Wednesday, 29 March 2017
Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016: Second Stage
-----that all Senators will act in the public interest this evening, not in their party interest or in the private self interest and that all Senators will acknowledge that only the safe passage of this Bill through the House tonight will ensure that young people have an opportunity to have their say in local elections and European elections in 2019. President Michael D. Higgins has said, "Democracy is always and must always be a work in progress, and how we use the independence we have been gifted will continue to challenge us morally and ethically." These words were spoken by him during a speech in the RDS on 26 March 2016 at a State event for relatives of those who participated in the Easter Rising. I think about the context in which President Higgins spoke of independence in the centenary year. The independence of a nation, the journey into the future is a collective journey, and I am mindful that a recent announcement by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to extend Presidential voting rights to the global Irish diaspora and to citizens in the North of Ireland. That is a welcome and a positive development. Ireland extends far beyond the border that divides us and the coastal boundaries of our islands.
Four years after the Constitutional Convention proposed Presidential voting rights, movement and initiative have now followed. Now, more than ever our collective response to a fractured world must be truly inclusive. Ireland as a model republic that facilitates a collective journey in which the Irish at home and away truly identify, partake and take ownership of the narrative, where citizen engagement is cherished and where active citizenship can thrive. That is the essence of republicanism. A positive outcome in that the upcoming referendum on the extension of Presidential voting rights will be transformative. This Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016 will be equally transformative.
If we choose to widen the electoral franchise to include citizens who have reached the age of 16 years our society will reap rewards and profit from the inclusion of our young people in the part of the political process that is most local and most international, elections to local government and to the European Parliament. This is achievable through legislation alone, legislation that will energise and bring dynamism unique to both elections.
Why should we follow the example set by Norway, Austria, Scotland and others? Why should we draw on the experience of our young people in constructing the foundations of that model republic, a model republic as a beacon of hope for people everywhere? In Scotland 75% of 16 and 17 year olds cast their vote when afforded the opportunity. That right is now afforded them in all Scottish elections and enjoys a high level of public support. When addressing the Seanad in 2016, First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, reiterated her support for voting rights for those who have reached 16 and 17 years. The voting age in Norwegian local elections was lowered to 16 years in 2011 as a trial in 21 municipalities. Some 58% of 16 and 17 year olds cast their vote. That number was far higher than the turnout of regular first time voters between the ages of 18 and 21. In 2007, Austria lowered its legal voting age in all elections. Turnout among this age group was over 65% and research into this case study shows a high level of political maturity when casting a vote for the first time.
Another reason to support the Bill today is because the proposal was supported by the Constitutional Convention. This legislation is recognition of the wishes of citizens as expressed and set out through the structures of this State and of Government. A majority of the Constitutional Convention members in March 2013 favoured a change to the Constitution to lower the voting age and, if making such a change, a majority opted for a reduction to 16 years of age. The Constitutional Convention was not established to just explore optional extras. Today is our chance to realise its demand. Let the Seanad be the House that does so.
When addressing the State event for relatives of those who participated in the Easter Rising, President Higgins went on to say, "We must ensure that our journey into the future is a collective one; one in which the homeless, the migrant, the disadvantaged, the marginalised and each and every citizen can find homes, are fellow travellers on our journey which includes all of the multitude of voices that together speak of, and for a new Ireland born out of contemporary imagination and challenges". It is my firm belief that young people must no longer be left out of the national conversation. Young people are at the cutting edge of change; 16 and 17 year olds must be facilitated in channelling that desire for change, in channelling their contemporary imagination. Cannot we Senators do better in facilitating young people in holding the representatives to account or would that be a dangerous move, a bold move, and create problems for the established norms or backfire on some of those involved in the political system? Ideally, yes, because certain things are so much more important than private self interest.
Some 165,000 young people between the ages of 15 and 24 have left this State since Fine Gael took office in February 2011. One in six young people born in this State now live abroad. At 14.5%, youth unemployment between the ages of 15 and 24 remains stubbornly high and has only decreased by 0.8% since I tabled this Bill in June 2016. Youth unemployment is more than double the overall unemployment rate. Activation schemes such as JobBridge and Gateway have fostered attitudes that young people and graduates are a cheap form of labour at a time when young people are vulnerable in work places relative to the arts, to retail, to care and hospitality sectors. Young people are tired of hearing how Ireland can be the best small country for this and that. That is not the language of hope, it is not the language of optimism. We can be world leaders in everything that we do.We can achieve that by drawing on the experiences of the old and young, by doing less and listening more, and drawing on the experiences of the homes and homeless Irish abroad and the old homes of the new Irish. Ireland's culture is changing and we must embrace new realities in our midst.
The children's rights referendum on 10 November 2012 and the establishment of a Department and the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been widely regarded as the State and society righting the wrongs of its treatment of young people since partition and beyond. It is more than appropriate for us to continue that journey this evening by opening a pathway for young people to express their feelings, emotions, attitudes and point of view on ballot papers in polling stations across the State and, perhaps, most important, to have their values reflected by their Government.
I am honoured to second the introduction of this legislation. It is an important Bill. I became involved in activism as young as the age of eight when I campaigned to become an altar girl in a male-dominated space. I know Members would not think it now and they are all shocked, but I was an altar girl. I acted on the principle of the rights of gender-----
Yes, I was one of the first altar girls. I was also involved in a campaign to change loads of different school policies. As a young person, I believed I was well capable of making a political decision regarding where my vote should go. I knew at the age of 16 after I left the room having met local Deputies and other public representatives in An Cosán at a voting workshop who I would vote for and would I would not vote for, and who represented my voice and who did not. That has not changed to this date. People think one will vote one way when one is so young and somehow one is not mature enough, and that view that one has then will change as one gets older. There is not much difference between being 16 and being 18. The majority of the research for my contribution was carried out under the lead of Eoin, a 15 year old work experience student in my office. He is present in the Visitors Gallery. He has worked for me all year and he has led the research on the voting age and engaged with approximately 600 students from 28 DEIS schools. He will be 16 when the next election is held and he is well capable of making a decision on where his vote will go.
What we are seeing today is fear on the part of establishment politicians that the youth vote will not go their way and that is why the amendment is designed to stall the legislation. There is fear of a shift because the views of young people are no longer represented in politics. That means Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are standing in the way of the democratic process. They fear for themselves in respect where these votes will go. The DEIS students had significant knowledge about this field. A total of 418 out of 600 students who filled out a survey said they would vote if they were given the chance. They highlighted issues such as LGBT rights, the eighth amendment, homelessness, the rise of right wing populism, the exit of the UK from the EU, hospital overcrowding, mental health services, Irish unity and reunification. They know their politics and they are engaged. It is an awful shame to see politicians getting in the way of that. When asked if they would vote, 75% said they would. That reflects the turnout in Scotland when it lowered the voting age. When asked what influenced their voting decision, they mentioned friends, family, speeches by politicians, debates between politicians, one's own political beliefs, the traditional media and political advertising.
I was sent a few messages regarding a document Fine Gael issued in respect of the amendment. These show that there are no solid reasons to oppose this legislation. One of the reasons given by Fine Gael was that "Minister Coveney needs time to consider the issue further". That is ridiculous. We are on Second Stage in this House. There are three more Stages in this House followed by five in the Dáil. This is a long process and there is plenty time for consideration. Another reason given by Fine Gael, which is supported by Fianna Fáil, was that "The Bill would create a divide between those who can vote at EU-local elections and general-presidential elections". There is already a divide between who can vote in those sets of elections. We have legislated for non-EU citizens to vote in local elections and deemed them ineligible to vote in general and presidential elections, and referenda. It is not a new, radical or unusual idea in Irish politics to set different eligibility criteria for different elections and I cannot see how Fine Gael can justify blocking that.
Fine Gael have stated that "It is not clear there is public support for reducing the voting age; therefore we need to have a referendum on the issue". Again, this is a weak argument. We make decisions all the time in the Oireachtas for which we do not seek full public support. Sometimes we just choose to do what is right. According to Fine Gael:
Lowering the voting age needs to be accompanied by a civic education programme to prepare and inform 16 and 17 year olds for being able to vote. The new Politics and Society class needs to be given time to better inform students.
This is also a Fianna Fáil argument. It is an extraordinarily offensive idea that only through a formal education programme can a young person become informed enough and engaged enough to be able to vote. Young people are in the Gallery. They are ready and we should listen to them.Politics and society is a new leaving certificate subject. Should we all give up our vote and return to school to sit this subject? All of us have voted since we turned 18 and none of us took that subject. We were influenced by our parents, families, neighbours and our environment. I have a 16 year old who is at work all day today.She has worked and paid tax since she was 14, but she is still not eligible to vote. The State says that young people like her can contribute to society but they will not have a voice in saying who will represent them.
Fine Gael also said that "There is ambiguity around the constitutionality of amending the voting age". I would be curious to read the details of the Government’s legal advice on this issue. I just had a quick read of the Constitution. Article 16 sets 18 as the age for Dáil elections, with other parts of the Constitution linking eligibility at presidential elections and referenda to Dáil eligibility. Nowhere does the Constitution make any reference to eligibility for other elections and, indeed, Article 28A, in the section relating to local government, states that the right to vote of persons in local elections will be determined by law.We are debating a law. The Government’s response is contradicted by the text of our own Constitution. It is very important to get involved in local politics. Local councillors are involved in youth clubs, schools and GAA clubs, and their offices are at the end of the road. If young people become engaged at local level when they are aged 16 with the person they can recognise in their own community who is accessible to them, they will remain engaged by the time they turn 18 to become involved in national politics.
The Fianna Fáil manifesto states that the party wants to trial lowering the voting age to 16 in local and European elections in 2019, yet it supports the amendment, which does the opposite and pushes the date for lowering the age back. By the time we get through the process proposed at the end of the year, it will be too late for 16 year olds to register. I am looking to Fianna Fáil to change their minds in the next hour after we have heard everybody else's contribution.
I move amendment No. 1:
To delete all words after "That" and substitute "the Bill be read a Second Time on 31 December 2017.".
During the Order of Business, I was struck by a comment made by former Minister, Senator Reilly, when he was referring to the plain packaging of cigarettes. It is probably out of context but I thought it was a good line. He said, "Children are not stupid". He was referring to the choices people make when it comes to tobacco legislation. When it comes to this legislation, my comments might seem a little out of kilter with the Government and I will explain that later. At the end of the day, when people are aged 16 and 17, they are old enough to work, pay tax, drive, join the Army and, God forbid, die for their country, but yet we still rob them of the right to participate fully in our democracy. This issue has been a journey for me. When I was involved in youth politics, I firmly opposed ever changing the voting age from 18 to 16 and the flimsy excuse I used at the time was that we did not have proper political education in schools and that civic engagement.It is a rubbish excuse because you do not need that formal political and civic education to know what your community and society is all about. Despite this, I am delighted to say that subject is being brought in by the Government. It is a very positive thing and should be embraced as such.
As I have explained, I am on a personal journey. The party of which I am a member, and of which I chose to be a member at the age of 19 while having no family ties to it, is also on a journey when it comes to this issue. I accept that the vast majority within my party, and probably within Government as the Minister of State himself can address in due course, are not where I am on this issue. I remind the House that when I joined Fine Gael the party had just about gotten its head around civil unions, let alone marriage equality. When I joined Fine Gael it had quite different positions, particularly in social areas, than it does now. Parties need time to change and unfortunately we cannot always push that change as fast as individual members would like. I admit, as I said throughout my seven years on the county council, that if I agree with Fine Gael 75% of the time, I am doing well.
I chose to join a party, however, because I believe in party politics. While I fully respect those who are representatives of other parties or none, for me the party system is the best way to actually achieve things and get things done. In turn, one has to make personal sacrifices, put one's pride aside and, although I hate to say it, put one's principles aside and accept that one's colleagues are not necessarily there yet or that one's full opinions are not exactly those of the party. That does not mean that a person must stop believing in something and cannot keep pushing for something internally. I could have very easily stood up here and read the excellent notes prepared by our press office and our Government office about why the amendment is being pushed, exactly what the Minister of State will say in due course. I will not do that. I will be frank because I fully respect-----
-----both Senator Warfield and Senator Ruane and their credentials. I agree with them. Unfortunately, due to the Whip, I will not be in a position to support this motion. I am reaching out, however, and I ask the Senators to possibly take on board the Government amendment and look at this as an opportunity. Let us make progress. Let us convince those who are not where we are. Let us try to get there. We are not there yet. A referendum must be put to society.
I understand what people are saying and I fully take on board what Senator Ruane has said about us already discriminating and differentiating when it comes to vote. We had an internal discussion about this in the Fine Gael Seanad group on Tuesday before we came into the House. I will not breach confidence and I will not say anything that would be out of order.
I was taken aback, because I thought that people were perhaps just not interested in this, that they had moved away. There was, however, a level of vehement opposition. I found myself in that room, like I have found myself in many a room, being an absolute minority with respect to this legislation. Unfortunately, the Government will not be supporting this motion. I personally think that is an absolute shame, but, not to necessarily get too party political, I would appeal for the House to come at this again. Let us take what is on offer and let us come at this again in 12 months.
Like previous speakers, and as a mother that has children that are able to vote, I would always encourage voting. Most of us in this Chamber have been someway involved in politics. Voting is crucial to us, whether it is part of our life or whether it is part of a tradition that we have been brought in. People fought and died for their vote. They fought so hard for their vote and I believe it is crucial that we remember that.
I am here as the Fianna Fáil Senator. The Bill seeks to amend the Electoral Act 1992 to lower the voting age for the European and local elections to 16 years. We support the principle of the Bill but we believe that the proper scrutiny should take place before it goes to Committee Stage. There are many models around the world, as we have been told. In Australia one can vote at 16 years, although it seems one has to have a job before one can vote. There are also the Estonian, Scottish and many south American models. EU citizens have to be 18 years of age before they can vote. Fianna Fáil supports a referendum on lowering the voting age to 16 years as we believe this is truly an issue for Irish people to debate and decide. That is crucial. When I think of it, originally the abolishment of the Seanad was a massive issue and it went to the people in a referendum. They made that correct choice. We in Fianna Fáil have stuck by the Seanad. We are all here today because Fianna Fáil delivered on what we said we would do. We went out, against all other parties I might add,-----
-----with a referendum and represent those young people of 16, who I believe should be entitled to vote. Again, however, it is up to the Irish people in a referendum. This is an issue that needs to be addressed. I feel people need to learn about voting and money needs to be put in to educate people on how crucial voting is. I do not care what age one is, from 16 up to 90, to vote is such a privilege. Statistics show that there has been a massive downwards trend in the turnouts for European and local elections. I believe, that by giving younger people the vote, that will change. We in Fianna Fáil are going to work to make sure that young people of 16 will be able to vote. We want it to go to a referendum.
I ask the Government and the Minister of State to introduce a voter education programme in secondary schools to promote awareness of voting, but also a voting awareness campaign. There is not point in holding a referendum to allow younger people to vote, although that would be very welcome, if we do not make sure that the other Irish citizens, that are not coming out to vote, are encouraged to vote. Going forward from here, we need a referendum, we need our young people to vote, we need the Irish people to stand up as they did for the Seanad. We also need to make sure that this Government, or any other Government, delivers and that everybody should know how important it is to use their crucial vote, whether in local, European or general elections. People need to get out and use their votes.
I commend Senator Warfield for bringing this Bill forward today and also the National Youth Council of Ireland, which has been instrumental in promoting it. As has been noted on the record of this House countless times, including earlier today, I have been very supportive of extending voting rights in Presidential elections to the Irish living abroad. I would also like to lend my support to giving the youth of Ireland a voice at a local and European level. Both will go towards implementing the recommendations of the Constitutional Convention of 2013.
Giving a vote to 16 and 17 year-olds in local and European elections presents a unique opportunity to better educate the youth of Ireland in politics. Research has shown that a vote in a person's first election leads to an increase in active citizenship. This is a time in young people's lives, before they go to college, when they can still be contacted in their home constituency to educate them on politics. It allows parents the opportunity to educate their young adults on democracy and the functions of both our State and the European Union. A vote in these elections will not only encourage young people to vote in the future, it will also encourage them to register to vote, as most 16 and 17 year-olds are still in second level education. Logistically, it would be easy to assist them in registering, again having a knock-on effect for future elections. Scotland, since giving 16 to 17 year-olds a vote in their independence referendum, which saw a turnout of almost 75% of their young voters, has seen increased involvement from young people in politics, which shows clearly that the evidence is there.
This could help change the agenda of local politics. Too often we hear that there are not enough amenities for young people, that they are not represented adequately and that they are left out of the community.Giving them a vote at this age would encourage local politicians to look at the issues facing young people in their communities. Perhaps we might even see more young people become involved in politics at local level. In 2015 the European Parliament passed a recommendation that the voting age in EU elections be reduced to 16 years in all member states. From what I gather, we will still be in the European Union. As Article 50 has been triggered by the United Kingdom and arguably with growing euro-scepticism across Europe and even further afield, there has never been a better time to educate the youth of Ireland on the work done by our MEPs and the benefits of Ireland’s membership of the European Union, particularly in these turbulent times. As such, just like Irish citizens living in the United States where I live, giving them a would greatly enable the young people of Ireland to truly engage with the political system. Thus, I will be giving the Bill my full support.
I thank Senators Fintan Warfield and Lynn Ruane for bringing the Bill before the House. I am delighted that there are some young people in the Visitors Gallery. Today they have received their first lesson in politics: "They should have the vote but the Whip states they cannot and the Whip is superior to everyone else. Sorry about my personal feelings, but I will put them aside because the Whip states they cannot have it." Lesson No. 2 in politics is: "Kick it to a referendum if we do not want to do it and we might get to it in about 25 years time". It is absolutely outrageous that Senators are going against the Bill. We are talking about bringing the political system to 16 year olds. Having worked with young people for 25 years, I can guarantee the House that they will vote. What is wrong? Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have not yet had the chance to infiltrate them to ensure they will get their votes. We might finish up with young people such as Senator Fintan Warfield in the Seanad and the Dáil.
The time has come for political parties to put up or shut up. Fine Gael has sought to deal with the issue by proposing that the Bill be read a Second Time on 31 December 2017. We will all be on holidays at that time. You do not mean-----
I am sorry. I informed Senators Fintan Warfield and Lynn Ruane today that I was under severe pressure and felt somewhat intimidated to support the Bill because of the massive number of e-mails I had received from young people. Folks, rock on. Please drive us insane to get the vote for 16 year olds. I admire them 100% and I am 100% behind them.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the proposition that the franchise be extended to those aged 16 years. I was a member of the Constitutional convention when this issue was debated and we heard evidence from experts and so on. Anyone, like me, who has dealings with young people in visiting schools to talk in CSPE classes, dealing with members of Young Fine Gael and seeing Dáil na nÓg in action could only but be impressed by them and think there is a great future for the country; they just have to be captured, cultivated, supported, nurtured and encouraged. Nowadays there is no point in telling a young person, "This is it." More dialogue and conversation is required. In many respects, it is more empowering for young people and puts us so-called adults on our toes more. It is a different dynamic and very much part of our times. Parents, teachers and youth workers, in particular, know this. However, I do not agree with the proposal and I will tell the House why.
We are all entitled to our views, but I have a concern. I have worked with young people and do not wish to diminish any young person, his or her potential or capacity. At the end of the day, however, are we way too much in a hurry to make a young person an adult or an older person? This would expand the age of voting to include younger people who are becoming sexualised at an earlier age and so on. Our job as adults is to protect, nurture and cultivate young people. They will come to a point which in many societies is called a rite of passage. In this country the age of majority is 18 years. To my mind, in general, this is the point at which one passes into adulthood.
We know that there are young people who are very clued into politics. I am speaking about people younger than 18 years who cannot vote. I do not seek to diminish their interest, but I was a member of the Constitutional Convention when this topic was debated and it struck me that reducing the age per sewould not be an assurance of participation. This is also shown in the research. For ourselves and young people who will come after us, we must encourage people to be more aware in a constructive fashion. In this time and era we are very concerned about individuals having their rights. We speak about the rights of the individual daily in this House, but we are connected to a community. There is a civic connection that sometimes involves the horrible term "self-sacrifice", which is part of what parents do for their children. It is about giving. We pay our taxes, although we may debate how they are spent, in order that we will have services. This is tied intrinsically to the age of majority. Young people work and pay taxes but, equally, we have regulations that protect them and give them special treatment when they are working. They are not treated in the same way as adults in that regard.
On the age of criminal responsibility, a person under 18 years is a minor and treated differently from someone older. The juvenile system focuses on the rehabilitation of young people who commit even serious crimes as opposed to the full thrust and implications of the criminal justice system. One has to be 18 years of age to get married. There are exceptions, but an application has to be made to the Circuit Court or the High Court. In December 2015 the Government announced that it was looking to do away with this exception and that everyone would have to be 18 years of age to marry. In the area of social services the State is responsible for the welfare of a minor until he or she reaches 18 years of age. It can be argued that historically this has not been done very well in many cases, especially in cases involving those with disabilities which have come to light in recent times. Nonetheless, that is the law.
There are restrictions on enforcing contracts with minors. The most clear-cut case of a contract that is enforceable against a minor is a contract for necessaries, that is, something a minor actually needs. If a minor, that is, someone under 18 years, gives a gift, it can be taken back while he or she is still a minor or he or she can have a change of heart on reaching the age of majority. If a minor signs something related to a land transaction, it can be voided within a reasonable period once he or she reaches the age of majority. In tort, the civil side to wrongdoing, minors have protections in their actions and activities.
Until the 1980s - I forget the year - the age of majority was 21 years. The Law Reform Commission examined what this meant and why it should be reduced. I agree that there is room for further debate. This issue is bigger than any political party. However, there is nothing wrong with acknowledging a young person's interest but noting that, for various reasons, he or she is still not an adult. I am sure Senator Lynn Ruane and others might query why the age is 18 years. However, what is wrong with telling young people that they have to wait until they reach 17 or 18 years of age? We can hope that at that point people will be sufficiently engaged. There is much more scope to expand the abilities of all young people to engage in a meaningful way and realise the power of their vote.The concept of one person, one vote is the most powerful thing. Those who do not vote give their power to those who do, which is the ultimate proposition.
It is fair to say that every Senator values and upholds our democracy and the power of the vote. It is an equaliser. Whether I am President, a teacher or a person voting for the first time at 18 years of age, my vote has the exact same value. It is a very beautiful concept.
We are pushing people towards becoming adults earlier and earlier. We should be nurturing young people and encouraging talent, interest and participation. I am not convinced that equates to extending the franchise to a 16 year old. I have an open mind, notwithstanding what I have said. They are my general sentiments.
I congratulate Senators Ruane and Warfield on putting the proposition to the House. While I agree with Senator Richmond that it is important to try to convince people who are not of the same point of view as oneself, people are seeing a window into what it was like being in government with Fine Gael for five years in terms of trying to get any progressive change over the line.
The marriage equality proposition was roundly celebrated, and some of those involved are still doing laps of honour around the country. It was something Fine Gael did not want and kicked into the Constitutional Convention in order to-----
It was not until the Constitutional Convention came to the conclusion that we should have a referendum that Fine Gael agreed that should happen. The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act almost collapsed the Government, if memory serves.
It is, therefore, of no surprise to me or members of my party that a very progressive and innovative change to the voting law proposed by Senators Warfield and Ruane would be objected to by Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. I am wondering of what they are afraid. Are they afraid of young people?
Imagine the dynamic in a local or European election when a candidate knocks on a door and a young person wearing a school uniform answers it. For the first time, the candidate will not ask if the person's mammy is in because he or she would have to listen to somebody who is in school and possibly going through all of the horrendous things that Senator Mulherin related. How are we supposed to learn about the lives of 16 or 17 year olds if we do not have to act on their opinions? Would it not be fantastically engaging to have a line of local election candidates in a secondary school or a youth club answering questions from young people as to what they are going to do with the property tax and what services would be improved?
I hate to tell the House this, but I am a guy with a mortgage and when one has a mortgage one gets a bit weird and begins to worry about stuff that will happen in one's area. One becomes a little bit more conservative when it comes to halting sites, injecting and drug treatment centres and social housing. Would not it be wonderful if a generation of young people without mortgages could stand up for decency, equality, public services and the things in which they fundamentally believe before they are beaten into the ground by our obsession with living in a capitalist society that chains them to mortgages and holding onto their castles for the rest of their lives?
I spent 11 years as a teacher and learned more from the children I taught than I ever taught them. I am fully behind this suggestion. I remind everybody in the Chamber that when the Constitutional Convention decided, in its wisdom, that we should do such radical things as removing suggestions that women belong in the home from the Constitution and one should have the right to marry the person one loves, it was also asked whether it wanted to reduce the voting age to 17 years of age. It said "No" and instead recommended that it should be reduced to 16 years of age. We do not need a referendum to do what Senators Warfield and Ruane are suggesting. What is actually needed is legislation.
Everybody has spoken about the Scottish experience when it held a referendum on independence and the number of young people who finally engaged in the democratic process. I believe in the idealism of youth. It would be wonderful to allow younger people to vote.
When people turn 18, they have their first chance to vote and are more likely to be disconnected from their home because they may in college and are living away from home. If the buses are on strike because the Minister concerned does not want to know about it, young people will find it difficult to travel back to where they are from in order to cast their votes. If young people were still living in the area where they could vote for the first time that would provide a fantastic opportunity for local politics and councils to engage. They are very much part of the lives of young people, in terms of local facilities and infrastructure.
I am not surprised by the opposition of Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil to the proposal, rather I am disappointed. In fairness, they have said they are willing to work in order to make this a reality but, to be honest, if they fundamentally believed in it and young people, they would back the proposal.
It is a well-intentioned and important Bill, which would allow 16 and 17 year olds to ask their Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil candidate at local elections what they actually believe in and other pertinent questions.
I remember having a Dáil debate in my school which was attended by all the candidates, and it was fantastic. All the young people in my school asked questions. The most interesting one came from a little girl, who asked the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael candidates what was the difference between them.
I get a little weary listening to people trying to make party political capital out of what should be a fairly simple issue of justice that is discussed on its merits. I was interested to hear that people died for the vote. If they did, they were complete bloody fools because we have had universal suffrage in this country since I do not know when.
The Bill should be referred to a committee or some other forum. It is a one-page Bill with three single sentence sections. I do not see anything terribly complicated about referring it to anywhere.
I laughed when I heard Fianna Fáil claiming credit for saving the Seanad. Let me tell Senator Murnane O'Connor that three Independent Senators turned around the campaign within the last three weeks when the political parties were losing it hand over fist. I can say that from personal experience because I was here at the time.
It is wonderful for young people to be involved in the political process. They should be involved at as young an age as possible. I would stop a hell of a lot of old men and women from having the vote if I possibly could. There should be an intelligence test.
I do not believe any large group of people, whether young, old or half-baked, should be sucked up to in a populist fashion. Voting for people is a real responsibility. Apart from other speakers, I honour Senator Richmond for speaking his mind. It was very good that he said his political conviction was that young people should be able to vote and he will argue that within the party. If one is in a party, that is what has to happen. That is why I never joined a party in my life. I wanted the freedom to say and do whatever I liked.
No, but I was at a few good ones.I understand that for constitutional reasons we cannot extend this beyond the European and local authority elections, but ideally it should operate for the general election, which is the crucial thing.
While there was some discussion of this at the Constitutional Convention, I must record that the most significant element with regard to elections, particularly the presidential election was something I argued for. I got it on despite the fact that it was a highly managed event. It was actually micro-managed. There were Government officers going around the place focusing, organising, selecting items for the agenda and all the rest of it. Despite them, I managed to table a motion to extend to the general public the right to nominate candidates for the presidency. It was passed by 97% of the vote. It was by far the highest vote yet it has been completely and utterly ignored by the political parties. That is an important issue. By the way, one of my political colleagues got into a terrible temper about this and said it was because I was going to run for the presidency again. I have not the slightest intention of going near it again.
I had a very serious cancer operation and I do not have the energy for it. Somebody younger and who is vital is needed in that role. As the highest office in the State, it should not be managed by the political parties. In a presidential election, everything is controlled in the interests of the political parties, including the funding regime, the propaganda and the nominations process. Absolutely everything is held tight in the grip of the political parties and that grip should be loosened. Young people should be given the opportunity to participate fully and the general population should be allowed to nominate candidates for the office.
I support the Bill and compliment Senator Warfield for putting it down. It is a highly imaginative proposal and a perfectly simple Bill. What is all the fuss about? It is one page long and contains three single sentences. I am going off to have my tea.
I am particularly enjoying this debate and it is especially welcome that there are a lot of young people in the Gallery listening to it. I have listened carefully to many points from all sides, including differing perspectives from within my own party, Fine Gael. Senator Richmond outlined his views while Senator Mulherin outlined her opposite view. I will be frank and open at the outset that my position is more aligned with that of Senator Mulherin as I will explain in the next few minutes. Before doing so, I note that we need more civic engagement and activism. We need to encourage that at local level whether people are young, old or in between. It is through that engagement and experience of activism in community groups and through general life experience that people form views and values in terms of where they stand politically and where they would like to see their country and their people going.
My fundamental belief is that at 16 years of age, young people are developing those formative views. They are very open to influence but they are also of their own mind. I listened carefully to Senator Ó Ríordáin who said that after 11 years as a teacher, he had learned a great deal from the children he taught. Certainly, I believe that and over 24 years as an uncle and 14 as a parent, I too have learned a great deal from the young people in my close-knit family. However, I am simply not convinced that they are ready to formulate views that will impact substantially in the electoral process. Those are their formative years and they should be given the time and space to develop their views. It is a responsibility that some of them may not even want. Having said that, I acknowledge that I have received considerable correspondence from 16 year olds who want this change.
While I do not want to politicise the debate, I note to Senator Ó Ríordáin that Fine Gael is not afraid of young people. I have been a Fine Gael representative for over 18 years but I was never a member of Young Fine Gael. I was more active in my community. I remember when there was no youth club in my area engaging with other young people to form one. I became a chairman of that youth club at 15 years of age. I have been involved in scouting, the GAA and many more local youth groups which I continue to support in their activism. That does not mean that activism should extend to voting at that age. There are other issues which are exercising their minds and taking up the energies of young people to a far greater extent at that age. Fine Gael's position this evening is to respect that there are quite a number of people who feel the legislation should change and that people should be allowed to vote at 16. We are saying that to decide on it here is, however, premature.
Perhaps we should widen the debate. I am one of the many politicians here that visit schools regularly and invite them to the Oireachtas. Rather than just have pre-organised statements, questions and answers, I always take the opportunity to organise with teachers beforehand to engage in real debate. I sometimes bring little plebiscites into a school and that creates a bit of excitement and engagement. One of the questions I always ask children is whether, if they had a vote in the morning, they would like to have six months off and six months on at school. A lot of the time, they vote to have six months off. I then ask whether that is in their long-term best interests. In the same session, they then disagree with what they voted for. We are developing the debate and the mindset and when one throws out a question, it is easy to give a populist answer. It is often the case here. It is just an example of some of the engagement I have had with young people. They thoroughly enjoy it and so do I.
I respect all views, as do we all. Certainly, I will not attack anyone who believes we should have voting at 16. Personally, I consider it to be premature and I remain to be convinced of why the age should be reduced. Having said that, if I hear something from future debates or there is a groundswell among young people in school and among the general population that this should change, I will be open to changing my view also, as any democratic should be. However, it is premature now and it places a responsibility on young shoulders for which they may not be ready as they develop in their formative years. They have enough to bother and worry them than subjecting them to influences of all kinds. I understand where Senator Norris was coming from when he spoke about political parties and others who might try to influence. If we are honest about it, they might utilise means which are not fair to young people to influence them to express a vote in a certain way. I do not want to be part of that. Adults have that responsibility and that is where it should remain.
Airím ní hamháin an tacaíocht ach an tacaíocht iomlán atá ann don Bille seo agus gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir Warfield agus leis an Seanadóir Ruane as é a chur ós ár gcomhair inniu. I rise very much in support of the Bill. I rise very much in support of the mechanics of it but also very much in the sentiment of it as well. While, to be fair, elements of the debate have been very fair up to this point, it is also the case, as we have heard this afternoon, that politicians sometimes fall into the trap of showering young people with platitudes. There is this notion of "Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí". We have the opportunity to do something to respect, embolden, empower and enfranchise young people today so why would we not take it? Why would we not want to give young people a say in how the State is run? They are impacted by it. As many have said, young people can be taxed at 16 and do a whole range of things.A Fine Gael contributor made a point about how much the State impacted on the lives of young people, be it through the courts system, education or so on. The State permeates every aspect of their lives, yet they do not have a say in the Government's policy direction. That is a shame and runs contrary to broader popular opinion, which wants young people to be entrusted with something. That would inspire them to get involved in civic and political life. We cannot teach people how to get involved. We must entrust them.
We have heard much today. We are all visited by schools and in turn visit them, youth clubs, etc., but it is not the case that young people only exist in schools, do not have lives beyond the classroom and do not have emotions, experiences, working lives, etc. We are doing young people a disservice if we only see them through that prism. I do not view them that way. The bulk of young people whom I meet are political activists. They were involved in the election in the North a few weeks ago. They were getting dressed up as crocodiles and demanding their rights as Irish speakers. They took to the steps of Stormont two days ago because they wanted a positive, equality-driven resolution to the talks process. They are the young people whom I see. Why would we not trust them with a vote? That is the core question today.
Since entering this institution, it has been my experience that Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil do not like giving people votes, be those people who are 16 years of age, the diaspora, Irish citizens in the North-----
There is only one candidate because he has our full support, unlike in the Fine Gael Party, but we will not be distracted by that, Senator Coffey. Maith thú for trying.
I have a great deal of respect for Senator Richmond's position. He was honest and forthright when he said that he wanted to back this Bill but was unable to because of the view of his party. However, he did not explain why his party had that view. That is not good enough. The Senator does young people a disservice by simply saying that he would love to do this but cannot, certainly if there is no credible or reasonable argument for that. Senator Ruane touched on how some of the establishment parties are afraid of young people because their policy decisions of recent years have punished young people the most, forced them to emigrate and left them unable to find jobs or homes and lingering on housing waiting lists. That is the crux of the matter. Fianna Fáil tells us that it saved the Seanad, but what has it done in the Seanad?
Am I going to be heard? Here we have an opportunity to do something that is positive, engaging and enfranchises our younger citizens, so why would Fianna Fáil not take it? What is the point in saving the Seanad if Fianna Fáil is just going to come in here and nod the head at everything that Fine Gael tells it to do? That is not the kind of Seanad that I want to see. I want a Seanad that plays a pivotal role and tells young citizens and citizens in the diaspora and the North that it cherishes and values them and will enfranchise and make them a part of the political life of this country. That is what we should be doing.
I wish to touch on a final point before splitting my time with Senator Gavan, who only wants one minute. Senator Norris made a fair point about young people voting in general elections. He was spot on, but it would have required an amendment to the Constitution, which is something that the Seanad is as yet unable to commence. One never knows what we can do down the line. This Bill is about utilising our power to effect and implement change.
A Bill was introduced by Deputy Adams in the previous Dáil concerning an issue that I raise regularly, namely, voting rights in presidential elections for the diaspora and citizens in the North. Alongside giving the vote, that Bill would have lowered the voting age to 16 years. The parties that are now kicking this Bill down the line voted for that Bill. What has changed? They trusted 16 year olds in the previous Dáil, but they do not trust them now. New politics, same old story.
That is all that I will need. I respect Fine Gael's position. It is a deeply conservative party and will not be in favour of extending rights for young people. In fairness, Senator Coffey and his colleagues have been honest enough to put their positions forward.
I am just repeating what was said. Fianna Fáil takes the biscuit. The flip-flop party, it is in favour of everything until it is given a proposal. It was in favour of emigrant voting rights until we proposed that in the Chamber and it scuttled away. It was in favour of workers' rights until we proposed legislation-----
It is in favour of a united Ireland, but it will never campaign in the Six Counties. It is the flip-flop party. The one lesson that is clear to young people is that new politics counts for nothing when conservative parties only pay lip-service to voters' rights. Apparently, Fianna Fáil is in favour of young people. Is that not wonderful?
It is also in favour of voting. It just does not like the two going together. Young people should be clear on what they have seen today. Fianna Fáil, the flip-flop party, will do nothing for young people or working people. It is the party that broke this country and made the most young people emigrate. That is what it delivered.
I can feel that myself in the South but, given what she is doing, to be in government with her and play along is crazy. To speak on Fianna Fáil's behalf even before the Sinn Féin Senators have heard what many of us will say is also crazy.
After rising, I was going to start by commending Senator Warfield - I still will - and Senator Ruane on this legislation. I feel strongly about voting. This is a two-edged sword and we should tackle the issue of people who make no effort to vote.
Might I speak, please? I feel strongly about people not exercising their franchise. It is wrong. That half of our people do not vote is a problem for our society. We should do something to address that.
As part of our party's aspirations, we have discussed giving 16 year olds the franchise. I am fully in favour of that and would be happy to back it. I would have no problem whatsoever with that.
Fine Gael can discuss whatever it wants to do, for example, sending this matter to a committee, but I do not know why that needs to be the case. It is a good proposal and should be thrashed out in the Chamber. There should be a more genuine discussion with those who are present to bring the matter to a head. That is my person opinion. I would not like to hear anyone else talking on Sinn Féin's behalf.
I commend Senators Warfield and Ruane and their colleagues on putting forward this legislation this evening in the Seanad. As somebody who worked for almost 25 years with young people, ranging in age from 15 to 18 years of age, I am certainly not afraid of giving them a vote.
Will Senators stop speaking when the Acting Chairman is speaking? We have a list of speakers that we want to accommodate, including the Minister of State. Please allow Senator Wilson to continue, without interruption.
I listen to everybody's point of view here, without interruption, and I would like the same courtesy afforded to me.
Regarding the proposal before us, what Senator Gavan and some of his colleagues said is true. It is part of Fianna Fáil policy and it was in our manifesto for the last general election. That is correct and nobody has denied it. I am in favour of affording the opportunity to vote to 16 and 17 year olds, but we should not treat them as second-class citizens. If we do not afford them full voting rights and extend it to general elections as well----
It is not that long ago since the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 years. It was in 1973 after a referendum was conducted in 1972. The proposal was passed by over 300,000 votes. In May 2015, a proposal was put, by way of referendum, to reduce the age of persons deemed eligible to stand for a presidential election from 35 to 21 years of age. The proposal was overwhelmingly defeated by a vote of almost three to one. I am not at all convinced that if we put this current proposal to the people, by way of referendum, that it would be carried. I agree with what my colleague, Senator Murnane O'Connor, said that we need to educate the people positively towards the reasoning behind affording 16 year olds an opportunity vote.
The Senator had an opportunity to speak. With respect, through the Chair, I have been afforded this time to make my point on behalf of my party and myself. We need to take time out and deal with voting rights correctly. We need to treat 16 and 17 year olds with respect.
If we held one at the moment, I do not believe that a referendum would pass, based on the result of the vote to reduce the age at which people are eligible to stand for presidential elections. We need to give this matter time. I will go along with this proposal even though I cannot give it my full support because it does not go far enough as far as I am concerned. We should give this matter until the end of December when we can revisit it. I want a commitment from the Acting Leader and the Minister that this matter will be revisited early in January when we resume after Christmas. I give a commitment to this House that if this matter is not put on the agenda by the Government, I will table it on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome all of the people of different ages who are seated in the Visitors Gallery and thank them for taking the time to come here.
I commend Senators Fintan Warfield, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Lynn Ruane on introducing this Bill. Senator Norris is right that the Bill consists of three paragraphs on two pages. Let us be clear what this Bill is about. It states: "An Act to reduce to sixteen years the age at which a person is entitled to be registered as a European Parliament and Local Government Elector, and to provide for related matters." That is simple.
It is possible on this very day for the Taoiseach to nominate a 16 year old to be a Member of Seanad Éireann.
Nowhere in legislation is such an appointment precluded.
We are talking here about electoral reform and allowing young people to fully engage, which I fully support. I would like to see young people being able to vote. They can already vote in universities and I would like to see a major expansion of that franchise. It is another area where we should have young people engaging, being able to vote and being able to stand. We need to consider the matter at some other point.
I point out that 16 and 17 year olds hold many responsibilities in our society.
They want to influence key decisions that affect their lives and the lives of the people they live with and in our communities of all ages. They bring a vast energy, enthusiasm and commitment to their own communities and to life itself. We have seen the track record of young people engaging in environmental issues and in many referenda and we have seen them actively participate in communities. I was been a councillor for many years so I know how young people engage, particularly as advocates for their community, sports facilities, etc. Things have happened in my county that would never have happened if young people had not engaged.
There are local youth parliaments in 31 local authorities. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs gave €20,000 to each of those last week and on that occasion she asked them to engage and use the funding to address issues relating to inequality, homophobia, bullying and IT. She spelled out different areas that she would like them to pursue in youth parliaments. She is another Minister who has recognised the capacity, capability and commitment of young people.
Many young people want to be involved in various facets of life. It is interesting to learn what the law permits 16 and 17 year olds to do in this State. Let us remember that we are in a republic so at all times we must advocate the principles of a true republic. The law allows consent to medical treatment at the age of 16. They have an absolute right at the age of 16 to consent to it if they so wish. They have the ability to leave school and enter work or training at 16 and 17 years of age if they so wish. They pay income tax, PRSI and USC in many cases and I spoke to a 17 year old today who pays all three of them. They can obtain tax credits and welfare benefits in their own right. The common age of consensual sexual consent, whether heterosexual, homosexual or any other orientation, is 17 years of age. I checked that fact today. Like anyone else, they are entitled to enter into meaningful, loving relationships. That happens all the time, and why not?They can also become a member of a trade union. I rang Congress today to clarify whether there were any restrictions on persons aged 16 or 17 working in a union house and was told that yes, they are entitled to pay their union dues and to participate if they choose freely to do so. It is important that we tap into the energy, vibrance and enthusiasm of young people which they can bring to any walk of political life, be it Dáil Éireann, Seanad Éireann, a local or municipal council or a State agency.
It has come to my attention recently that the MRBI commissioned a very substantive poll on the issue of voting for 16 year olds and 17 year olds. The poll was never published and I am calling on all members of The Irish Timespolitical staff who may be listening to check this, to confirm if the poll took place and to explain why the outcome was never published. Who was it going to upset? What political organisation felt most under threat because of the results of the poll? I ask The Irish Timesto tell us if it paid for such a survey to be carried out and, if it was carried out, to publish it as quickly as possible.
This is a brave, courageous, simple but good piece of legislation. It is very important and has my absolute support.
I am sharing time with Senator Frances Black, five minutes and three minutes. I hope we also have time to allow Senator Alice-Mary Higgins to speak. I warmly welcome this Bill and praise Senators Warfield and Ruane for bringing it forward. I also congratulate the National Youth Council of Ireland, the Irish Second-Level Students Union and the Union of Students in Ireland who have campaigned for this day for well over a decade. After their long battle to get this issue onto the political agenda it is up to us to make good on the promises we made and support the Bill.
Since joining the Seanad last summer, and through my role in the public petitions committee and the Seanad public consultations committee, I have been voicing my concerns about the future of democracy. It is not an exaggeration to state that, across the Western world, parliamentary democracies are under strain. To our east, the UK Government will today leave the European Union while, to our west, President Trump continues to attack the media, women's rights, LGBTI rights, migrant rights and the basic freedoms and protections on which America was built. In Ireland, 21st century citizens operating in a digital age increasingly feel disconnected from the political system and there is a growing awareness that the voices of many marginalised groups have historically been ignored. To overcome these challenges we need to fundamentally reassess how we best engage with citizens. One of the changes we need is to expand the franchise to ensure that everyone is truly heard and that is why I am supporting this Bill.
Let us remember that the people who will be given new voting rights if this Bill passes are in many cases already old enough to drive, to get married, to join the Army and pay income tax. If we reflect on the decisions made in these Houses in the past decade it is abundantly clear that the voice and input of young people were absent and that young people bore the brunt of the great recession and others before that. The ESRI states that one quarter of young people suffer from at least three of the following: income poverty, inability to afford basic goods, financial strain, poor health, mental distress, poor housing, overcrowding, neighbourhood problems and mistrust in institutions, including this one. We can understand that when we hear of what is happening with An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the HSE. One institution after another is failing us so it is important to extend our franchise to younger people.
In 2012 youth unemployment was over 30% and while the Government has made great progress, today the rate is still twice what it was in 2007. Some 16,000 young people are long-term unemployed and, to add insult to injury, jobseeker's allowance for young people was cut from €188 to €100 in an act of unforgivable, blatant ageism and age discrimination.
With average room rents of €80 per week, thousands of young people are left with €20 per week on which to survive. Those in work face the exploitation of zero-hour contracts, JobBridge and unpaid internships, even in this House. Those who wish to study now pay the second highest fees in Europe, with pledges to freeze fees having been shattered. Care leavers have been left to drift with no supports and 250,000 young people emigrated during the economic crisis. Millennials are the first generation to be poorer than their parents since the Great Famine of the 1840s. Politics have not protected young people and the least we owe them is a say, a vote and a voice. Reducing the voting age could be truly transformative. This is real political reform which would lead to meaningful change but if it is to be in place for 2019 we need to act now and reject any attempt to delay.
In my home city of Cork, I am constantly struck by the positive active citizenship of young people. I spoke previously about the work of Reimagine Cork and another group, Mad About Cork, comprising young people who are painting vacant properties, planting flowers on neglected quays and cleaning up alleyways that have long been forgotten. Young people have a powerful curiosity and fresh eyes to probe and examine and once they get the chance to flex their electoral muscles they will breathe new life into local and European democracy. We need to believe in young people, trust young people and undo some of the harm that has been done so that we strengthen democracy for the future. That started today. It starts in this Chamber with voting for this Bill.
I commend Senators Warfield and Ruane on this great legislation and I welcome all the young people here today. Robust voter participation is fundamental to a healthy democracy and 16 and 17 year olds voting would increase voter engagement across the entire electorate. There are a few reasons the voting age should be lowered to 16. First, 16 year olds voting build lifelong voters. Second, 16 year old voting will increase voter turnout over the long term. Third, 16 and 17 year olds are prepared to and deserve to vote. Research in the USA has found that, in practical assessments, 16 year olds function at about the same level on cognitive, moral and legal reasoning tests as adults and these are the very qualities needed to evaluate candidates and issues.
At 16, people are still at school in their own areas and not at college or work so they can discuss issues affecting their communities from personal experience. Political discussions at school would be more relevant as young people would feel they would have a say in legislation that affects them. Democracy is precious and it is important that all eligible voters participate. At 16, young people could be encouraged and assisted to register to vote as most are still at school. Students may actually be more frequent and thoughtful voters because they have the space in school and at home to engage in discussion about civic issues. Many 16 year olds are living at home and this could help to involve parents, teachers and community members in the process of learning to vote. There could be a trickle-up effect that translates to larger voter turnout among older family members across the entire electorate.
The evidence is clear from European countries that have extended suffrage to teenagers that voters who start earlier in life will vote longer and more consistently over their lives. In June 2015 the Scottish Parliament officially extended its franchise to 16 and 17 year olds after a remarkable 75% of that age group turned out to vote in the 2014 Scotland independence referendum. In 2007 Austria lowered its voting age to 16 and from 2004 to 2008, the first year in which students voted, young people's interest in politics jumped by approximately 23%. People aged 16 and 17 have some form of voting rights in countries such as Germany, Norway, Argentina and Brazil.
The earlier we engage young people in democracy and politics the greater the chance that we will promote and sustain a lifelong interest in and commitment to voting and participation in the democratic process. The introduction of a new subject, politics and society, at senior cycle level in September 2016 is to be welcomed as it is important that young people are taught about democracy and their duty to participate. The extension of the right to vote, alongside the introduction of this subject, will help young people not only to learn about participation in the electoral system but to experience it through voting. I support my colleagues, 100%, with this legislation.
I will deal first with a couple of points in response to some of the comments that have been made. Some argue that young people aged 16 and 17 years should not have the right to vote because they are not fully aware of all the issues. Unfortunately, it is clear in listening to some of the comments made in the Chamber that some Senators are not aware of all the issues. This legislation has been drafted by Senator Fintan Warfield and I am very honoured to co-sign it with Senator Lynn Ruane. Intentionally, it would not require a referendum to be held. That is why it was designed for local and European elections. As such, it would be in keeping with the practice across Europe, including in such countries as Austria, Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Malta, Norway and, most famously as far as people in Ireland are concerned, Scotland where, in the case of the independence referendum, it was so successful and uplifting. In all of these countries, it was introduced on an incremental or trial basis to see how matters progressed. That is the spirit of the legislation drafted by Senator Fintan Warfield.
I was at an event in my home town on Monday evening which had been organised by Foróige. A number of young people had consulted fellow students in their schools and come to put to us the issues of importance for them in the area in which they lived on the Inishowen Peninsula. It was a tremendous meeting. They listed all of the issues that mattered to them having consulted democratically in their schools and in dialogue with their communities. For me to go to that meeting, at which all of us, as public representatives, gave our responses, listen and talk to those young people about the importance of what they had to say and then to come here and say they are not ready to vote would be downright patronising. Some of the parties which will deny 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote were represented at that meeting too.
The other point that was made was about populism. Without a proper debate on the issue, it is likely that the majority of Irish people would, unfortunately, deny younger people the right to vote. As such, it is not popular to bring forward this legislation, but it is the right thing to do. It is the leaderly thing to do. I received an e-mail from a young person during the week. We all received lots of e-mails pushing for our support on this matter, which was great to see. It was clear that the person concerned was very socially aware in raising issues of public concern, including the current humanitarian crisis. The phrase in the e-mail that stood out was, "All I can do is hope my parents vote for someone with the same compassion for these people as me". They have to hope all of these issues of concern will be addressed by their parents. That is not right; it is wrong.
Comhairle na nÓg, the National Youth Council of Ireland, Foróige, the Young Voices programme and the future leaders programme are some of the organisations and programmes calling for 16 and 17 year olds to have the right to vote. We already have the infrastructure in place. I met the young people mentioned under the auspices of Foróige and most public representatives have met youth councils or Foróige in their areas in recent years too. If we believe, having met them, that they should not have the right to vote, we are patronising gits. That is all we are if we think they do not have the right to vote. We want to listen to their concerns, but will not give them the right to vote. It is the most basic, fundamental issue of democracy. The Proclamation in the foyer of Leinster House was in large part about extending the franchise to everybody, male and female, regardless of class. It was the core component and core battle in our democracy. Somebody said this was a republic. While it is a republic, the battle continues to extend the franchise to everybody. It is not popular for us to say it and it is not a huge vote winner, but it would be the right thing to do.
The Constitutional Convention was established and one can argue that, like a lot of reports and committees, it was done to kick things down of the road. However, it was a good forum which made recommendations. Not only are Governments kicking cans down the road, the structures they establish to do so are dismissed. They are taking it even further down the road to deny, in this case, citizens their say and chance to be involved in a real and tangible fashion. We all read the information provided by the independent Library and Research Service of the Houses in preparation for debates. It conducts tremendous independent research and analysis. What stood out in that research was that in all of the European countries to which I referred where this measure has been introduced the evidence was clear that the younger people engaged in the voting process, the more likely it was that they would continue to vote. We complain about the low turnout at local and European elections. This legislation has been designed to increase turnout and create energy. It addresses even 18 to 24 year olds and perhaps those who are older by saying, "Here are all these 16 and 17 year olds who are energised and excited about the ability to vote and perhaps they can be excited too." We saw that happen in Scotland where it was very uplifting to see young people involved in the debates.
Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael really need to reflect on what they are doing and the phrase "new politics" because all I see when it comes to anything that means leadership, debate and a difficult decision is the kicking of everything further down the road. It is kicked to a committee or a fine-spangled forum and decisions are not being made. The parties are working together again and again. Look at the issue of Seanad reform and the legislation Senators are trying to put together to ensure Members would be elected directly by the people to the greatest extent possible. It would not require a constitutional referendum, yet the debate on the legislation is dragging on and going nowhere. Even in the reform of the House we are going nowhere. We had another committee which was tasked to look at an issue. Not only did it make recommendations, it drafted legislation. There are Senators who are trying to advance that Bill, but they are being stymied. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael need to look at themselves in terms of the credibility of the Houses. There comes a moment when one must make a decision and stop kicking everything down the road. The young people in the Visitors Gallery have observed it again today. I hope, when they are older, have the franchise and are perhaps in these Houses, they will do politics in a very different way.
I will proceed.
I am very proud as leader of the Civil Engagement group to support the legislation which Senator Lynn Ruane is co-sponsoring with Senator Fintan Warfield, for which I commend them. It is both excellent and necessary. In the limited time we have available I will address some of the points made.
We heard a great deal of talk about education. The Government has, rightly, been commended for the introduction of civic, social and political education in schools. I also commend the work of Mr. Eoghan Gilroy who has led a great deal of the effort in this regard, as well as some of the messages and testimonies we have heard from the secondary school union, the National Youth Council and the USI. Anybody who has engaged with these groups will know how ready they are and of the depth of their analysis. I will not be able to get across the strength of their arguments, but they are many. They cover the most practical points in terms of the registration process and how we ensure people get into the system and do not fall out. For example, there is a huge issue where people do not register because they may have temporary addresses when they reach 18 years of age.
One of the points raised about civic, social and political education concerned the need to learn through doing. The Bill provides an opportunity to ensure civic, social and political education is partly about doing.People will have the experience of voting, discussing their vote and engaging.
Senator Coffey spoke about short-term thinking. I assure him that the dangers of short-term thinking are not an age related issue. He spoke about having six months off school. Unfortunately, the Irish public will often say "Yes" to tax cuts. I would hope that after longer reflection they might decide to look to long-term interests.
A further benefit is the message this proposal sends. It presents an opportunity for collective debate and engagement of students while they are still in secondary school in a system and a country that too often individualises people. People are moving to a period of individualisation. They are thrown out on their own into the world. That is a time of collective engagement when people can learn from each other. There can have peer-to-peer exchange on, for example, how to analyse and scrutinise fake news and messages. This is crucial.
Let us look at the actual proposal. It relates to local and European elections. We have heard about young people being connected to the community. What more meaningful connection to the community than their participation in local elections. The message would be that they shape their environment, beginning outwards from their most immediate environment. They could vote, have a say and shape their community. It is crucial that people get that message in terms of local elections.
The other elections are the European Parliament elections. Lest this House were considered to be over-reaching, the European Parliament has requested that nation states would endeavour to give the opportunity to vote to 16 year olds. The European Parliament wants 16 year olds involved in the decision of who sits in it. It realises the future of Europe is crucially changing all the time. If the amendment is accepted, there is a real danger that young people will not be enfranchised in the next elections in 2019. Those elections will be at a time of rising right-wing populism and talks of a multi-speed Europe and may shape the future direction of Europe. In the case of Europe, in particular, it is not only that 16 year olds need the right to vote but we as a society need 16 year olds to vote. It is crucial that they are engaged. We heard the messages from Scotland. No one could not be inspired by young voters such as Eva O'Donovan.
On a practical note, we need engagement at this level. The centenary of suffrage for women will be in 2018. The same bad arguments as to why women should not vote were thrown about.
The way to make this case is to introduce the legislation for the EU and the local elections. It is a legislative change contained in a one-page Bill. People will see it in practice and then we will have the referendum for the Dáil elections. I appeal to those in Fianna Fáil. If they are passionate about this in terms of Dáil elections, they must not block the Bill. This is like everything else when we have progressive change. If we introduce the vote for 16 year olds in EU and local elections and people see it happening in 2019, I assure those in Fianna Fáil that the public will get behind giving a vote in Dáil elections to 16 year olds. That is how we make it happen.
I commend Senators Ruane and Warfield for introducing the Bill. There is a genuine concern or conservatism which must be respected. If the banks were a bit more conservative, 16, 26, and 36 year olds would not be in the kind of trouble that they are in now.
For young people, things are black and white and there is no harm in our getting a dose of black and white when considering matters. The two elections about which we are speaking occur every five years. Therefore, not every 16 or 17 year old will get a shot at this. There is a balancing and a weighting already in it. The point made by Senator Ó Ríordáin and others is important. When people are at home and still in their normal environment, if one likes, before they move away, it is easier for them to get involved in social activities. We have spoken about new politics. It is important that we all discipline ourselves to address the issue rather than the people or entities making the points. Can we please play the ball and not the man or the woman in this debate? That would honour the importance of this for young people and our future.
The behaviour of this House at times is not something that would compel the young or not so young to take a greater interest in politics. I have been involved in the disability sector for most of my life and I have seen people give up their summers, holidays and weekends to get involved and to work and support people, be they young or not so young, who have disabilities. We are talking about 16 and 17 year olds but I know 12, 13, 14 and 15 year olds who are acting as family carers and taking on responsibilities they should not have to carry on their young shoulders.
Tomorrow is the tenth anniversary of our signing of the UN convention. A bit like Charlie O'Connor in Tallaght, I mention the UN convention every time I stand up. The convention states that every single human being has the capacity to make decisions. I do not see how that would not apply in some decent and relevant way to youngsters that are 16 and 17 years of age.
I want the Minister of State to have time to respond. I would have been in earlier only for a little oversight, but not to worry.
I am in my 14th year as a member of the board of management of a secondary school and my eighth year as chairman of a school board. They are two different schools. I was a member of Ógra Fianna Fáil, one of the largest political youth movements in the country. It is probably the largest in terms of membership numbers and has been for many years. It was set up by Séamus Brennan in 1975. UCD, the largest third level institution in the country, was a part of my local electoral area in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown every time I ran in the local elections. I ran in 1999, when I was a lot younger than I am now, as well as in 2004, 2009 and 2014. I was made an honorary life member of the Kevin Barry cumann in UCD, which is the largest Fianna Fáil cumann in the country, have chaired their AGMs for the past ten years in a row and have been invited to chair my 11th one next month. I was very lucky to be proposed as a vice-president along with the founder, Gerry Collins, at the AGM last year.
I will not be lectured to by anyone about my involvement or that of Fianna Fáil in representing young people over many years. I have listened to the debate and would love to be in a position to propose accepting the Bill as is and allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote at local and European elections immediately. I was a chair of Ógra Fianna Fáil and the youth officer in my area. I helped out in elections when I was nine years of age by packing envelopes and doing various other tasks that nine year olds were able to do. Fianna Fáil, during its participation in the constitutional convention, supported the idea of reducing the voting age and Fianna Fáil, according to various recent polls, is as popular as any other party and more popular than most in the 18 to 24 years bracket. As a party, we have nothing to fear by allowing the voting age to be reduced to 16 years.
I canvassed people in their houses during my four local election campaigns and while campaigning for other people in general elections and found 22, 23 and 24 year olds who were not on the register and had no interest in voting. I would like to see more information being provided. The marriage equality referendum got young people on board, but this proposal would not do anything. In recent days, I have received e-mails from people stating that they wanted to vote in the marriage equality referendum. In time young people might be able to vote in referendums, but this Bill will not address that problem.If it is passed or introduced, the position in respect of referendums or Dáil elections will not be any different from the current position, unfortunately. Although my party and I are very supportive of the thrust of the legislation, we want to ensure whatever concept is passed has the support of the majority of the population. The general public needs to receive a level of education in order that voters will understand what is at stake. When I attend various events in schools such as transition year musicals and prize giving nights, I see great ability and talent. I would be delighted if every 16 and 17 year old in my local area had the right to vote. Like Senator Diarmuid Wilson, I think I would have done even better if they had been entitled to vote when I was running in local elections. There is a great number of young people involved. We need to make sure 18 year olds are on the register. Perhaps we might have registration campaigns within schools. I have forms to give to people. I know that others have done likewise. Many students in sixth year are 18 years of age. Sometimes there are 18 year olds in fifth year. It is most important that we get them involved. We are, therefore, supportive of the thrust of the Bill and I commend Senators Fintan Warfield and Lynn Ruane for its introduction. I think Senator Padraig Mac Lochlainn mentioned that his name was on it also. I am absolutely supportive of the concept. I do not want anybody in this Chamber to say Fianna Fáil is not in favour of implementation of this proposal in the fullness of time. We absolutely want it to happen.
I welcome the chance to make a few comments on the Bill. I am conscious that Senator Fintan Warfield will wrap up the debate. We will split the remaining time between us as best we can. Perhaps we might take four or five minutes each.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to participate in the Second Stage debate on the Electoral (Amendment) (Voting at 16) Bill 2016 on behalf of the Government. The purpose of the Bill is to reduce to 16 years the age at which people are entitled to vote in local government and European Parliament elections. While this is a relatively short Bill, a proposal to reduce the voting age for any election is of fundamental importance to any modern representative democracy. With this in mind, I welcome the opportunity provided to hear the views of the House on the matter. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, has asked us to take time out to hear more views on it. In the months ahead we will take the time to have this conversation and debate and make a genuine attempt to act on the views we will hear.
As a Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government and a member of Fine Gael, I am totally in favour of the principle of extending the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. I will explain why I think it is right to do so. I entered politics at quite a young age. Like Senator Fintan Warfield, I became a member of my local council at the age of 20 years. I was first elected to the Dáil at the age of 24 years. I must have been part of the crèche. I understand young people can make a major contribution to politics. All of the young people who are watching us and many others want to have their say in the polling booth because they have a contribution to make and we have to find mechanisms to make that possible. It is important to give young people an opportunity to have their say. I agree with Senator Lynn Ruane that if we give people a chance to vote at a younger age, they might become involved in politics and stay involved in decision-making. People generally are living at their home address as part of their community at the age of 16 years. This means that they will be around to vote in a couple of elections before leaving school to go to college, travel the world or find a job. People who get into the habit of voting at a younger age like 16 or 17 years might stay with the habit. I have a major problem with people of all ages - 20 or 30, 50 or 60, or 80 or 90 years - who do not take the time to vote. Anything we can do collectively to increase the number of people who vote and participate is to be encouraged. I understand we have to talk through and work on practical issues around the Bill and this process.
The Minister has made it clear that he is not against the Bill, but he has asked for more time to debate it thoroughly. It is important for those who are watching the debate to understand that it is not the case that someone will not be listened to just because he or she has entered politics at a young age. When I entered politics at the age of 20 or 21 years, I was convinced that no one would listen to me. I was wrong. When I became a member of my local council, politicians of all ages and from all parties were prepared to listen to me, even though I was just 20 years old. When I was elected to the Dáil as a 24 year old, Ministers and Tánaistí - one of them is present as a Senator - were prepared to debate with me and allow me to have my say. It must be understood it is wrong to suggest politicians are not interested in young people's views, do not want to hear from them or are afraid of them. I think we all have a desire to bring the proposal to extend voting rights through the system and the process. The Minister has made it clear that there should also be a wider debate about extending voting rights, not just for one or two elections but across the board. That is a conversation we want to have and the Minister wants to facilitate it. I ask the House to provide time for such a conversation before the Bill is pressed or ended.
I take issue with those Senators who have claimed that my party is afraid of young people having the vote. It has been suggested that because of the decisions we have made in government, we have something to be afraid of or concerned about. I remind some of the Sinn Féin Senators of the most common conversation I had on the doorsteps with the parents of young people during the 2011 general election campaign. Every day of the campaign the parents of children aged eight, nine or ten years or school students aged 15, 16, 17 and 18 told me they thought the country was bunched. They did not see any future for young people. The parents of children in primary or secondary school or college at the time said they did not believe their children had a future in Ireland. That was the conversation in 2011. It is now over. We did not have that conversation during last year's election. We debated social problems in areas such as water provision, health and education. We had a different set of discussions about a different set of problems. The conversation about there being no hope is over. People now believe the country has a future and young people of Senator Fintan Warfield's age do have a future.
I ask Sinn Féin Members not to suggest those of us in Fine Gael who were involved in the last Government have anything to fear from young people in having a say. We have nothing to fear. We are proud of our record in restoring the country to give people of all ages a future. I understand 16 year olds are very intelligent and have a great deal to contribute. I know that they will make wise decisions when they vote. Therefore, I do not need to be lectured or told that my party is afraid of allowing them to vote. We are not. We will work with this legislation, where possible, as the debate evolves in the months ahead. The Minister has made it clear that he wants to do this for genuine and the right reasons. When we had the same conversation about extending the vote for presidential elections, he asked this House for more time to consider the matter and make proposals. That is what he did and he has brought forward proposals. He delivers on what he says.
His message is that this Bill is premature. He thinks more time is needed for the debate and discussion and to recommend changes. He has a proven track record. When he asks this House for more time to do something, he acts on it. That is all I will say.
I am conscious that I want to give Senator Fintan Warfield more time in which to reply. I am sorry that I missed his contribution at the start of the debate. There was a mix-up. There were also delays. I understand the importance of this issue and we want to work with the Senator on it. We think the Bill, as it stands, is premature. My full contribution, setting out the other reasons the proposal is just not right at this time and mentioning other practical issues that need to be debated, has been circulated. I make it clear that we are not against the principle of the Bill. It is something we are willing to discuss and debate because we understand young people have a lot to offer. We want to try to facilitate it as best we can.
I thank Senator Lynn Ruane and her colleagues in her office. I have had the pleasure of working with them as I campaigned on the Bill in recent months. I thank every citizen and resident who has taken the time to engage and get in touch with Senators on all sides. Some of them are present. Their input is welcome and deeply appreciated. I thank the National Youth Council of Ireland, the Irish Second-Level Students Union and all the other organisations that support young people for their work on the issue. The Bill has been on the Order Paper for nine months, since 12 July 2016. We were given notice this morning that Fine Gael had tabled an amendment that, frankly, slobbered all over the Bill. The amendment which was moved during the debate proposes that the Bill "be read a Second Time on 31 December 2017", nine months from now. The Bill has been in the public domain for nine months, but the Government wants another nine to consider it. At no stage during the debate have we heard what the additional nine months will be used for. I assure the Government that we will raise this issue in the corridors every day for the next nine months. I want to know what it has done in the nine months since the Bill was published. Why does it need another nine to review the matter?
The question of the value citizens and residents should place on the manifestos of political parties also arises in this context. I urge Fianna Fáil to stand by its election manifesto and its document, Engaging the Future, which proposes to "reduce the voting age from 18 to 16 for the 2019 Local Elections". Fianna Fáil knows well that by supporting the Fine Gael amendment, it will quash any chance of engagement by 16 and 17 year olds in elections in 2019.
Is Fianna Fáil aware that this is the case? It is as sure as night follows day that this approach will have no impact on the 2019 elections. A number of Senators, including Senator Michelle Mulherin, said this issue was bigger than one political party.Senator Mulherin said the issue was bigger than one political party. I am serious about legislating for the rights of young people, as is Sinn Féin. It was for that reason that we reached across the House to Senator Ruane and asked for cross-Chamber support on the issue. As I said, it has been my pleasure to work with her and those in her office.
At some point Senators must take responsibility for the public office they hold and not kick stuff down the line. This has to go through now. It is a one-page Bill. We have not debated a shorter Bill in this House. We can make the decision this evening. I plead with Senators to live up to their responsibility. We are here for to legislate. Young people listen. Those in the Visitors Gallery are listening. All organisations supporting our young people are listening.
Should this legislation be delayed, dragged through the mud and walked over, youth organisations and young people know that a delay of nine months will ensure that young people will not vote in the 2019 local and European Parliament elections, which as Senator Higgins said are likely to be the most important European Parliament elections in my lifetime, determining the future of the European Union and perhaps its very existence.
Sixteen-year olds do not just need the vote. Their communities, society and Europe need 16- and 17-year olds to vote. They need their contemporary imagination. I plead with Fianna Fáil Senators in particular to vote against the Government's amendment and support the Bill.
Catherine Ardagh, Colm Burke, Paddy Burke, Ray Butler, Jerry Buttimer, Maria Byrne, Lorraine Clifford Lee, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Martin Conway, Mark Daly, Paul Daly, Frank Feighan, Robbie Gallagher, Maura Hopkins, Gerry Horkan, Terry Leyden, Tim Lombard, Gabrielle McFadden, Michelle Mulherin, Jennifer Murnane O'Connor, Catherine Noone, Kieran O'Donnell, Marie Louise O'Donnell, John O'Mahony, Joe O'Reilly, Grace O'Sullivan, Brian Ó Domhnaill, James Reilly, Neale Richmond, Keith Swanick, Diarmuid Wilson.
Ivana Bacik, Frances Black, Victor Boyhan, Gerard Craughwell, Maire Devine, John Dolan, Paul Gavan, Alice Mary Higgins, Kevin Humphreys, Colette Kelleher, Billy Lawless, Pádraig MacLochlainn, Michael McDowell, Gerald Nash, David Norris, Grace O'Sullivan, Pádraig Ó Céidigh, Niall Ó Donnghaile, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Lynn Ruane, Fintan Warfield.