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Duping our ‘cherished’ 16-year-olds .

By Niall Crowley.

If Alex Fogarty was told one more time how mature he was he could really have claimed the right to violence. Alex, 15 years old we were told repeatedly, from the National Youth Council of Ireland was on the ‘Prime Time Debate’ on votes for 16-year-olds. He was up against Noel Howard of the Irish Association of Social Care Workers. We never got to hear Noel’s age. However, it was clear that his Association is no country for young people.

In May we will vote on reducing the age a person can stand for the Presidency from 35 to 21 years – on the same day as the referendum on same sex marriage. The Government has said it cannot have too many referenda on the one day and its commitment to hold a referendum on reducing the voting age to 16 has therefore bitten the dust, been “abandoned”.

Leaving aside misplaced concerns from the likes of Diarmaid Ferriter as to whether 21-year-olds exercise what they see as the requisite “wise discretion”, how could it possibly be more important to reduce the age at which one can stand for President than to reduce the age at which one can vote? A central political issue has been subordinated to a more obscure one.

Noel Howard was full of concern. We don’t want to ‘adultify’ young people. This seemed like a stretchify of the English language. He was worried about the erosion of childhood. They will have plenty of time for voting when they are older he suggested. Politicians will exploit the idealism of young people with promises he argued. This ignores that promises are clearly the engine of our politics for all age groups. He expatiated reams on ‘children on the margins’ whom he felt don’t have the maturity, despite admitting that most of them had no childhood.

Alex Fogarty, ever mature, pointed out that 16-year-olds can go out to work and are liable for taxes and wondered why they can’t vote. He suggested that allowing these children on the margins a vote is hardly negative and merely gives them the voice that they need. He said that giving a vote to 16-year-olds would ensure that politicians have to engage with young people.

The Government has said this decision is not about electoral strategy. The case for change is so clear, the evasion of a referendum that they had already committed to so brazen, that it is hard to believe otherwise. They are afraid of what young people will vote for. If young people were predicted to vote Fine Gael and Labour the referendum would have been deemed a top priority. If young people were predicted to vote Fianna Fáil we would have had this referendum during the last Government.

The National Youth Council of Ireland ‘Vote@16’ campaign makes a compelling case that giving the vote to 16-year olds would generate greater interest in politics among young people. It would promote their participation in politics and put the issues of young people, as defined by young people, onto the political agenda.

Research in Austria suggests that 16- and 17-year-olds are every bit as politically sophisticated and indeed turn out in greater numbers than 18 to 21-year-olds.Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as far back as 1992. This committed us to ensuring the right of children to “express (their) views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child”. If we were in any way serious about this part of the Convention we would be giving the views of 16 year olds “due weight” by allowing them to vote.

We prize youth. They are our greatest resource, we say. But we fear young people. We stereotype them as irresponsible, given to excess, and even violent, a worldwide survey last year in the Economist was headed: “Today’s young people are held to be alienated, unhappy, violent failures. They are proving anything but”. The media predominantly portray young people as a problem or as having problems. In fact it is not young people but youths that get coverage.The Economist survey notes subversively that “The media are struggling to cope with the rising temperance of youth”. If the coverage is not about crime or violent behaviour or binge drinking or teenage sex, it is about vulnerability due to lack of care or supports or being victims of physical or sexual abuse. This distorted generates and reinforces our stereotypes and reflects what we really think behind our patronising wonder at the potential of young people.

This debate is about power and empowering young people. A vote is only a small step in this regard. It is shameful that we fail to take it. •