DOYLE Catherine93% say yes to Europe: Young people have their say with NI politicians
by Catherine DOYLE for Northern Ireland Foundation
2 May 2014

Pupils gathered at Stormont on 2nd May for a European Union hustings event, to demand that their voices be heard by a panel of representatives from the SDLP, NI Conservatives, Green Party, DUP, Alliance, Sinn Fein, NI21 and UUP.

The event was hosted by the Integrated Education Fund (IEF), and included participation from the first-time voters, through a LucidTalk poll.

Jim Fitzpatrick (broadcaster) chaired the event and opened by saying: “It’s about you taking part, as much as hearing what politicians have to say.” And he was right — these pupils weren’t afraid to speak out. Their demands included increasing the number of integrated schools throughout Northern Ireland. (There are currently 62 integrated schools here, with 90% of children attending segregated institutions.)

The IEF produced an “Alternative Manifesto for Education” to the parties. Proposals include: ring-fenced funding to support schools progressing towards integration; area based planning; a single authority to administer education; and a single teacher training system. They are also working towards a single model of governance for schools, fair employment legislation in teacher recruitment, and the application of Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to schools (a legal requirement for public authorities to promote equality).

Some of the pupils pointed out that the world of work is diverse, so schools need to reflect this. During live polling, 53% of the students responded that they believe that Northern Ireland’s membership of the European Union has helped make it a more inclusive society. Alex Attwood (SDLP) commended this figure saying: “We’ve got more inclusive and tolerant”, but he also agreed with the 28% who don’t think this, saying: “There’s a bit of work to be done.” This was backed up by Hazelwood College’s Steven Mackessy, who referred to a Belfast Telegraph article warning that Northern Ireland’s largest city could become the race hate capital of the entire United Kingdom. Steven, along with Head Girl Amy Garner, presented a short film called ‘Human Eyes’, which challenges prejudice. The video was part of a project that gave the two pupils the opportunity to attend the European Parliament in Brussels.

In reference to the recent hate crimes in Belfast, Ross Brown (Green Party) said: “It’s serious and depressing.” He blamed myths surrounding immigrants, and pointed out that “EU migration contributes more than they take out”.

Phil Flanagan (Sinn Fein) condemned the attacks, saying: “In our society we’ve too many racists, homophobes and xenophobes. It’s not acceptable in the 21st century.”

Stephen Farry (Alliance) talked about the benefits of immigration. He praised Filipino nurses, claiming that without migrants our health care system would fall apart.

Although there was a lot of concord between the panel of politicians, there was also some bickering about contentious topics like Twaddell. For example, Mervyn Storey (DUP) said that if the DUP do not go to Twaddell they are accused of abandoning their people, but if they do they are criticised by other parties. One pupil questioned the absurdity of the candidates promising that they would look into integrated schooling for Northern Ireland: “How can you bring integration, when you aren’t integrated yourselves?”

Another hot topic that the young people showed concern for was job prospects. Only 37% see their long-term future in Northern Ireland, blaming unemployment. Some of the panel said that a change in education was needed to deal with this. Tina McKenzie (NI21) referred to recent figures showing that Protestant boys are not doing well in secondary school. Mark Brotherston (NI Conservatives) suggested that a change in the curriculum was required. He said: “We need to align our skills development with jobs that are out there.” But not everyone saw the result as a negative. Ross Brown (Green) and Danny Kinahan (UUP) encouraged the students to travel. Mr Brown lived in London and studied in the United States, and Mr Kinahan said: “We have to stop people from being afraid of going somewhere else.”

There weren’t many Eurosceptics to be spotted in the audience. The young voters were sure that the UK should stay in the EU, with a landslide victory of 93.2%. Danny Kinahan said: “When you look at that figure up there, we know that the European Union is needed.” Mark Brotherston (NI Conservatives) claimed that his is the only party that can offer a referendum on whether we should remain in the EU. But Stephen Farry (Alliance) warned that “talk or even threat of leaving is enough to deter investors from coming here.”

By the end of the event one issue was clear: we may not have resolved anything in the Haass Talks about flags, parades and the past, but the future isn’t all bleak, with these young adults coming out of a diverse education system to work towards a more integrated Northern Ireland.

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