Catching up with Stephen Stewart (18 year old independent) #ae11 #bele11

Stephen Stewart, 18 year old East Belfast independent standing in front of Parliament BuildingsEighteen year old Stephen Stewart is squeezing in running as an independent candidate for East Belfast in the Assembly elections alongside his A-levels.

He’s partially inspired by Martin McAuley who stood as an independent in North Belfast’s Westminster election last year and is having a crack at the Assembly this year.

The whole point of me doing this is to complete the Good Friday Agreement and elect the first person from the ‘ceasefire generation’.

It’s thirteen years since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and this seems like an appropriate evening to post this week’s interview with Stephen. I asked him the obvious question of why on earth someone at school was getting involved in politics instead of revising.

I’m standing for two reasons. Firstly to get my name out into the political arena for a future career, but it’s also because I want to get more of the first time voters from the voting age bracket from 18 to 24 involved in politics because at the minute they have the lowest voting count rate.

Are many of Stephen’s peers politically interested?

Quite a good bit of them are politically interested but they just don’t have the political affiliation yet which obviously I don’t as I standing as an independent. It’s the best way to go when you’re such a young age: to try to find your feet and where you stand in the political spectrum.

Having started from nothing, found people to sign his nomination forms and waved goodbye to his £150 deposit (he’d need roughly a seventh of the East Belfast vote to get it back), what does an 18 year old candidate do next in his campaign?

My campaign’s really been focussed online. It’s a cheap budget way, particularly when you’re an independent and you don’t have the political machine behind you that give you all the fancy lamppost posters. It’s kicking off online and the support’s increasing as the days go on. The twitter account [@stewart4East] we have is becoming rapidly popular with all the reporters.

Alongside interacting with potential voters on Twitter, Stephen’s running Facebook ads targeted at Belfast users and taking advantage of features that will focus them in on friends of people who already ‘Like’ his campaign.

Will novelty be enough with Stephen only one of seventeen Assembly candidates in East Belfast?

I’m trying to get my unique selling point across that I’m standing for the young voters.

It’s hard at 18 to claim to have a lot of life experience., But after 13 or 14 years in education, what kind of education policies does Stephen have?

On education, that’s one of my strong points as at the end of the day I believe that everyone should be successful to equal opportunities whilst they’re in school no matter if that’s a secondary or a grammar. I believe if you’re in a school that doesn’t provide the best opportunities possible, the school should be given extra funding to provide those to make sure you get the best out of your time at school but to make sure you’re starting to mould yourself for your future life.

His specific ideas included:

With regards to the primary transfer test, I do believe that what Caitríona Ruane brought in was quite a silly way of doing it because at the end of the day they are kids that are only 11 years old have and have to sit more than one exam which can decide what they’re going to be in a future life and it’s not good for them. But I think personally I’d prefer to go back to the old system of the 11 plus

When it comes to secondary school I believe that we should have not just the core subjects but we should have all the other subjects such as drama and so people can have a vast array of subjects to choose from.

At tertiary level – which I’m going to go to soon – I don’t support the £9000 fee increase because students who have been to university and have a university degree would end up paying more tax. I believe that we shouldn’t be paying that much in fees because we’ll be paying more tax back than those without university degrees.

Stephen would support keeping them at current levels rather than complete elimination due to the economic situation.

His short online manifesto outlines his approach to the areas mentioned below amongst others:

  • “provide opportunities for local businesses to expand into [the green energy] sector”
  • “would see charities and voluntary groups being heavily involved in society, tackling social problems head on”
  • would increase spending on the NHS on a yearly basis”
  • asserts the right of “every soldier who puts their life on the line on active duty” to have a homecoming parade
  • wishes to see a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights
  • recognises that “the demand for public transport in Northern Ireland will be increasing significantly in the coming years” and proposes that preparations are made now to expand routes and build new train tracks as well as cutting prices.

Just in case my prediction is wrong and Stephen is elected in May, I asked what aspects of East Belfast would he want to stand up for or lobby to change?

I’m arguing that we should keep the [Comber] Greenway the way it is. We can’t see that turned into a transportation system. We need our green areas for tranquillity. I also support Belmont Park at the minute – some of their land has been sold to Strathearn [school] and we need to keep these areas of green and make sure they always get priority over developments.

On his Facebook site, Stephen comes out against Alternative Vote saying “AV is complicated and expensive requiring councils to dump our traditional ballot boxes in favour of costly electronic voting machines”. Isn’t that claim nonsense, given that he is standing in an election that will be voted and counted using STV – not dissimilar to AV with multiple winners – that will have manual counting and no need for electronic voting machines?

If [AV] goes for Westminster elections, it’s going to get to the stage where we do need electronic machines as it’s feasibly impossible … With Westminster you don’t want to have such a long period of time to find out who the representatives are. You just want to know there and then. So that’s why they’ve come up with the need for electronic systems.

Finally how would he convince people to vote for him on 5 May?

I believe they should vote for me because I don’t have a party machine behind me … I’m there for the people and if any issues come to me I will ensure they are dealt with correctly and not just pushed to the side as some politicians would do in East Belfast.

He’s been enjoying the low-key campaign so far. When I spoke to him at the start of his school Easter holidays, leaflets were being printed and he was looking forward to doing door to door with a team of supporters.

At time of posting, 129 people like his Facebook campaign page, 63 follow him on Twitter and 41 people have watched his Party Election Broadcast on Youtube. His online campaign may have quite a distance to go …