“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else.”
So, when a cold wintry day two and a half years ago I helped lead 108 young people from the very bottom of the long road to the very top of the steps of this building I was optimistic that one day a youth assembly would sit in these hallowed halls of debate.
We, who that day posed for photographs with politicians and listened to the questions posed by pundits, held aloft an aspiration that one day the views, opinions and thoughts of young people will be heard – and listened to.
Just a few short years ago the very thought of even talking to young people about issues that affect them day and daily would have seemed alien.
At best a tokenistic event would take place. A debate or workshop would take place and the young people would walk away with one sure and certain impression – the impression that their views may have been listened to but not heard, that their opinions had widely been ignored and their thoughts would not lead to change.
Thankfully that has started to change.
There has been a positive mind shift on the participation of children and young people in the decision making process.
The social, political and legislative environment, more than ever, supports and sometimes, demands that children and young people are involved in decision making processes.
So, I am sure that everyone in this room – and beyond – will welcome the details of a Northern Ireland Youth Assembly that are being announced today.
We should also toast the fact that young people have been involved in the design of the Youth Assembly. After all, who better to ask about young people than young people themselves!
This is a tremendous opportunity to enshrine new, meaningful participation of young people. It is also an opportunity to set an example to every other part of Government, to every other department and to each and every public organisation.
But with every opportunity comes challenges. We need to make sure that the Youth Assembly is open to all. We need to make sure that there are direct and meaningful relationships with decision-makers, for example the Ministerial sub-committee on children and young people.
We need to make sure that the members of the Youth Assembly keeps track of Government performance on key issues that affect children and young people such as the 10-year action plan, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child’s Concluding Observations.
And, we need to make sure that the Youth Assembly develops links with other groups such as the emerging Network for Youth and the structures being set up by the Review of Public Administration.
However, when I look back to shivering on the steps of Stormont with 108 young people I was warmed by their enthusiasm. So, I have to say that in chilly January I am warmed by the actions of the Assembly Commission.
They deserve credit for taking their time in developing the Youth Assembly and getting it right. Our youth assembly should – and I believe will be – a shining example of participation throughout Europe and beyond.
I conclude with these words:
The best way to predict the future is to create it
Thank you one and all for taking the time to create a future in which young people take part in democracy.