Ministers, MEP, MLAs, guests – hello and thank you for giving me the opportunity to address you at the start of Age Awareness Week.
Given the topic I was wondering whether I should declare an interest by stating my age, but I’ll leave that for you to guess! Answers on the lower side please!
Of course, when it comes to Age Awareness it has too often been seen as a negative thing. We hear things like:
“You’re too old for that job!”
“You’re too young to do that!”
“We want someone with a more youthful outlook!”
“We want someone with more experience!”
These are phrases that too often epitomise the debate around Age.
I believe that the debate needs to focus on the more positive. What we need to hear should be:
“We need your experience!”
“Your youthful outlook will enhance our team!”
We need to hear phrases that affirm age awareness as a good thing.
In my day-to-day work I meet and work with many children and young people.
These are the very same young people castigated as being antisocial yobs, or being passive recipients of adult’s decision-making, such as in the education debate.
I can tell you that we in Northern Ireland need to be aware that whether we are talking about younger or older the stereotypes are worthless. They cloud real discussion.
Yes, there are some young people who are yobs
Yes, there are some older people who are grumpy old men
But they are the minority.
Although I admit I used to work with some grumpy old men here at Stormont!
Just because you’re not old enough to vote, doesn’t mean your views are less valid. Just because you collect your bus pass doesn’t mean you become instantly infirm and forgetful.
We must push past the clichés.
Part of the reason I agreed to speak to you today is to help inform the debate on the an Older People’s Commissioner, a debate I know that everyone involved in the Changing Ageing Partnership wants to be engaged in as fully as possible.
In that context I believe it would be useful to outline what my job is.
As Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People my job is described simply as:
Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people to help them challenge and change the world in which they live.
But most importantly – my job is to give children and young people in Northern Ireland a voice.
And that’s all children and young people up to 18 in Northern Ireland. No exceptions. No exclusions.
I can also work on behalf of young people up to 21 in two special cases – disabled children and young people who have been in the care system.
My Role is three fold:
- To act as an Ombudsman for children and young people, through our legal and complaints work;
- To carry out research and reviews into services to ensure the rights of children are met.
- To communicate widely with children and young people and with the general public about the work of the office and about the rights children in Northern Ireland are entitled to
I believe these are good places to start your thinking about how older people should be represented too.
But, just as I believe one of the most important parts of my job is listening to children and young people, so anyone becoming an ombudsman or commissioner for older people will have to listen – and heed – what older people are saying.
When that has been done – the real question comes as to whether a commissioner can make an impact.
On Wednesday the post of Commissioner for Children and Young People will have been in place for five years.
I can confidently say that I those five years NICCY has had an impact.
We have had an impact on individual children through our legal and complaints service.
We have had an impact by helping improve services by influencing Government.
We have had an impact on understanding children’s lives through our research into issues and services.
We have had an impact by communicating to all concerned the reality of how children live in Northern Ireland today.
I believe that together we can all make an impact on lives of all ages as long as we are aware of what people of all ages have to say and listen to what they say.
I’ll leave you with this thought from the radical American campaigner for the rights of older people, Maggie Kuhn.
“The great secret that all old people share is that you really haven’t changed in seventy or eighty years. Your body changes, but you don’t at all. And that, of course, causes great confusion.”
I’d add to that by saying that when we campaign for rights and better services, it initially causes confusion – but later we find great clarity by making an impact