SOAPBOX: Decommissioned Stormont? Let Youth Lead!

Michael McTasney (right) and Curtis Evitt (left) were amongst the 250 young people who participated in last week’s NI Youth Congress, held in the Assembly Chamber at Parliament Buildings.

On 22 February we attended the second sitting of the NI Youth Congress in Stormont along with 250 other young people. Organised by NI Youth Forum, we feel that at this event we showed politicians how things can and should be done here.

Despite some of the barriers of being in an institution that either ‘doesn’t want a young person about the place’ or simply doesn’t care for us too much, we showed everyone how young people can be part of the solution instead as seen as the problem (as society all too often portrays us.)

In what was an amazing example of how democracy and politics should work, we participated in a discussion, presented solutions to key social issues and showed the world that yes, we sometimes disagree, but we can still get on with things, fight for common causes and make way for those with whom we may disagree.

MLAs who were present spoke about their pride in hearing us debate and discuss key issues that affect our lives, including some that have been portrayed as ‘red lines’ in so called ‘grown-up’ politics. So called …

For us there are no red lines. None! We want to live and let live. We discussed key issues based on the five most popular choices from ‘The Big Youth Survey’ which was completed by over 1,500 young people from across NI.

Mental health, social media, community, discrimination and education were all key headlines from the day. We agreed on areas such as the Irish Language Act and Marriage Equality. We saw young people apologise to one another for the actions of ‘their community’ against another.

Those who were in the Chamber on Thursday saw and heard a diverse range of young people from all walks of life open their hearts and minds, showing mutual respect, empathy and understanding.

We have lobbied for 12 years for a NI Youth Assembly.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended that one is set up immediately.

Whilst the rhetoric from up on the hill suggests wide-scale support for the Youth Assembly, the reality is quite different. Clearly there are barriers: financial and – we would suggest – cultural. Stormont does not really want a Youth Assembly. They are not ready for us. They do not care for us. Some officials made this very clear on Thursday with their passive aggression towards us.

But we have been polite for too long. We will wait no longer. We shall do this for ourselves now. A Youth Assembly by young people, for young people. It will be interesting to see how this is presented when the UK government next reports back to the UN committee.

Our message to Government is … we are ready, we are waiting. When you are ready we want to work in partnership.

And let’s do this for real. We don’t want a talking shop or a mere photo opportunity. We want to have a say on the issues that affect us. We want a direct link to government. We want to work with our politicians. But most of all, we want to be taken seriously.

As an event, Thursday’s NI Youth Congress was amazing. We would like to hear more feedback from MLAs about what they felt.

Ultimately, if they don’t want to use the Assembly Chamber we certainly will!

Move over: let youth lead!

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.