I want to start by wishing you all a very Happy Christmas and great New Year, and I want to particularly welcome the Syrian families who have recently joined our community.
When I started this job I promised myself that I would write a blog on a regular basis, at least every two months, although preferably every month. Well that clearly hasn't worked out! As with many people at the moment, this has been a really busy period, with so much going on, albeit with many, many highlights and a few challenges.
I have met and talked with many children and young people, who on every occasion, have given me greater insight into their expectations of their Commissioner and this has certainly focused the mind.
Since the summer, NICCY colleagues talked to in the region of 400 young people from across NI, aged between 8 to 21 and from a variety of schools and youth organisations. They asked them what they thought about the priorities I have identified, and other issues facing them. They confirmed that our priorities were important but also raised a number of other issues which can be broadly summed up in the categories of safety, a society emerging out of conflict, and respect. Many young people do not feel safe to be who they are - particularly if they are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender in school or in their community. Community safety remains a key concern particularly the presence of paramilitary type organisations, which can mean young people’s lives continue to be adversely impacted by their activities. Again the feeling of a lack of respect from adults such as members of the PSNI, bus drivers and shopkeepers makes everyday life uncomfortable and difficult.
The first phase of the ‘Your Voice Matters’ conversation culminated in a young people lead event to mark Universal Children’s Rights Day on Thursday 18th November. Over 100 children and young people, with a vast array of life experiences from across NI, took part in the event. A the event we heard about plans for new campaigns which were designed by the young people themselves, who will also be taking these forward, with when necessary and when possible, NICCY’s support. There was a clear message from the young people at both this event and the one we ran the 9th December, as part of the Human Rights Festival, on “Building a Peaceful future”. They made it clear that they also want to be involved in the discussions and plans for the future of NI, and it is outrageous that they have been excluded to such an extent that they feel so marginalised and ignored through the “peace” processes. They wanted it to be remembered that today many of the children of Northern Ireland are living with the impacts of a conflict not of their making, and which supposedly ended before they were born.
We will be initiating the next stages of this engagement alongside recruitment to the NICCY Youth Panel in the New Year. This will include the publication of the process to date, and a clear plan as to how we will address the issues raised.
Another highlight in the autumn was being involved in the UNCRC reporting process. Together with NI NGOs, led by Children’s Law Centre and Save the Children and the NIHRC, we hosted the UN Committee Task Force Members’ visit to NI. We were joined by NI young people to give evidence to the Committee in October alongside the other three UK jurisdictions. It was an honour to be part of such a united group, and although we represented the smallest jurisdiction we had the clearest messages and the ‘most mentions’ by the Committee. The meeting ended when the Chair invited the young people to have a final say. NI went last with the result that the final voice heard by the Committee was a young woman who reminded us all that we were discussing the realities of her life. She reiterated the importance of social workers and others “not doing to” but “working with” children and young people, and engaging with them properly in all processes that affect their lives. It was an incredibly powerful and poignant ending to the session.
One of the general measures of implementation of the UNCRC is co-ordination, and so we all celebrated when several years of hard work by NGOs, statutory bodies and politicians culminated with the introduction of the statutory duty to co-operate through the passing of the Children Services Act in November. Steven Agnew MLA has shown what determination and partnership can actually achieve.
I remain deeply concerned about Age GFS and we are in continual discussion with relevant people to ensure that the all age inclusive legislation is introduced as soon as is possible.
Oversight and monitoring are key functions of NICCY and we will be working to ensure effective implementation of a number of improvement processes which have been introduced by Government - particularly in relation to Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE) and youth justice reforms.
The Autumn and early winter was very busy for NICCY and this blog would have to run to several volumes to outline them all, however, I hope you have been keeping track of our work and activities through our website, twitter feed, FaceBook page and ezine.