1 Oct 2003

KEY NOTE SPEECH BY NIGEL WILLIAMS, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) at the Towards a Better Future Conference, Stormont Hotel, Belfast.

International guests, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentleman it is my pleasure to introduce this conference today on this most important topic of recovering from conflict and trauma. This is almost my very first appointment on my first day in office as the Commissioner for Children and Young People for Northern Ireland. I say almost, because Radio Ulster nabbed me for an interview at 7.30 this morning. But what is happening for the first time is the unveiling of my logo – NICCY the watchdog for all children and young people in Northern Ireland. I hope you like it and the image it conveys of working tirelessly on behalf of young people.

For me the most important part of today, and perhaps of this whole conference is what is happening immediately after I sit down. We will then get the chance to hear from two young people Neil and Karen involved in that wonderful group the Spirit of Enniskillen. I believe we do not listen enough to children and young people, or are too inclined to do it in a tokenistic way. I am glad that the organisers agreed with my suggestion that we should give Neil and Karen pride of place at the beginning of this conference.

After all this morning we are focussing on the impact of conflict on those under 18. It would be very ironic if we talked about children but did not listen to them.

I would like to suggest to you that conflict, such as we have known in Northern Ireland over the last 30 years or so, impacts on children in different ways. First there is an impact on all children in a society involved in conflict wherever they live – in a so called peaceful neighbourhood, in the inner city or in the country.

I recall well in my school days in Portadown the day after Bloody Sunday when one of my class mates came in with a placard. Paras 13 IRA 0. A number of us were incensed by that, but he had paramilitary connections and we were frankly afraid about responding.

Another personal example, with a happier twist. Until I was 11 I had never really met a Catholic – that is what can happen in a divided society. But then I was sent to grammar school for a few months in Coleraine from Limavady – a 14 mile journey each way each day by bus. The catch was that only 8 boys were making the journey, but there were 35 girls sharing the bus going to the convent school in Coleraine. I can tell you that all thoughts of prejudice and sectarianism disappeared as the hormones kicked in.

But conflict also has a differential impact. It affects certain areas and certain communities more than most. I think in Northern Ireland terms one of the worst affected areas is the area covered by our conference organisers – North and West Belfast. An area split apart for much of the last few decades by a so called peace line. An area that has produced, I may say to the astonishment of most people I meet internationally, the disgrace of children being intimidated on the way to school. As recently as last Friday we had concrete blocks being thrown at a school bus, and on Monday cars being burnt at a school.

Finally, conflict can have a very particular and devastating impact on individuals. We have witnessed recently the enormous dignity of the children of the disappeared Jean McConville cope with the recovery of her body after 30 years. But think of the trauma, the anguish, the anger of losing your mother in the first place at a very young age, and not knowing where she was. All this made worse by some in the local community who viewed her wrongly as an informer. Yes conflict, does impact on some children in an especially traumatic way.

I hope this conference will help us all to tease out those different impacts – on society, on communities and on individuals. There are complex interactions between these levels.

It struck me in thinking about these different levels, that they also apply to the area I will be focussing on as Commissioner for Children – that of young people’s rights.

I will need to look at issues which affect all children – like education, play, identity, growing up, levels of health provision etc. I will need to take account of how religious and ethnic backgrounds can influence these issues. I believe it will be crucial to listen to children and young people themselves to see what their concerns and priorities are.

But as Commissioner I need to recognise that there are particular groups of children, perhaps living in a particular area or sharing some similar experience to whom I will need to give special attention. It may that a particular area lacks play and leisure facililties, or there are problems in local school provision. I will certainly be very anxious to look out for the needs of those children with special needs, the disabled, the sick, those children who are carers for adults, those who live in lone parent families, children in care and caught up in the young justice system. I have powers to undertake formal and informal inquiries into issues and publish reports to which Government and others will have to respond. I am determined in working with all the other child welfare agencies to improve the lives of children and young people in Northern Ireland.

And of course as Commissioner I have the responsibility to deal with complaints about the circumstances of individual children where they (or their parents or carers) believe the system has let them down. I will pursue that role vigorously and it is my desire to use individual cases to highlight more general policy issues, so that it is not just one child who gets help but many in similar circumstances.

My guiding principles in all of this will by the legislation which set up my office and requires me to “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children”, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

That Convention or the CRC as it is known amongst children’s groups, is really a wonderfully unstuffy and straightforward document which says much of relevance to the topic of this conference. In my previous job as Chief Executive of Childnet International – a children’s internet charity – I was involved in a number of major international conferences were I ended up on the drafting committee for the conference declaration or agreed statement. Often the need to take account of different interests produced a dogs breakfast of a document. I don’t think the convention is like that. Its simple language is disarming at times eg “Children have a right to play”.

Let me draw to your attention a couple of paragraphs from the CRC which I believe are especially important in the context of this conference. Right at the beginning, there is a fundamental statement in Article 2

"State Parties (that means the signatory countries) shall respect and ensure the rights of set forth in the present convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or status”

That may sound like the obvious, but so often in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere in the globe, we have had particular groups trying to assert their authority over others, and requiring families and children that are different from the group to change or get out. That is conflict, and that is what we need to leave behind as we seek to build a better future.

Article 6 is another devastatingly simple article to which we need to pay close attention. It is in two parts of a sentence long each.

  • 1. State Parties recognize that every child has an inherent right to life. And
  • 2. State Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child

How can survival and development of children thrive in a violent society? How can vigilante law and gangland drug culture help our children?

I will quote just part of one other article, Article 27

“State Parties recognise the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development”

I am sure those working in North and West Belfast would agree that there is an intersection between poverty, recovering from conflict, and the health and well being of children.

I have decided that as Commissioner I need to know better just how well Northern Ireland, and all the individual government services, and indeed we as a society perform against the standards of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. So I am announcing today that there is going to be a major research project to audit Northern Ireland’s performance against the Convention. I will be releasing a briefing document within the next few weeks inviting academics and other interested parties to submit their proposals for this research. I hope this exercise will set out the baseline for my work as Commissioner, and hopefully in a few years time we can look back and see what has got better, and perhaps how the Commissioner’s office may have contributed to that.

My main message today in opening this conference has been that we should listen to children and young people themselves. We need to get past the rhetoric of adults to the realities of children’s lives. We need to learn from them and act.

It gives me great pleasure to declare this conference open and to invite Neil and Karen to the platform. I urge you to listen to them closely.