Rejection of presidential age referendum shows ageism at heart of Irish society

Young people are, by every measure, a marginalised group in Irish society

What happened on Friday was truly odd. In the same breath, the Irish electorate triumphantly extended equality to same-sex couples, and resoundingly denied it to young people. The result sent an unequivocal message: adults under the age of 35 are not held in equal esteem to those above that age.

No matter how exceptional, competent or popular the individual, the idea of a person younger than 35 even presenting themselves to the electorate as a candidate for the highest office of State is apparently so preposterous as to require constitutional prohibition. To paraphrase three-quarters of the electorate: “It’s not just that we won’t vote for you. We won’t even let you run”.

Granted, the mere representation of marginalised groups in political office does not necessarily translate to improved conditions – but their unqualified exclusion is symbolic of broader structural problems.

The insidious ageism of Irish society is so deeply entrenched that the irony of the referendum result has received little comment. Tens of thousands of those inspired to vote Yes to one amendment by the impressively uplifting “Yes Equality” campaign apparently saw no contradiction in rejecting the other. The admirable and selfless treks made home by many young Irish emigrés, under the banner #hometovote, generated much approving chatter. Few questioned why so many were gone in the first place.


Young people are, by every measure, a marginalised group in Irish society. Unemployment rates remain more than twice as high for those under 25 (21.1 per cent for March 2015) than for other age groups (8.7 per cent for the same period). Entering the workforce at a time of severe economic crisis not of their making, this highly educated generation is finding itself squeezed by a dearth of opportunities.

Rising tuition costs, ballooning rents, cuts in social support and the steady transformation of what once were entry-level jobs into unpaid or JobBridge-style internships, have combined to provide many with a stark choice between debt-dependency and emigration. Little wonder that 70 per cent of emigrants since the crisis have been people in their 20s.

Unlike those with whom the term "ageism" is typically associated, these people have no significant assets, no State pensions, no guaranteed access to medical cards, no free use of public transport, no fearsome electoral clout. While inequalities naturally exist within age categories, taken as a whole those under 35 are statistically the least advantaged in Ireland.

In this light, the contemptuous dismissal of them on Friday appears more sinister. For Irish voters, it seems, there are two adulthoods: one that begins at age 18, and a superior one that kicks in, somewhat arbitrarily, with the accrual of 35 birthdays.

Can there be any truly convincing justification for continuing to discriminate on the basis of age even as we steadily move to embrace all creeds, genders, sexualities and races? The No camp would argue that no individual could possess the experience, knowledge or maturity necessary to exercise the duties of the office in a responsible fashion. A brief history lesson should put paid to that delusion.

Michael Collins, for a time the most powerful individual in Ireland, died at 31. Just five years ago he came second in an RTÉ popular poll to establish the greatest ever Irish person. But wasn't Collins an exception? Not quite.

Take some of the other demi-gods of Irish popular history. Theobald Wolfe Tone was 28 when he co-founded the Society of the United Irishmen, and 34 when the 1798 rebellion erupted. Robert Emmet was 25 when a rebellion of his own brought the noose around his neck.

Thomas Francis Meagher was a year younger when he unveiled the Irish Tricolour in 1848. Most of the other prominent Young Irelanders, as their name suggests, were under 35 when they captured the imagination of nationalist Ireland.

Parnell launched the seminal Land League at 33, and took the helm of the Home Rule League a year later. A 34-year-old Éamon de Valera commanded rebels at Boland's Mills. Kevin O'Higgins served as minister for justice, minister for external affairs, vice president of the executive council, and represented Ireland at Imperial Conferences and the League of Nations – all before his assassination, aged 35.

Other famous figures would make the presidential cut today, but only just. Henry Grattan was 36 when he declared the legislative independence of the Irish parliament in 1782, and Pádraig Pearse was the same age when he declared a republic in 1916.

The pattern should be clear. Seniority is no prerequisite for great leadership. Evidently, some turn experience into competence more rapidly than others. Why have Irish voters refused to accept this as a possibility, and what does this reveal about our attitude to young people?

If we are to reserve the presidency merely as a lifetime achievement award, a retirement plan for distinguished elder statespeople, we would do well to question whether it is worth having at all.

What will no doubt be remembered as Ireland’s egalitarian moment has sadly been soured by this strange gesture of intolerance. Future generations will scratch their heads.

Shane Lynn is a PhD student in history at University of Toronto and a co-founder of We're Coming Back, an organisation which campaigns for voting rights for Irish citizens abroad.