Commissioner Speaking at Sacred Heart College Prize Giving

15 December 2009

Good evening everyone, boys, girls, ladies and gentlemen

Thank you very much for inviting me to be here at your Prizing giving. I am delighted to be able to share this evening with you. It is on nights like tonight that we can all recognise the valuable contribution that each of you make to your family, your school and your community.

My job gives me a really cool title of being called the Children’s Commissioner, but put simply, my role is:

Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people like you to help them challenge and change the world in they live in. 

And that’s all children and young people up to 18 (or up to 21 if you have a disability or live in care) in Northern Ireland. No exceptions.  No exclusions.

I represent young people who were born here and young people who have moved here. We live in a multi-cultural society – and I know you have a multi-cultural school population – and my job is to make sure all children and young people are protected and have their rights upheld.

But most importantly my job is to ensure children and young people in Northern Ireland have a voice. However, it’s not only giving children and young people their voice but its also listening to children and young people to hear what they have to say, and sometimes, we as adults forget how to listen.

Being in Omagh tonight it would be remiss of me not to mention the tragic happenings at Lammy Crescent.  We know that 13 year old Caroline bravely spoke up and asked for help, reaching out to the authorities that had a duty to protect her. Her voice was heard but she was not listened to.

I am not sure whether the authorities thought that because Caroline was only 13 years of age that she couldn’t speak for herself.  With hindsight, had Caroline have been listened to perhaps the outcome might have been very different.  Part of my job is to ensure lessons are learned from this and that in future the voice of young people is listened to, taken seriously and acted upon. (pause) The families and the local community are in all our thoughts and prayers.

Too often our young people are portrayed in a less than positive light. Negative stereotyping of young people delivers a perception that young people are not trustworthy and not reliable/ dependable.

The media too often report the bad and forget the good. No one is denying that some young people do get involved in criminal behaviour and the justice system needs to deal with them appropriately.  Reading our main daily newspapers, listening to mainstream stations and watching television it is easy to get the impression that all young people are involved in this kind of behaviour, but in reality it is only a very small minority. 

Local media also have a responsibility to report the positive activities of our young people. We at NICCY would encourage this and will continue to share our positive news with them.

My youth panel carried out an analysis into how the main daily newspapers perceive young people to mark International Youth Day last August.

Over a four-day period, Youth Panel members looked at coverage in the Belfast Telegraph, Irish News, News Letter and Daily Mirror and identified articles as positive, negative or neutral towards both children and young people. 

They found that almost three quarters of the articles about young people over the age of 11 years old were portrayed in a negative light. When reporting on children under the age of 11 years old the Youth Panel found that the daily newspapers portrayed them in a more favourable way with more than 80 per cent of the coverage identified as positive.

As one of our panel members said “As soon as a child leaves primary school they don’t automatically become bad, so why is this image being portrayed in some of our newspapers. On a daily basis we are faced with problems when trying to socialise in public spaces or access shops.”

In future, we at NICCY would like to see our local media address the language they use when reporting on young people as they can help play a vital role in changing attitudes towards them.

I stand before you tonight and I look out at a large number young people, some making their way through school, others getting ready to move on to the next exciting chapter in their life – maybe work, maybe university or maybe travelling.

We have already heard about some of the many positive achievements by pupils of Sacred Heart College and are about to see many awards given out. Awards for Arts; for Sports; for Music and for helping others less fortunate than themselves. Special Awards too that recognise Endeavour, Enrichment and Outstanding Contribution to school life.

Endeavour, enrichment and outstanding contribution – think about these words for a second….. These are not words usually associated with young people in the media…. but these are words that represent the majority of young people in this country.

As a member of society, it’s my job… it’s your job…it’s everyone’s job to counteract the negativity associated with young people wherever they can and ensure the good news shines through.

And finally to finish on a quotation from Frederick Douglass who in 1872 was the 1st black vice-presidential candidate in the USA with Equal Rights Party:

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

Thank you very much for asking me to be here tonight and I wish you all the very best for the future.