In Northern Ireland we have an interesting relationship with voting. Historically, them’uns vote tactically to keep us out while we vote tactically to keep them’uns out. But is this changing? Sinn Féin and the DUP saw losses in the Westminster election while Alliance made big gains. There appears to be a belief that the new generation are moving away from green and orange, a generation who have known nothing but the peace process. So why haven’t all of us got a vote? 16 year olds can pay tax, get married and join the Army, but we can’t vote. Why?
The DUP might argue that young people don’t vote anyway. The 18-24 bracket has an extremely low turnout - in 2011 it was found to be around 51%. With such a low turnout amongst young people, they might argue that it would only make the figures look worse. However, in my opinion, this isn’t a valid argument. The more voices there are, the more democratic a system is. Demos Kratos. People’s rule. Democracy should not stop some voices being heard while others are silenced. If the figures do not look flattering then so be it. Is the appearance of the system more important than the system itself? I think the more conservative parties, like the DUP, are scared of the young vote. The last 20 years has seen an increase in the Catholic population contrasts with a decrease in the Protestant population. With an almost wholly Protestant base, the DUP would see significant losses if more people are given the vote. A larger electorate may see their traditional conservative values shaken by a younger, more radical set of voters.
Are we educated enough to vote? Some say that young people aren’t well enough educated on the political system to deserve a vote. It is true, many young people don’t understand the system of proportional representation or how many MLAs there. However right across the UK, we are seeing record numbers in the amount of A-Level students choosing Government and Politics. As well as this, many adults are not politically educated. Many do not understand or have any interest in understanding the political system. Many adults vote simply for the party that their local area votes for: the Shankhill votes DUP, the Falls votes Sinn Féin. In the Republic, many vote for the party their family has always voted for: 'if the family votes Fianna Fáil, then I vote Fianna Fáil'. However the last election saw massive changes. More young people got out and voted for Sinn Féin, PBP and the Soc Dems, wanting to see real social change.
In Wales. the voting age for the Welsh Assembly has been lowered to 16 and during the Scottish Independence Referendum, votes were extended to 16 and 17 year olds for the first time. It’s time to follow our neighbours and lower the voting age, not just in Northern Ireland but in the Republic as well.
So who supports lowering the voting age? The Alliance Party, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the UUP have all previously supported a lowered voting age facing opposition from the DUP and TUV. Student Unions have called for it as well as various youth groups. The campaign has support from Members of Youth Parliament as well party youth wings such as Alliance Youth and Ógra Shinn Féin who have been active supporters. In England, the Labour Party under Corbyn called for votes at 16 however faced opposition from the Tories.
How do we deal with the lack of education? Every Secondary School student in Northern Ireland learns about 'citizenship' either as a stand-alone subject in Years 8 to 12 or as a wider subject such as LLW. Part of being a citizen is taking part in democracy. Let's teach students from the start of Secondary School how the system works. How many MLAs there are, how to fill out a ballot paper, what each party stands for, who are our Ministers and what do they do? So many young adults only start developing an interest in politics in their mid 20s. Let’s end that. Get people educated and get voting. Build habits of going out to vote and the turnout will increase. You can kill two birds with one stone: better education and a better democracy.
Brexit, a Border Poll, Gay Marriage, Abortion - all things young people should have had a say on. We watch people that we do not choose make decisions for us. It’s time we get a choice. It doesn’t matter if you’re nationalist, unionist, socialist, fascist or anarchist, we should all be given a vote. At 16, many people start their political journey. It’s time we were given a voice just like the adults. It's time we helped make the decisions. It's time we chose the agenda. It’s time for votes at 16.
Dermot Hamill is a 16 year old A-Level student at St Colman's College. He is interested in education reform, NI politics and the Irish Language.