19 Nov 2004

Speech by Nigel Williams, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People at the Building Bridges: Healing Communities through Early Childhood Education Working Forum, Friday 19th November 2004 at the Europa Hotel Belfast.

I have been given a rather sweeping title for my contribution to your forum “Building a New Society”. It is as if I had been given a magic wand and was being asked to dream about what kind of society I wanted, and then with one swish of the wand could bring it into being. Oh that bringing change were so simple!

My own position as Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland is one that many people here fought very hard for – it is my job to be a champion for children, challenging Government to make things better for all those under 18, being a watchdog on public services like health and education and working to improve them.

My work has a simple objective set out in my legislation: “ to safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”. In doing that I am required to take account of the international standard for children’s rights – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child; and also take account of the vital role of parents in bringing up their children.

In all of the legislation and guidance given to my office, the words “Building a New Society” don’t appear. But I am quite comfortable with that title, because when I think about children and young people in Northern Ireland, when I listen to their concerns, I realize that we do need some fundamental changes if children are going to feel safe, secure and prosper. That applies whether we are talking about the youngest children who are the specific concern of this conference, right through to teenagers..

I am used to pestering government, but some of the changes we need for the sake of the children here in Northern Ireland go well beyond what government alone can deliver.

We know quite a lot about what children think of the society here as a result of research. You heard yesterday from Paul Connolly who has done ground breaking work on what quite young children feel about their community attachments and indeed sectarian symbols.

I want to base my comments today largely on three pieces of work – Voices behind the Statistics – a report of a significant participative piece of research with young people from 11 schools in Northern Ireland looking at community identity and other issues. This work was undertaken jointly by the National Children’s Bureau and the ARK project. Second, I want to refer to research by Dr Liam Kennedy of Queen’s University on paramilitary beatings and third to work commissioned by my own organization NICCY on how Northern Ireland compares with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – this was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary team from Queens’ University and involved 1200 young people giving their views.

I want to suggest to you that three key components of a new society in Northern Ireland that would make a significant difference are first, dealing with the paramilitaries and the associated sectarianism; second, political progress with much greater opportunity for young people to get involved in decision making; and third, government backing its commitment to strategic intervention for children with long term additional investment.

 

First, the paramilitaries. I spent last Friday night with a group of young people from part of Northern Ireland where loyalist paramilitaries are very active. Indeed, the young people themselves had identified dealing with paramilitaries as one of the top four issues which young people in their area had to face. They were anxious about even voicing this concern, and very unsure about what could be done.

That concern is mirrored by the Voices behind the Statistics research. In a series of “talkshops” young people shared their views about living in Northern Ireland. One young person said

“One of my friends had so much stick from republican paramilitaries, and because of all the bother he hung himself there last year, because he couldn’t handle it anymore.”

The great majority of the participants in the Voices research agreed that paramilitaries were too influential, and that this affected making progress with the peace process.

The sad reality is that in Northern Ireland paramilitaries shoot and beat children. I am grateful to Dr Liam Kennedy of Queen University for highlighting this issue and these statistics. In the three years from 2001 to 2003 there was an average of 20 children under the age of 18 shot by paramilitary organizations each year. Over the same period there was an average of 27 children assaulted by paramilitary organizations. These figures are split almost equally between republican and loyalist organizations but of course they are only the incidents that are actually reported. Many do not get referred to the police who keep the statistics..

Assault is too bland a word for what actually happens. I want us all to think about what actually happens to almost 50 – perhaps more- young people each year. I want each person listening to this to imagine what it must be like for a teenager – no matter their apparent bravado – to be dragged away by men in masks, men holding guns, men holding instruments of torture.

I want you to imagine what it must be like to have the barrel of a gun pressed against your knee and then the trigger pulled. I want you to imagine what it is like to have a baseball bat or a hurley stick smashed into your ankle or knee until the bone shatters. If you can even imagine the terror or pain you will know that this has to stop.

I want this to stop. It should stop – it must stop, now. No young person should live in fear. No young person should be told he has to leave the country.

I want you to imagine a large classroom packed with young people. Look around – you’ll see a boy there with a profound limp. He has a new knee. His last one was blown away by a bullet. The boy to his side – he can’t hold a pen or work at a computer. The bones and tendons in his hands were destroyed when he tried to stop men beating him with sticks studded with nails.

You’ll see another teenager beside him. He won’t talk back. He’s emotionally scarred so badly he won’t communicate with you. You’ll also see empty seats. They’re there for the ones who were told they had to get out of Northern Ireland or be killed. There are also empty seats for the young people who killed themselves because they could not take anymore.

This is not exaggeration. This has been happening year in, year out.

How dare anyone say this is acceptable! How dare any group try to condone this!

Behind these vicious assaults lie a continuing campaign of intimidation and vigilante rule in areas across Northern Ireland. There are differences between loyalist and republican paramilitaries in the way they exercise their power, but the outcome of fear and intimidation is the same. The terror they visit on children and young people is no different. In many areas it is these groups who are the local drug barons, who make young people addicted and then terrorise them when they can’t pay for the drugs.

I believe to have a new society in Northern Ireland for all our children we have to stand up to the influence of the paramilitaries. In the Voices research the most cited reason why young people would consider leaving Northern Ireland was the impact that paramilitaries have on their lives either directly or indirectly.

How do we do that? Well, I believe we have to find ways as a society of showing that enough is enough. We have to stand with young people who are hurt and assaulted and show that we do care for them.

There are challenges for the police, for in some areas people still look to the paramilitaries to help them when things go wrong. One young person said to me last Friday, “If my motorbike is stolen, I would trust the paramilitaries to get it back for me more than I would trust the police – they don’t do enough”

We have to show people who the paramilitaries want to leave Northern Ireland that they are still welcome here, and that it is the paramilitaries we want to give up their violent campaigns

Paramilitaries have no place in the future we want to build for Northern Ireland. They have no place in the future we are building for those who are in early childhood today.

I am prepared to put my position on the line for this. This is a gross breach of human rights and a gross breach of children’s rights. Children should not grow up in fear of being beaten by hooded mobs.

My office is currently in the middle of a consultation about the issues that we should be focusing on over the next three years. One of those issues we have highlighted is the impact of the troubles, and especially paramilitaries on children. I am anxious to hear from anyone in Northern Ireland how they feel we can tackle this issue. We may need more confidential ways of people sharing their stories, we probably need more up front protests by politicians and people like me, and we need to help young people themselves to speak out and say they do not want their society to continue like this.

I do not have time to go into broader strategies for tackling sectarianism, and indeed the racism that we are increasingly encountering in our society. I just note that one of the key recommendations coming out of the Voices research from young people was that there should be greater provision of integrated education. Young people themselves believe this would help produce a more inclusive and peaceful community.

My second point for a new society is that we need to have political progress that embraces at its heart listening more to the views of young people. When the team undertaking NICCY’s research gave children and young people the chance to volunteer the issues that most concerned them, one that came out top was the desire to have their say.

Young people are frustrated and feel that often they are not listened to at home, they are not listened to at school, and that they are anonymous in the wider society when politicians are reaching decisions that will have a fundamental affect on them.

Although in Northern Ireland we have a specific duty under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to look out for the interests of different groups who potentially might be discriminated against like disabled people and those from black and ethnic minority groups, and indeed children and young people, the actual execution of that duty in relation to those under 18 is patchy.

Too often consultation with young people is inconsistent and not followed through. As one young person told the NICCY researchers about consultation “you hear over and over again that all this stuff is going to happen and then you never hear about it again”.

We desperately need our politicians to give a lead in both agreeing to work together for the best future of Northern Ireland, and then listening to young people. Sadly the image of politicians here amongst young people is very poor – I know that is true of other countries but it is especially bad here. A typical view of a young person in the Voices research was that “Northern Ireland politicians are bigoted and in no position to move the peace agreement forwards.”

Only the politicians can rectify their own image. But we can do more to get young people involved in decision making on issues that matter to them. I believe we need to start in schools, and develop structures that genuinely listen to students and give them a much greater say in how schools are run.

I know that many head teachers find this a difficult concept to grapple with – they feel that at best it has limited relevance and at worse it is threatening and undermining. Those who have gone done the road of empowering their pupils think differently. When I challenged Dame Geraldine Keegan of St Mary’s High School in the Creggan Estate – a disadvantaged area of Derry – as to how she would persuade others to introduce a more democratic approach to running their school, she simply said “look at my exam results”. In the competitive school environment of Northern Ireland that is definitely an approach that will win favour.

My final issue for building a new society is that we need to see from Government a commitment to resource the strategies that are put in place to help children and young people. Northern Ireland seems to be going through a glut of strategies at the moment. A 10 year Children’s Strategy will shortly be published, a Youth Work strategy is currently out for consultation, and a major review is underway in relation to mental health and learning disability. I welcome these documents. I think it is important that government has a clear overview of where services for children and young people are going.

I do however have two concerns. First, that strategies do not always address the most difficult issues. For example we have huge problems with inadequate Children and Adolescent Mental Health services in Northern Ireland. This has a knock on affect with the most vulnerable children who may be disruptive at school, may be in the care of government because their parents can’t cope and may be in the criminal justice system. This issue seems to get passed from pillar to post with different strategic exercises when what is needed is action.

My second concern is that we need long term funding to implement strategies. There is much short term funding and special initiatives to handle particular issues both within the voluntary and statutory sectors. This produces uncertainty and makes it impossible to produce long term coordinated plans. It also can lead to unhealthy competition for funding and potential duplication of services. Where short term funding is dealing with long term problems it needs to be mainstreamed.

That is why I am so concerned that the special Children’s Fund which was set up when we last had a local assembly here now appears to be being ditched by our current Ministers. Such funds need to be mainstreamed rather than removed altogether. If we are to build a new society for children we need not only strategies to do it, but the funding as well.

In conclusion, I am often asked if I am hopeful about the future for children in Northern Ireland. I always answer, without hesitation that I am. As you will have seen this week, we live in a beautiful country with immensely talented young people. Yes we have our problems but I am full of hope. But we do need to tackle some of the things that are rotten and wrong in our society.

We must deal with the paramilitaries – that is a matter of life and death.

We must give children a much bigger voice and opportunity to be involved – that is a matter of human rights.

We must ensure we have the right strategies and right funding in place – that is a matter of securing long term change in our society for the most needy and vulnerable.

Thank you.