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Belfast Telegraph Young Editors give Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness a testing time

The First Minister Peter Robinson is challenged on many crunch issues

Q How do you and the Executive plan to combat the fact that two-thirds of young people plan to leave Northern Ireland for their future?

A It's not in our interests that our young people leave. We very much need to keep young people here in Northern Ireland and I'm glad that we are starting to bring the kind of jobs that will encourage people to stay here.

We have been able to have more high-level jobs that attract above-medium salaries. There are opportunities in most professions, whether the legal profession, bringing in people like Allen & Overy, Herbert Smith Freehills, Axiom, all companies who will pick up law graduates. You've also got companies such as Allstate, New York Exchange, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, all picking up jobs in financial services.

We have a range of business services job and hopefully there will be good news in that sector in the next number of days.

More and more, we are providing the type of jobs that people may have left Northern Ireland to get. But we also need to continue to improve the environment in Northern Ireland so that we have a society which is stable and peaceful.

Q The majority of young people don't believe there is peace here. What do you say to us?

A I lived in a generation when I was your age that there was literally fighting in the street, bombs and shootings every day. There's been very considerable progress. Northern Ireland has changed immeasurably since those days but it still has a lot further to go. But we are seeing those changes. People who never would have considered bringing jobs to Northern Ireland are now doing so.

It's dealing with maintaining the momentum, continuing to make those changes while recognising that we are dealing with literally centuries of division in our society, and that doesn't happen quickly. If you are trying to bring a society along, you have to remember that people move at different speeds.

Q How does the Assembly plan to tackle alcohol and substance abuse among young people, particularly considering the recent Hardwell event at the Odyssey?

A I'm convinced that you have to have a legal framework, but an awful lot more of it is our culture and the education around these issues. I think that's where the bulk of our effort needs to go, to let young people see what the outcomes and consequences of the abuse of alcohol or taking non-prescription drugs are.

The reality is that young people in particular are keen to experiment and that can be very dangerous.

We have taken steps in relation to alcohol and the issues around that as an Executive. It depends whether you feel that you should live in a nanny state.

I think that state has a responsibility to make you aware of what the dangers are, backed up by a legal framework.

But ultimately where there is a legal framework or not, people will get round the issue. Education, in my view, is the core of it and it has to be education in a form that young people will find interesting and understand.

Q The majority, 70% of young people in our poll, think that our politicians can't agree a mutual, shared future. The disagreement on the welfare reforms with the Deputy First Minister seems to reinforce this to young people. What do you agree or disagree on?

A Let's leave welfare reform out of it as that's got nothing to do with a shared future.

Politicians everywhere in the world, without exception, even in closed societies, will disagree on issues of the economy and other matters as well.

In terms of a shared future, Martin McGuinness and I probably do have an agreed view on substantial elements of a shared future. T

here might be people around Royal Avenue for whom you may be acting for this week who take this view that somehow we have this peace-loving and enlightened society held down by politicians who are backward and have baggage.

I think that this generation of politicians have gone further than any of their predecessors in terms to trying to move society forward in these issues.

When we took decisions that were thought to be unthinkable, to come together in an administration, we were giving leadership.

When we reached agreement on policing and justice being devolved to Northern Ireland, something that 20, 30 years ago would have been impossible.

Three issues eluded us. However, very considerable progress was made as the broad architecture under the Haass talks was generally agreed, and even in the leaders' discussions since that, I think we have narrowed the gap even further. Politicians have agreed very significant elements of very controversial issues, but we haven't been able to close all of the matters that need to be dealt with. I'm convinced that we will.

Q But 70% is a big number for young people thinking that?

A If I had been asked the question (that was in the Belfast Telegraph), I would have been with the 70%, because the way the question was asked, it's the same thing. If you ask a silly question, you get silly answers.

The question was asked, 'Do you think they will ever agree about the future?' and the answer is no, we won't.

Martin McGuinness wants a united Ireland, I want to remain in the United Kingdom. Will we agree? No. That's the simple answer to it. However, if it's about how we deal with the present circumstances, then you will get a much higher level of agreement.

We have agreed how we operate within the Assembly, we have agreed that the future will be determined democratically by the people themselves and the mechanisms to do that.

Q While 82% of young people support non-segregated education in Northern Ireland, only 5.8% of Northern Ireland schools provide this. How does the Executive plan to promote integrated education?

A I'm with the angels on this one. I fully support a shared and integrated system of education.

The first party conference I ever went to back in the Seventies, I put forward the motion on integrated education, so I have been consistent.

When I raised the issue several years ago I got lambasted for doing so. I'm glad to say that there has been very considerable movement towards that position of late.

The Executive now has a policy on shared education, it's in our Programme for Government and it's moving forward. I see that as a step towards a fully integrated system as I think it's very difficult to go from where we are to where we want to be in one step.

It's a process which is under way – the shared campus at Lisanally in Omagh is a good start where we are bringing six schools together.

I can't think it won't be too long down the road before somebody will say if we are all on the same site, why can't we share some costs by doing various classes together, and you start building it up from there.

Q Do you think that it's the older generation that has problems with reconciliation?

A I have to say that that was my view until I had a bitter experience. It was that bitter experience that led me to issues such as the 10,000 placements for young people. But I see and welcome the openness that I see in young people today.

During the course of the flags protests I noticed a very substantial group of young people from the Protestant community coming back from the protest at the City Hall and a very substantial group of young people at Short Strand, where I witnessed the abuse they hurled from one side to the other. When I looked at the age of the young people that were there, none of them were alive at the time of the Troubles.

They hadn't gone through the experiences that my generation had gone through. I could help but ask myself if they didn't go through that experience, where did their antagonism come from? It can only come from their families and their communities, so while, overwhelmingly, people mainly get on together, there are still clearly defined areas in our province where that is not the case.

Q We would have loved to have interviewed you and the First Minister together. Why did that not happen?

A I've no idea, I assume it's purely a diary commitment issue. There's nothing unusual about that. There's barely a day when we are both in the province that we are not meeting together.

A selfie Stormont-style as our Young Editors take a snap of themselves with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness answers tough questions

Q How do you and the Executive plan to combat the fact that two-thirds of young people plan to leave Northern Ireland for their future?

A I think what you have to do is examine the reasons why young people think they need to say that.

From what I can ascertain, it’s that people are pretty despondent about the situation on the ground; there’s a feeling that the conflict is continuing by other means.

What I’m interested in is that we create local jobs for our young people, that our entrepreneurs are supported, whether they are in Magherafelt, Maghera, Derry or Belfast.

There are clear signs over the last 13 months that we are beginning to pull out of it, so we must be doing something right.

Q The majority of young people don’t believe there is peace here. What do you say to us?

A It’s important to remember that all of you were born after the ceasefire in 1994, so you don’t know what life was like before that. I can tell you it was very much different.

It’s quite obvious that those who have been involved in the violence on the streets is due to the failure to deal with the past, which is why we brought in Richard Haass.

There are people in our society who are still hostile to the peace process. Who are they?

They are the unrepresentative so-called dissident republicans who think it’s a good idea to kill people.

But there are also those in the extreme of loyalism and unionism that are as hostile to the peace process as these other people. I think we have to take seriously the despondency there is amongst sections of our community about the failure of politician leaders to find solutions to these problems.

At the same time, a lot of good work that has been done here by the Executive and in the Assembly has been overshadowed by what’s happening on the streets in relation to the flag protests and parades. And the whole issue with the past.

Q How does the Assembly plan to tackle alcohol and substance abuse among young people, particularly considering the recent Hardwell event at the Odyssey?

A That was one of the most serious situations that we faced in recent times, particularly as we were dealing with people who were very young.

The principal responsibility lies with the Department of Health, but it’s also the responsibility of every single department, including our own. I think what is really important, and I think that education has a huge role to play as well, is that we have to tackle these issues head-on in the schools.

We have to tackle them within the community as there is a drinking culture that has really been to our detriment over many, many generations.

I think that there is a huge job of work to be done in Belfast and the island of Ireland. It requires a joined-up approach by all Government departments.

The spin-offs for all of this is the unacceptable level of young people taking their own lives, which is a really, really, worrying thing the length and breadth of the country.

Q While 82% of young people support non-segregated education in Northern Ireland, only 5.8% of Northern Ireland schools provide this. How does the Executive plan to promote integrated education?

A I think people are entitled to choice. No matter what they say in polls, families choose to send their kids to these schools. What we are dealing with is a major history of segregation. Peter Robinson and I are on record that if we had a blank sheet of paper, then we would have a fully integrated education system. But we have been given a legacy with this history. What I would like to see is an evolutionary process towards this, and as a stepping stone to this is the Lisanally project in Omagh, and the department has plans to invite other interest from education and library board areas. It is an important staging post and I think it’s important for us to progress those schemes as quickly as possible.

I think the progressing of these schemes will heighten people’s interest within communities, those who might be reluctant at the moment to recognise that a well-rounded education system’s what we really do need, to face up to these problems of having our children educated away from each other.

Where Peter and I are not in agreement is the damage that I think has been done by academic selection, where you particularly see in the Catholic education section, where people are moving away from, because I think to divide our young people at such an early age is wrong.

Q The majority — 70% of young people in our poll — think that our politicians can’t agree a mutual, shared future. The disagreement over welfare reform with the |First Minister seems to reinforce this to young people. What do you agree or disagree on?

A We have taken thousands of decisions as an Executive about the future. There is a problem around what is described on one hand as welfare reform, and on the other as welfare cuts. What we are dealing with is a scenario where the aim of the Westminster Government is to reduce the welfare budget. In a society like ours, it has to be calculated how it will impact on the poorest, most marginalised of our people.

So I don’t apologise to anybody for standing up for people who are experiencing huge difficulties in their lives. At the same time we are still working on how to take this further over the next couple of weeks to see if we can find a way forward.

It’s a very difficult issue, but let’s not try and portray the situation that everybody up here is paralysed and we can’t agree on nothing. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

We agree on lots of things. And the things that we don’t agree on, well, that’s just politics. We have to grasp the nettle on these difficult issues that still divide us. There is tremendous interest internationally in the peace process here. Despite the often cynical views here, this is seen as a hugely successful peace process. But it does have flaws. The next stage of the process, in terms of the process, has to be around a recognition to bring our communities together and end the division.

I think that Sinn Fein was the party that was the most whole-hearted in accepting the Haass proposals while other parties eventually came on board.

All of this overshadows a lot of good work that is happening. Peter Robinson and I travel the world, most recently to the USA, and even in the face of world economic downturn we have been more successful in attracting foreign inward investment than any other period of time.

Q Do you think that it’s the older generation that has problems with reconciliation?

A Sectarianism needs to be broken down. It can only be broken down by politicians giving real leadership, to be seen to be working together for the benefit of the whole community.

For instance, extraordinary things happened in Derry for last year’s City of Culture and we were told that people from the South wouldn’t come up, as they were afraid. We had over 430,000 people travelling to the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann, it was the biggest ever. The organisers outreached to loyalist flute bands in the north west area and four agreed. I was absolutely behind that project. They were told that it might be a bit sensitive to play The Sash. Well, they played it at the end and everyone applauded. That’s absolutely exactly what I want to see.

I was there at the BBC Big Weekend where there wasn’t a bit of trouble, and that tells me that young people are miles ahead of the older generation and miles ahead of the politicians. I was very, very proud of the young people who came into the city and recognised that they were part of something that was very important.

It sends a very salutary lessons to us as politicians that young people don't want to live in the past, they want to live in the future.

Q We would have loved to have interviewed you and the First Minister together. Why did that not happen?

A Well, whenever the request came in, I immediately agreed. All for it for the two of us to be together. Never had a problem with that at all.

Interviews by Young Editors — Callum Sweetlove, Christopher Seeley, Michael McGrane, Maya McCloskey, Racheal Adamson and Kate Umphray.

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