Is it time to hand over the torch to the next generation?

LAST Friday, 30 June 2023, the Northern Ireland Youth assembly ‘class of 2023’ met in Parliament Buildings for their last plenary, chaired by the Assembly Speaker Alex Maskey. The topics for discussion were climate change, mental health, children’s and young people’s rights, relationships and sexuality education and why it’s important that young people have a voice in shaping policy and legislation on the issues that affect them.

What is interesting for me about the NI Youth assembly, apart from the issues they are passionate about, is how its members were selected to ensure that the assembly would be fully representative _ the categories considered are _ experience of the care system, Racial Group, LGBTQ+, Disability, Young Carers, Free school meals eligibility, Religious belief, Male and Female. Measures are also taken to ensure a geographic spread from each of the 18 Northern Ireland constituencies.

The message I hear from this is that inclusivity and intersectionality should be at the heart of policy and politics. Why then is it not at the heart of our actual assembly? Perhaps if our assembly was as diverse and representative, rather than predominantly ‘orange and green’, we wouldn’t be in the position that we are in?

The Unfinished business of Peace and Reconciliation: A Call to Action report, published in May 2023, lists ‘enhance youth participation’ as one of its key objectives. One of the Youth Peace summit participants is noted as having said, “they’re (politicians)not changing their future. They are changing ours”, another noted, “parties are still focused on religion rather than actual policies and a lot of communities have suffered because of this”. The Youth Peace summit participants had numerous insightful contributions and seem to have a clear sense of what is happening here, perhaps we should take it a step further than enhance participation and just hand over the reins?

I can imagine a lot of people reading this saying, ‘but they don’t understand what we went through!’, well I for one am glad that they don’t. It is a widely held belief that it takes two generations to effect change. Those born in 1998, at the time of the Good Friday Agreement, are now 25 years old and the 2nd generation is the generation they are raising right now. What we do now is fundamentally important in shaping our future, we are raising our future leaders, perhaps we should work harder on the environment we raise them in?

Some are already seeing the benefits of youth, with Lewis Boyles’ election to Antrim and Newtownabbey Council, an 18 year old A-level student, thought to be NI’s youngest elected representative. It seems to me, the only way forward for Northern Ireland is, if I can misquote Patsy Cline, to see the world through the eyes of our youth. So why not hand over the day-to-day business of government to the incoming NI Youth assembly, they can’t do any worse than no assembly, and, after all, it will be their job soon enough!

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