Four years seem to have flashed by since I took on the role of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People on 2nd March 2015. I was appointed by the First and Deputy First Ministers for my first four year term and it’s with determination and a sense of pride that I enter into my second.
I want to take this opportunity to reflect on the rollercoaster that has been my first four years in office. Whilst the lack of an Assembly and Executive has meant that tangible progress has been slower than hoped for in some areas, there has nonetheless been real progress made.
On arrival in NICCY I set my key priority areas as educational inequalities, child poverty and mental and emotional wellbeing. In the NICCY staff, I found a group of professionals who responded to these priorities with enthusiasm and determination. Finite resources mean that we cannot be proactive in all areas of children’s and young people’s lives which need addressed so priorities have to be established.
We reached out to young people across Northern Ireland to ask them what they thought of our priorities and this culminated with the ‘Your Voice Matters’ Conference in November 2015. Young people agreed with the priorities but highlighted other issues of importance particularly bullying, LGBT+ rights and the legacy of the conflict, particularly attacks on young people by armed gangs. So we responded, adjusted our priorities and met the challenge accordingly.
If I was to recount every engagement I get to, this would be a book not a blog! I recall so many lovely occasions not least my dismissal by a 3 year old for not knowing the difference between a dumper truck and a digger (a mistake I will not be making again!), or the primary school child who held up her right arm when I asked the group if they knew what their rights were! Then there was the 2 year old who insisted that I hold her during a speech and proceeded to tell everyone what I was looking at and stole the show! And of course the ‘Box of Hopes’ that a school gave me to look after for them.
There are of course, the more serious issues that I do wish to highlight. I arrived as Commissioner when the UK Government was preparing to be scrutinised by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child on its delivery on the UNCRC. Taking a role in the preparations for the evidence sessions in Geneva was an amazing experience, not only to work with colleagues, the UK Commissioners and NGOs but most importantly with young people from all 4 jurisdictions to discuss children’s rights. One memorable session ended with a young woman from Northern Ireland reminding us that what we were talking about was not abstract, but in fact the ongoing reality of her everyday life.
By the autumn of 2016 it was apparent that ‘Brexit’ had to become a focus of our work as the possible adverse impacts on the lives of children living across Northern Ireland became clearer. I am again very proud of the way the staff and young people of NICCY responded to this challenge. NICCY and our counterparts in the Ombudsman for Children Office (in the South) supported young people to plan, design and run a conference in November 2017. “It’s Our Brexit Too” was attended by 140 young people from across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to share their views, hopes and fears about Brexit with over 40 decision makers. The publication of the report in early 2018 gave NICCY the mandate to engage with all relevant authorities in NI, GB and the EU which we did, including leading a delegation of young people to Westminster and Brussels.
Austerity measures meant that NICCY has undergone considerable reorganisation in recent years but we have again met the challenge and continued to work to issue advice and guidance, review and scrutinise government and support families and carers in addressing breaches of children’s rights. The breadth of the work produced has been phenomenal. We have continued to monitor the implementation of recommendations from the Marshall Review into Child Sexual Exploitation, monitored the implementation of the UN Committee’s Concluding Observations, provided an overview of educational inequalities in NI, issued the inaugural ‘Statement on Children’s Rights NI’ promoted the importance of ‘child rights budgeting’ and issued participation guidance; and of course published ‘Still Waiting, a Child’s Rights Review of Mental Health Services in NI’.
We will be relentless in making sure our Calls and Recommendations across all areas of our work, are implemented and that none gather dust on a shelf. This is the benchmark by which we will continue to measure our effectiveness and impact.
One of the great privileges of my first term has been the opportunity to directly engage with over 11,000 children and young people from all over Northern Ireland. I have reminded them that children’s rights are not a ‘pie in the sky’ ideal but a reality that they experience in their everyday lives. They have reminded me of their desire to take an active role in making their voices heard. Children and young people must be partners with us in making their rights a reality.
I am recently on record as being “gutted” that an absence of government in Northern Ireland has led to a lack of progress. I strongly feel that the longer the situation continues, the further we let our children down. The evidence is clear that our children and particularly those most vulnerable, need policies, laws and services which meet their needs and promote their rights in 2019 and beyond. Getting by is not good enough.
However, the optimism shared by our children and young people is infectious and inspiring. I am lucky to have met with School Councils, Youth Groups and of course the NI Youth Assembly over the past four years. I have, without exception, been overwhelmed by their progressiveness, acceptance of difference and determination to build a peaceful and shared Northern Ireland. We do them a disservice by not sharing their hope and working to realise it.