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21 is old enough for many things, but…

Is Áras an Uachtaráin ready for a 21-year-old occupant?

By Sarah Martin

Anyone who is abreast of Irish politics over the past few weeks knows the word “referendum” is on the tip of just about everyone’s tongue.

Everyone, however, might not be aware that the equal marriage referendum is not the only decision on the cards for Irish voters.

The Irish presidency is unlike that of many other nations, among them the U.S.: the president is not the leader of the government, but rather a constitutional head of state, a representative of the nation who is above party politics.

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Irish presidents have been mostly men over the age of 50. Our pair of female presidents were only four years younger than this mark when they were elected.

The official age for a candidate to be eligible to stand for the Irish presidency is 35 (the same as in the U.S.) and the referendum in question would lower this age to 21.

The and The Irish Times have both published articles that speak in favor of a ‘Yes’ vote – the former going so far as to claim that those voting ‘No’ were ageist and clearly don’t value the youth of Ireland.

Both articles seem to favor the opinion that as we still elect our president, the lowering of the age merely gives voters more choice.

Of course this doesn’t force us to install Justin Beiber in Áras an Uachtaráin.

It is also key to note that there is still over a decade between our current age of eligibility and our youngest ever president, so the age limit has not dictated our vote thus far.

However, I found while quizzing my peers about this topic, all in the 20 -30 demographic, that they decidedly fell on the ‘No’ side of the argument. Their reasoning did not reveal a lack of faith in the youth of Ireland, or by extension a lack of faith in themselves, but rather an awareness that at 21 they are not prepared, or were not ready, to represent an entire nation.

One choice phrase that was repeated by all of those in the 25-30 demographic was that they felt a huge difference in themselves, and great growth between the ages of 21 and 25 often saying “I was a different person then.”

In essence, they felt that at 21 they were still forming into the adults they would become.

Even the most politically minded, well informed, eloquent 21-year-old is, from what I have seen in my friends and acquaintances, in constant flux. They are still finding themselves, and is the best place to do that as the figurehead leader of a republic?

That being said, when I continued to discuss the referendum with my fellow twenty-somethings we all agreed that Ireland could do with a change of image.

So what could a 21-year-old bring to the position that a 35-year-old could not? Why would they even want the job?

Well, first and foremost, your voice will be heard. You are effectively given an audience, and if you are charismatic, young, and vibrant, it is likely people will stay tuned in.

It’s the truth that we live in a world where a young, hopeful activist is especially appealing to the world’s media.

It is certain that some of the world’s young people who have garnered an audience through their own celebrity have been using their voice to try and bring about a change for the better. Most recently, Ireland’s own Saoirse Ronan has been a huge advocate of environmental issues within Ireland and Emma Watson’s “HeForShe” campaign, as well as her work as a UN ambassador, has garnered a huge amount of world attention and acclaim.

Their youth, passion and drive is apparent and it is certainly true that they are putting a voice to the issues of our generation, perhaps previously neglected by heads of state.

When asked what I would hope to achieve were I, at 21, elected President of Ireland, it was this newfound voice that I was most interested in: being able to shine a light on the injustices and hypocrisies, big and small, that take place in our country and many others. Even if I was unable to change them directly, I would be directly able to affect change.

My wish would also be to see gender inequality, and inequalities in general, become something disassociated with the Republic of Ireland; to put forth an image of Ireland that shows us as the free, modern, forward thinking country we are becoming.

Maybe that is naive, and sounds like wishful thinking, but I believe that this is the one thing youth exclusively brings to the table: the sincere belief that we can change the world, and a faith in humanity that is yet untainted.

Nevertheless, I guess my question to those so passionately in favor of lowering the age is why is the immediacy so important?

This hypothetical prodigious 21-year-old they speak of will hopefully still be in existence five or ten years down the road, and if they truly wanted to be the President of Ireland at 21, shouldn’t he/she be willing to wait for that honor?

At 21, if you are lucky enough, you have just graduated with your undergraduate degree. You may not have had to pay bills or rent yet, and have only participated in general elections for three years. You will not have even have voted for your predecessor.

Even if you were the most independent 21-year-old, up to this point your experience of life has been limited. Yes, you might have travelled, or been heavily involved with political organizations, but you can’t know much about the life of someone in a different demographic, not really, and certainly can’t speak for all of them.

Is it not fair, even right for a passionate candidate to take additional years to learn more about the world, live it through more than their own eyes, form their world views, and generally improve themselves?

Personally, I think the age of candidacy should be lowered, but not to 21. Any 30-year-old would still be considered youthful and vibrant, yet also have the experience of the world, and its people, that only comes from living through it.

So if I were in Ireland to vote on Friday, May 22nd, I would be voting ‘No’ to the referendum in question, not because I think a 21-year-old would make a bad president, but because I think he or she could wait nine years and be a better one.

Sarah Martin was 21 when she began writing this opinion piece last week. She was 22 when she finished it.