Young people care about society – the Youth Assembly needs to give them a platform
Northern Ireland’s Youth Assembly is finally up and running.
Campaigners have been calling for this for years. The first sitting was last Friday. Now, the challenge is to make the Youth Assembly succeed. To do that, it needs to provide a voice for local youth – and that voice needs to be heard by people in power.
Over the next two years, young people from all across the province will take part plenary and committee hearings, as well as relevant training sessions, to identify and discuss the policy issues that are important to them.
They will also engage with the Northern Ireland Assembly itself and have “a unique opportunity to share their views and directly influence decisions taken”.
The total of 90 NI young people, aged between 13 and 17, were chosen to sit in the Assembly during a semi-random process designed so that the group would be broadly representative of the population, both geographically and socially.
Scope spoke with Chris Quinn, Director of the NI Youth Forum (NIYF), about how – after around 15 years of campaigning from his organisation and others – a local Youth Assembly has finally been created.
He said: “We would argue that children and young people’s voices are extremely important, especially in a place like here. It’s vital that we give young people a say.
“Young people are often seen as a problem, or demonised, but they want to talk about issues like mental health, education, and climate change. It sounds like a cliché but, for me, they are the solution.
“That is not to say that young people don’t have a view on the constitutional question. However, they have many other issues they want to be addressed locally.”
Youth view and impact
NIYF is a youth-led organisation and its mission is to represent the views of young people to government and other decision makers.
The establishment of a Youth Assembly was “probably the leading campaign” for NIYF over the past decade or more. The reason for that is simple: it’s what young people wanted.
Mr Quinn said: “Young people want to be able to express themselves, and they want to be listened to. They speak about issues like enhancing their decision-making ability and their ability to influence and shape policy.”
NIYF now sits on an advisory group to Alex Maskey and other MLAs tasked with organising the Youth Assembly. Other members of this advisory group include Professor Laura Lundy, a children’s rights expert from QUB, and the Children’s Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma.
The organisation hopes the impact of the Youth Assembly on local young people will be significant. However, some potential pitfalls remain.
“For the 90 young people involved, this could be one of the best experiences of their lives - meeting people, personal development, improving their communication skills, their negotiation skills, learning about lobbying and campaigning, and being involved with the main Assembly as well as their own work with the Youth Assembly.
“However, we want it to have an impact on young people in general. To do that, it’s important that this doesn’t stand alone. Those 90 young people can’t be expected to represent the views of every young person in NI.
“We have to make sure the Youth Assembly extends into groups like ours and other regional organisations, neighbourhood ones as well. All those little pockets, where there are already pieces of good practice, and where there can be real engagement between the Youth Assembly and the wider population of young people in general.
“Existing networks will need to be used to make this happen. We as professionals need to support that.”
Young people want to be heard. From that point of view, the symbolic importance of the Youth Assembly is obvious.
However, it needs to achieve more than its own existence to be called a success. It must be substantial. That means that young people’s voices need to be listened to by MLAs and other people in power.
Mr Quinn said: “There is a risk of tokenism and all those things. That’s something groups like ourselves and others - the Children’s Commissioner, Prof. Lundy, and more - all need to be aware of in the background.
“We are out there to be critical friends to the people running this. The need for substantial, genuine engagement with the Assembly itself is vital.
“It also points to a major question for the whole Youth Assembly itself: ‘And what?’ In other words, what does this all mean? How does the Youth Assembly effect change?
“Our role is critical. There will be a lot of linking to do with Stormont, and there will be people like us who will be able to keep lobbying on this.”
Mr Quinn said that he is delighted Youth Assembly is finally happening – but knows it could be a one off, at least for now, for instance if the next Stormont mandate decides the money would be better spent elsewhere. Or, of course, if devolution falls flat once more.
However, he also thinks it has room to grow, refine and improve over time. The issue of engagement with the Assembly proper is obviously a key one. It remains to be seen exactly how that will be handled. Engagement could be ad hoc and piecemeal.
Further legislation could strengthen those ties. Almost anything is possible, in theory. Departmental committees could officially commit to hearing from Youth Assembly members at specified intervals. The Assembly itself could commit to debating on a certain number of motions drawn up by the Youth Assembly on issues the latter decides is important.
My Quinn said he would “go even further” and would like to see young people in the chamber itself, putting their ideas forward to MLAs.
One thing that is out of the hands of the Youth Assembly, young people themselves, and organisations like the NIYF is the level of commitment and willingness to listen that NI’s elected representatives will have when dealing with young people.
Engagement that is ad hoc and even disorganised, but which involves sincere and substantial engagement with politicians, would be better than a formalised structure with MLAs whose heart isn’t in the process.
However, the NIYF doesn’t see that as a major concern.
“One of the things we do have going for us here is that MLAs are generally good people and very accessible to young people and it’s very seldom that we would have a bad experience when dealing with them. Most of that is very positive and that will be very good for our Youth assembly.”
The NI Youth Assembly will follow in the footsteps of similar youth parliaments around the world – including elsewhere in the UK.
The Scottish Youth Parliament has been running since 1999 and allows its representatives good access to MSPs in Holyrood.
Young people want to be heard (the same as anyone else). It is fair to say that, here in Northern Ireland, they could have been entitled to ask over and over why other parts of the UK were able to establish and (more or less) maintain a youth parliament, while NI could not.
That question, at least, can be put on ice for now. However, the key point remains that the mere existence of a Youth Assembly is not enough. It exists for three reasons: to engage young people (all young people, not just those sitting in the Youth Assembly) in civic life, to provide young people with a platform to speak, and to provide a mechanism for the things they say to be heard, loud and clear.
If each of those reasons is fulfilled, the Youth Assembly will be a success.
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