The political age gap needs to be bridged to encourage young people to join in and vote

 

This month the Minister for Health, al Mr Martin, turned 40. This means that for the first time since 1948 there is no minister, at senior or junior level, under the age of 40. But that is not the only startling statistic about the age profile of our politicians.

Following the November 1982 general election, 33 per cent of TDs were under 40. The 1987 general election resulted in 30 per cent of TDs being under 40. In 1989, the figure was 29 per cent. In 1992 it fell to 25 per cent and in 1997 it was down to 20 per cent.

When the Dail resumes in October only 10 per cent (16 TDs) Eireann will be under 40. Not one is a Labour or PD deputy). Only three of that 16 are under 30. Interestingly, of the 16, 11 are sons or daughters of former deputies.

If the number of TDs reflected the proportion of the electorate under 40, there would be 78 twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings sitting on the Dail benches.

When it comes to the Seanad and the European Parliament, young people are even less well represented - just two of our 60 senators and one of the Republic's 15 MEPs are under 40 while the numbers over 60 is 19 and seven respectively.

This does not bode well for a democracy that boasts the youngest population in the European Union or indeed where the largest party contested the last general election with a slogan "A young leader for a young country". The fact that so few young people enter politics is a cause for alarm. The National Youth Council surveyed young people after last year's local and European elections, where it was estimated that only a third of those aged 18-25 cast their vote, and found the main reason young people don't vote was that it was too difficult.

This is true. Postal voting is far too difficult compared with our European neighbours and requires registration well in advance of any poll.

The location of many polling stations does not fit in with modern work or study arrangements. The days and times of polling also discourage voting. In recent years we've had votes on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (for the Udaras na Gaeltachta elections) and polls have closed at either 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. A commitment to weekend voting (as happens in 11 of the 15 states of the EU) and late opening of polls will at least provide those who want to vote with the chance to do so.

However, increasing the opportunities to vote does not automatically mean young people will turn out. Voting requires a positive reason to go out and do so. What can the political parties do to give that positive reason?

In terms of policies, certainly there is a need for a greater youth focus. I recall the last local election manifesto of my own party, Fianna Fail, with horror, where the only reference to young people was in relation to litter.

It should be pointed out that other parties fare little better - the Greens' last general election manifesto, for instance, made no reference to third-level education or students.

I'm not suggesting specific sections on "yoof" but at least an attempt to understand the concerns of those leaving school, going to college, entering work for the first time, renting or considering buying property.

Young people are not a homogenous group - we are not all respectable young men looking for nice, respectable girls in Galway nightclubs - but do have our experiences and visions of what Ireland is and should be like.

The oft-quoted phrase of the politician that "young people are the future of this country" is insulting in that young people are as much a part of the present and have as much to contribute to civic life as any other generation, if given the opportunity to do so.

Political parties need to see their youth wings as more than envelope stuffers and useful canvassers at election time.

They need to be radical in addressing the challenges that require radical solutions. Most importantly, they need to be honest in their dealings with citizens and listen to what young people want rather than starting from a perspective of what, in their view, young people need.

In addition, they need to ask why fewer and fewer of their public representatives are young people and, if it is because young people are not getting involved (or participating at higher levels), surely that says more about how political parties operate than it does about young people.

Malcolm Byrne is a 26-year-old Fianna Fail town commissioner in Gorey, Co Wexford