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Ireland a gerontocracy will never be at peace

Micheál Martin, Tony Holohan, and Pat Kenny walk into a pub. It’s 10pm so the joint is empty, but the average age in the room is now 67, while the average wage rockets to a princely €266k.

The 18 year-old behind the bar on €8 something-an-hour lowers both figures, but not much.

In this scenario, you might think that the biggest differences between the clique of retirement dodgers governing or strongly influencing Ireland for more than a quarter of a million euro each a year and the teenager working part-time for 80% of the minimum wage because they’re not 20 would be economic, and you wouldn’t be wrong. It would certainly be easier for the oul lads to head off on a luxury jolly to Torre Molino so they can wag their fingers at everyone else on the plane afterwards than it would be for the youngster serving them!

Of greater significance, though, is that in this brave new normal that they’ve built back better, Micheál, Tony, Pat et al. can and have changed tack at the drop of a hat in order to do their overpaid jobs from home, whereas their barman and many tens of thousands like him cannot.

To me, that demonstrates the most suppurated, putrefying imbalance at the heart of Irish decision making today: the discrepancy in sway between the people steering the ship of state and all the well-to-do tribes, castes and interest groups that they fall into; and the people expected to sustain it all by the sweat of their brows for as long as it pleases the decision-makers to allow them to.

I can feel L’Internationale welling in my chest which tells me I need to get a grip.

Imbalanced though our decision making may be, Ireland is still a somewhat functioning democracy in that anybody who wants to make a difference strongly enough can: by putting themselves forward for election with relative ease. It’s so easy that any inclined Tom, Killian, or Harry could dig up nominations from 10 registered electors to get on the ballot of Trinity’s impending Seanad by-election. If you are put off the main parties by the fact that they are effectively all as bad as each other these days, we have a strong Independent political tradition which sometimes serves us well (with notable, bleached, Wexfordian exceptions). So while a definite type of person rules the roost the Ireland at the moment, it is not beyond the realms of possibility for a different kind of person to make an inroad with enough elbow-grease and political maneuvering.

Which brings us to the subject of electoral quotas.

At my core, I oppose quotas of any kind because of the imbalance they create in what I believe is the ultimately fair marketplace of electoral ideas, where I trust intelligent voters to assess their needs and weigh them against whoever is on offer. While I have asked plenty of people for their votes in my time, it is anathema to me to tell someone how they must vote, or to coerce them by means of manipulating the slate of candidates available to them in a style not dissimilar to the general elections of North Korea. Democratic misgivings aside, though, what I cannot deny is the effect that gender quotas have had and are having. 15% of TDs returned in the 2011 General Election were women, but, after the introduction of quotas requiring 30% of parties’ candidates to be women, the figure jumped to 22% in 2016 and 23% in 2020. With gender quotas set to grow, those percentages will only be going up, so the vast conglomeration of parties and NGOs who lobbied for them have been successful.

How, then, can we help the poor divil from earlier on who has to serve the Taoiseach a virgin Bloody Mary with extra celery to be paid with a bucket of pennies? Or the Revenue-mule in their twenties, saddled and ridden from Mizen to Malin by a 52% marginal tax rate that gives nothing back, while every rung on their property ladder gets kicked through in front of them by a NIMBY with a lot more miles on the clock? Or the middle-income parent in their thirties living under the Damoclean sword of geriatrics closing their kids schools should a South African GP happen across a Zorba variant?

Well, making the people who govern more reflective of the governed could be a good start. Therefore, allow me to shed all my qualms about electoral quotas by maintaining my assertion that they skew the electoral process in an unfair way against those who are not beneficiaries of them, but by adding the assertions that: I. political qualms only matter when everyone has them; so II. my qualms don’t matter.

Safe in the knowledge that it’s all for one and one for one, we can apply the gender quota model to the arbitrary, unalterable factor that makes our leaders most out of touch with the problems faced by young people and that nobody can reverse or change: age.

According to the 2016 Census, 62% of Ireland’s population is under the age of 44, meaning 2 out of every 3 people you see on the street don’t remember Pope John-Paul II’s visit. In marked contrast to the national population, a mere 26% of our TDs fall into the same age bracket: not because they were in short pants when we joined the EU in 1973, but because they’re Boomers who had a vote on the matter!

Is it time, then, to do for young people in politics what we did for women? If, as has been suggested, gender quotas helped to force all sorts of changes to Ireland’s maternity laws and others, could youth quotas force similar changes in the pressing areas of housing, health, and taxation, which areas affect us so much more than the people who make the decisions on them? Shouldn’t we hear the barman’s ideas for making his life better?

I think so.

To paraphrase Pearse, Ireland a gerontocracy shall never be at peace, so why not give a young fella a chance? He couldn’t possibly make things any worse.

Killian Foley-Walsh, a former President of Young Fine Gael, writes from Kilkenny

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