Education, mental health, community, social media and discrimination were all key issues on the agenda for young people attending this year’s Northern Ireland Youth Congress which took place on Thursday 22 February in the Assembly Chamber at Parliament Buildings.
This special event, which was coordinated by the Northern Ireland Youth Forum and the Assembly’s Education Service, brought together over 200 young people from across Northern Ireland and was an important opportunity for them to have their say on the issues that matter to them.
The young people gathered earlier in the day at the Stormont Hotel, where they were welcomed by the Assembly Speaker Robin Newton MLA who told them that he was looking forward to chairing the debate and listening to the issues raised.
The morning session continued with a series of workshops and discussions aimed at helping the participants to prepare, select and word motions arising from the key issues for the afternoon debate in the Assembly Chamber.
Following a quick lunch, the young people made their way up to Parliament Buildings, where after a few photographs and interviews with local media, they entered the Assembly Chamber to take part in the debate. They were joined by a number of MLAs from all of the main political parties, who had turned up to listen to the issues raised and to support the call for the future development of a Youth Assembly.
The Speaker opened the debate by stating that he was delighted to be able to grant special permission for the Assembly Chamber to be used for this important plenary session. He added that such events were an opportunity for young people to have their voices heard and for the Assembly to highlight its continuing commitment to engaging with them.
One by one, the young people put forward powerful arguments on issues such as the need for more resources to support young people with mental health issues; more education on cyber bullying for young people and adults; more funding for activities for young people; how young people are presented on social media; and discrimination in relation to the Irish language, LGBTQ+ rights and race. During an ‘open floor’ debate, other issues were raised including domestic violence, the constitutional question and the need for more support for young people who need extra assistance at school.
Following the debate, Alex Moore, a member of NIYF Executive Committee, made a statement about the need for a Youth Assembly in Northern Ireland. The Speaker assured Alex that he intended to bring the issue back to the Assembly Commission for consideration at its next meeting in March 2018.
The Children’s Commissioner, Koulla Yiasouma, spoke at the end of the debate, congratulating the young people on their very passionate contributions and assuring them of her determination to work with them on the issues raised.
As the Speaker closed the debate, he too thanked the young people for their eloquent, knowledgeable and considered contributions, noting that the standard of debate had been excellent. This was a sentiment echoed by the attending MLAs, as well as those watching the debate from the public gallery.