in that instance is redundant and constitutional change sought but an empty gesture. As for people of exceptional talent in their late 20s or early 30s who might make a credible challenge, you’d have to think they’d be far better off seeking a different type of political post. Anyone that young and that good would be wasted on the presidency. Far better in that instance to go for mainstream politics, where the capacity to effect change day-to-day is greater. To those who see some lack of equality in the present situation, I’d say there are greater and more pressing inequalities that should be tackled. We will have a general election within a year in which the Seanad poll will follow the Dáil poll. Some people will have votes in both polls and some – like me – won’t have a second vote. True, the people voted to retain the Seanad. But where is the promised Seanad reform? No sign of that. This proposal smacks of being a sop to young people. It should be treated accordingly in the polling booth.
Hugh Linehan: Imagine for a moment that the situation was reversed, and we were being asked to insert a ban on under-35s where none had existed previously. Would you really argue for such a measure? I think it’s most unlikely, as it would be seen as an unnecessary and over-authoritarian attempt to restrict both the sovereign will of the people and the right of citizens to participate fully in the democratic process. And for what? To prevent younger people wasting their time in the Áras when they could be more productive elsewhere? Why on earth should we use the Constitution to prevent people misusing their time in any way they see fit? You point quite correctly to the fiasco of the Seanad referendum and the entirely predictable failure to reform which has followed since its defeat. That sorry saga is a symptom of the self-serving inertia which seems endemic in Irish political elites. It’s deplorable, but to point to that as the rationale for voting down this (extremely modest) reform proposal is to fall into a very similar trap, using this vote to give the powers-that-be a slap, rather than deciding it on its merits. And what a useless slap it will be, given they cynically expected (and possibly wanted) it from the outset.
Arthur Beesley: We’re talking about the present proposal on its merits. As you accept, we are in the realm here of “extremely modest” reform. On its own terms and on its own terms exclusively, I say such reform is so modest as to be pointless and of negligible benefit in the wider scheme of things. It’s not really a question of preventing any 21-year-old doing anything – hardly the function of the Constitution, but that’s another matter. Whether the Government wanted this or not is surely irrelevant to the substance of the proposal. Irrelevant too is the question of an age restriction being introduced if one were absent. That’s not the question before voters on Friday.
Hugh Linehan: In its own small way, though, it removes an indefensible irritant from our political structures. It may be extracting an ingrown toenail when what’s required is a new kidney, but that’s still worth doing. And it sends a symbolic message, in a country which claims to cherish its young but rarely does so in reality, that younger citizens of this Republic have the same rights and responsibilities as the rest. The provision as it currently stands has no discernible merit. But who knows what positive outcome might arise in the future if it’s removed? It’s certainly not necessary to be over 35 to be a constitutional expert. The first constitution of the Irish Free State was drafted under the supervision of Michael Collins (aged 31 and a half); the US Declaration of Independence was largely the work of Thomas Jefferson (aged 33). The notion that a po-faced “seriousness” that only comes with age is required to carry out the duties of the office is belied by Presidents Robinson, McAleese and Higgins, each of whom has reshaped the role to reach out to new parts of Irish society. I certainly don’t believe under-35s should be prevented from aspiring to do the same.
Arthur Beesley: Any symbolism here is empty. If we really wanted to do something for young people in our society we’d have to do more about the provision of jobs, housing, childcare and all the other things that might improve their actual lives. We’re kidding ourselves if we think passing this referendum represents some kind of a communal gesture to young people in the name of equality, as if they were crying out for greater standing in the Constitution. Please. I gladly take the point about constitutional legacy of younger leaders in different times and would not dispute it. Yet you could just as easily say that voting Yes here is more than a little po-faced in its own righteousness. No-one says young people shouldn’t participate in political life. Of course they should – and they do indeed, at many different levels. In real terms, however, I see no practical curtailment on political participation. In terms of our collective priorities, opening up the election for head of State to 21-year-olds is not quite at the top of the list.
Hugh Linehan and Arthur Beesley are Irish Times journalists