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The national incoherence about the age of consent

When, in Ireland, is an adult an adult? To vote, you must be 18 years old, though many in politics, hoping for the votes of the young and naïve, wish to lower this to 16. To have sex, you must be 17 years old, though the Supreme Court yesterday made it a little easier to be “confused” about how old your partner is. To drink and smoke? Well, Fine Gael’s TD, Colm Burke, has an idea:

The age limit for the purchase of tobacco products should be raised to 21 years of age, a Fine Gael TD has said.

Deputy Colm Burke, Fine Gael’s Health Spokesperson has called for the change to help Ireland meet the public health target of less than 5% smoking rate by 2025.

And so we might soon live in a country where you can make a decision about who should govern the whole country at just 16 years of age, but can’t make a decision about what to put in your own body until 21 years of age. Plainly, it makes no sense: Someone too dumb to be trusted to understand that smoking is bad can hardly, one assumes, be trusted to know which party’s tax policy is more likely to stimulate sustainable long-term economic growth.

Incoherence is a feature of many political systems around the world – look no further than the US, where one party wants to cut spending and taxes, but absolutely refuses to consider cutting either entitlements or defence spending, which constitute over 90% of the spending – or the other party, which pretends that massive spending programmes will “pay for themselves”.

In Ireland though, we have an almost unique kind of incoherence, because it comes from the fact that nobody really believes much of anything. The only real political ideology in the state – at least amongst the two largest parties – is “keep your name in the news and get the transfers you need at the next election”. As my colleague Ben regularly proves, asking Irish politicians to actually justify their beliefs on a coherent basis gets you, at best, a blank stare and some mumbling.

And so the answer to the question “what is the age of adulthood in Ireland?” isn’t actually something our leaders spend too much time thinking about, because the only answer they really need is “whatever suits us on a given day or a given topic”. If we’re being progressive on Tuesdays, then the age of consent for sex and voting should be lowered. But if we’re being all about health on Wednesdays, then it should be raised to 21.

And it does not only extend to issues of consent: Ask an Irish politician what the age of adulthood is in terms of being expected to stand on your own two feet, and you might get a hundred different answers depending on their mood that day. Ask them about crime, and criminal responsibility, and you might get Leo Varadkar on a law and order day saying we need to get tougher with them, younger. Ask them about supports for parents with adult kids at home, and you might get Leo Varadkar on a cuddly day saying that we need more economic aid to young people and their parents.

Put a politician speaking to an audience of young people, and he’ll tell them that they’re all adults. Put one speaking to an audience concerned about antisocial behaviour in Dublin, and he’ll tell that audience that young people are vulnerable and deprived youths. There is no fixed line, just whatever sounds good on the day.

This might seem like a relatively small point, in the grand scheme of our nationhood, but it does rather sum the thing up: Because we have a political class that rarely thinks about even the most basic things, they are particularly ill-suited when big challenges come along. All of which is precisely why we have the spectacle this week of the Government withdrawing a referendum because it does not want to risk having to take a position on what, exactly, a woman is. And it’s hardly surprising if they don’t know what a woman is, because they don’t seem at all certain on what an adult is, either.

In a society with some principles, Deputy Burke’s plan to place additional age restrictions on smoking would be laughed out of the arena. Young people would object to an obvious assault on their autonomy and rights. The media would recognise the incoherence, and ask about it. The lawyers would probably say “this isn’t consistent”.

In Ireland it will likely be ignored. Young people these days are vastly more puritan than the rest of us, and likely welcome the restriction of their rights. No journalist wants to be seen as pro-smoking. The lawyers, as ever, would probably hope to await a nice test case and the fees that came with that.

That’s all well and good, and no harm done: But let nobody pretend that this is a country governed by deep thinkers who have some idea of where we’re going, and how our country should be ordered.

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