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Eilis O'Hanlon: Why this obsession with youth in politics? Give me age and experience every time

Raising the minimum age to be a public representative would mean our politicians knowing something of the world at large, argues Eilis O'Hanlon

Youth is wasted on the young, isn't that what they say? The appointment of Sinn Fein's Orla Nic Biorna as the new Lord Mayor of Belfast surely confirms it.

She's the youngest person to ever hold the office of the city's first citizen, and you'd need to have been living under a rock for the past few days not to be aware of that fact, because it's practically the only thing anyone does know about her.

Nic Biorna is just 20 years old, making her a full five years younger than the previous holder of the record, Niall O Donnghaile, also from Sinn Fein.

As Belfast's Lord Mayors keep getting younger, one can't help wondering what's next? Candidates donning the chain at official events alongside revising for their GCSEs?

Irish language activist Orla Nic Biorna must be congratulated on her fast track rise to prominence, because if that's what floats her boat, then who are we to judge? But why would any young person in his or her right mind want to be Lord Mayor in the first place?

It's not the worst job in the world, but taking it on at a time when you should be out enjoying yourself, unhampered by care and responsibility, just feels like a terrible waste of the best years of your life. Young people should have the freedom to be impulsive, even a little wild, not be watching their every step to make sure they're behaving properly at all times, or shaking hands and making small talk with local dignitaries, cutting ribbons, posing for pictures, shaking more hands.

Young people who throw themselves into this dull round of decorum are putting off experiences that they could be relishing now, in order to have experiences which they could save until they're older anyway.

Asked why they do it, politicians invariably say they want to give something back to the community, and that's very admirable but you don't need to devote yourself 24/7 to politics to make the world a better place. Driving a bus is helping the community too. Starting a business and employing people is helping the community. So is staying at home and raising a family. Politicians don't have a monopoly on civic-mindedness.

Other people are playing an equally, perhaps more, important role by just getting on with their day to day lives, and they don't have to mind their Ps and Qs while doing so.

There's something to be said for leaving political office to older people, who've actually worked in the real world and got a bit of life experience behind them.

There's nothing particularly controversial about that opinion. The Irish had a referendum in 2015 on lowering the age at which someone could become President. The Republic's Constitution states that a candidate must be at least 35 before being eligible for the job. Campaigners wanted to reduce that to 21 years, as it is in other funky, modern countries such as, er, Iran, and some of them even thought making candidates wait that long was unfair. They wanted 18 year olds to be able to stand. Held on the same day as the same sex marriage referendum, the proposal was rejected by a satisfyingly decisive 73% of the electorate, who clearly agreed that the young should stop moaning and wait their turn.

Where's the harm in that?

So much of contemporary culture is dedicated to the worship of youth, it's only fair that some things should be kept back as a privilege of advancing years, especially in a society which suffers from the scourge of ageism.

If anything, we should be raising the minimum age of public representatives, to avoid the dreadful spectacle of young people getting fixed into a certain way of life too soon.

Because that's another problem, too. Public life these days is increasingly dominated by people who decide they want to be politicians at a ridiculously young age and then go into it as a profession, meaning they know nothing of the world beyond those chamber walls. That's not healthy.

Nuala McAllister, who completes her year as Belfast's Lord Mayor today, studied politics and law at Ulster University, and then went straight afterwards into working for the Alliance Party at Stormont.

Guy Spence of the DUP, another youngster when he became deputy Lord Mayor in 2015 at the age of 23, studied political science and government at the same university, and his CV is largely a list of trusteeships and board memberships and other political appointments.

Orla Nic Biorna hasn't even left full-time education yet; she's still studying at St Mary's College.

Alliance leader Naomi Long was, to her credit, a working engineer, but it's increasingly rare to find politicians with such a background. Even when they do have jobs outside politics, candidates now increasingly come from a narrow list of fields. There are so many barristers knocking about the place, it beggars belief.

At least older people such as Arder Carson, who was Sinn Fein's pick for Mayor in 2015, and who worked previously as a butcher in Andersonstown, know what it's like to have a normal 9-to-5 job, like those they're meant to represent. The same goes for Reg Empey, who held the position for the Ulster Unionists a couple of times in the 80s and 90s, and who owned a store on Royal Avenue.

Would any of the current crop of councillors and MLAs even know how to run a business?

More to the point, do they never tire of constantly being around people who spend every waking moment thinking about politics?

So-called millennials seem to look at older people and feel resentment at all the advantages they have, such as greater financial security and social prestige. That's fair enough. They do have it harder than older generations in many ways.

What they're ignoring, though, is that those fiftysomethings and older didn't have these things when they were the same age either. They too had to wait. And waiting's not necessarily a bad thing. It's called deferred gratification.

It doesn't mean you don't get what you want, it just means you don't get it right now.

Waiting may mean you appreciate it more when it comes along.

Good luck to Orla Nic Biorna. Here's hoping she thoroughly enjoys the coming year as Lord Mayor of Belfast.

But to other young people tempted to follow in her footsteps, please think again. City Hall will still be there when you're 50, and spending the evening making polite chit chat with members of the Chamber of Commerce probably won't feel half so onerous then.

Belfast Telegraph


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