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Executive Summary: The story of the Youth Assembly
It has long been a goal of the Northern Ireland Assembly to have a platform for young people to come together to engage, debate, and decide on issues that matter to them and to wider society.
The Youth Assembly for Northern Ireland is the fulfilment of that goal. The first cohort of 90 Youth Assembly Members was recruited in the summer of 2021.
Recruitment and Support
The 90 Members arrived in response to a robust advertising campaign across Northern Ireland, which called on those aged 13-17 years to apply. The recruitment phases, as with all elements of the subsequent mandate, were carefully designed and supported with input from experts on the best models to follow.
Almost 1,200 young people applied, and 54 were randomly chosen according to their home location — three from each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. A further 36 young people were randomly drawn from communities of interest — groups with additional or different experiences that reflected the wider make-up of Northern Ireland society.
With all Members in place, the training and support launched in earnest. A key underpinning of the work was to ensure that safeguarding and support was woven into the fabric of the Youth Assembly. Topics such as mental health and children’s rights were covered, as well as the purpose and powers of the Northern Ireland Assembly, how legislation is made and how voting works.
The two-year Pioneer Phase, so-called to reflect the new path that the young people were forging, was in progress and the Youth Assembly could be convened and could begin to make some decisions about its tenure.
One of the first tasks for Youth Assembly Members was to discuss and decide a code of practice on how they would go forward. Then, they examined the issues that affected them and their peers, and took some time to agree the subject areas, underpinned by a large-scale survey of young people, that would form the basis of the Committees.
They identified the most prevalent issues and during their second plenary meeting, they considered their options and made informed decisions. The resulting four Committees — Environment, Education, Health and Rights and Equality — were approved and convened. These would form the backbone of the Youth Assembly throughout the two years as they examined issues, took evidence, made recommendations and reported back to their peers.
Plenary meetings — topics for decision and debate by all Youth Assembly Members in the Assembly Chambers — were scheduled. Initially, there were to be four but, in actuality, there were six over the two-year span of the Pioneer Phase — all of which were chaired by the Speaker, Alex Maskey.
The plenary meetings are the fora for the Youth Assembly Members to come together as a whole group, take stock of progress and share learning. It is the space for planning messages, practising speeches and building confidence before taking towards your feet to speak to your peers. It is a moment to build to, and the young people talk of that pivotal moment in particular in their Youth Assembly experience.
The plenary meetings dealt with a range of issues. These included standing items, such as Youth Assembly Committee updates, as well as topical matters, such as consideration of the involvement of young people in the preparation of future Programmes for Government; a debate on the minimum age of criminal responsibility; and a session in which Members scrutinised the tenure of the outgoing Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY).
Challenges and Opportunities
As with every plan, there are always a few unexpected challenges. The pandemic and restrictions on meeting at the inception of the Pioneer Phase meant that initial discussions and the first plenary session were online instead of in-person. That created a change in process but not in tempo as Youth Assembly Members took changes in their stride and simply varied their approach to deal with a different environment.
The Assembly not functioning normally has meant that interaction with the scrutiny Committees was not available and engaging with MLAs was a little more limited.
However, the Youth Assembly Members did participate in the Committee for Education’s pandemic youth engagement,My Life and Learning in Lockdown.
Youth Assembly Members used the time afforded to them to participate in a number of departmental consultations, including the independent review of education; school uniform policy; the Irish language and Ulster-Scots language, heritage and culture strategies; marriage laws; and minimum age of criminal responsibility. It is encouraging to know that the voice of young people will be reflected in departmental policy development relating to these issues.
In addition, Youth Assembly Members participated in a number of tasks with various statutory agencies. These included the period dignity project; the development of an education rights resource for the Children’s Law Centre; and a Statement of Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland with Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People.
A number of Members also sat on the selection panel for the new Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People; met with the Chief Constable of the PSNI; and attended an election count to observe proceedings.
The Youth Assembly finished out its two-year Pioneer Phase mandate with some Members taking to the stage for the Assembly’s Good Friday/Belfast Agreement event in Parliament Buildings, others attended Hillsborough Castle as part of the same events, and a group of 10 Members was in the audience for the President of the United States of America’s key address at Ulster University.
The Next Steps
It is hoped that their time with the Youth Assembly has been instrumental in building the skills, confidence and understanding of democratic principles of every single one of the Youth Assembly Members.
With preparations for the second mandate in full swing, the Pioneer Phase Members have noted some recommendations for their successors to consider. Equally importantly, the Members have taken the time to note some words of advice for the cohort of young people who will take on this important role in the next mandate.
Recognising the vigorous support of the Members of the Pioneer Phase, an alumni group will be established that can be called upon to give peer-to-peer advice for the new intake.