Lowering the voting age

As millions of Americans prepare to cast their votes for either Obama, Romney or any of the third party candidates who rarely get a mention, Stormont MLAs are deliberating on whether 16-year-olds should get the right to choose their elected representatives.

Martin McGuinness told me on Inside Politics last month that the decision to allow 16-year-olds to vote in the Scottish independence referendum should set a precedent for any future border poll. This wasn't exactly a surprise - Sinn Fein has long advocated lowering the voting age.

Apart from the principled argument put forward by Sinn Fein's Megan Fearon on the BBC's Sunday Politics that such an initiative will help young people connect with their politicians, there's another reason why nationalists might favour votes at 16.

The latest statistics produced by the Department of Education in May show that the religious breakdown of Northern Ireland's 300,000 school pupils was 51% Catholic, 37% Protestant with the rest defined either as other Christian, non-Christian or no religion.

Whilst in these changing times it's dangerous to assume that someone's religion equates to their politics, it's easy to see why nationalists might draw more heart from these statistics than unionists.

Which makes it more of a surprise that the Ulster Unionists have decided to support lowering the voting age.

Perhaps the UUP was sensitive to all those commentators who used to stereotype the party as a bunch of grey men in grey suits.

But now, whilst DUP politicians like Christopher Stalford and Alastair Ross express their opposition to change, the Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs believes giving 16-year-olds a say would help address the "disconnect between the electorate and what is happening in Stormont".

It's not an absolute divide between the two unionist parties, as the North Antrim MP Ian Paisley has made no secret of the fact that he is sympathetic to votes at 16. But in general the DUP are against the change, whilst the UUP have now joined the nationalists and Alliance in favour.

I discussed Alliance's position on the voting age with David Ford last month.

Given his justice portfolio, I asked Mr Ford why politicians who think children don't know right from wrong until they are 12 want them to have the vote at 15, whilst those who believe children should be criminally responsible at 10 don't think they are responsible enough to vote until they are 18.

I'm not sure the Alliance leader solved the conundrum for me, but he did point out that anyone who has raised teenagers will recognise how fast they develop in the four years between 12 and 16.

The argument will continue, but it's not just Martin McGuinness who reckons the Scottish referendum decision is a game changer. And in politics, here or in the USA, it's important to recognise when change becomes inevitable.