Young people are showing how democracy should actually work
Next week’s Assembly election has been described as the most important in a generation. With Sinn Fein predicted to emerge as the largest party for the first time, the election holds huge symbolic significance.
It has raised questions about the constitutional future of Northern Ireland and what that would mean for power-sharing, and therefore it feels markedly different to other local elections in the rest of the UK.
It is always interesting to tap into the public mood around elections, and the atmosphere in Northern Ireland is certainly heightened. Some people feel a sense of frustration and tension around this election, and others feel anticipation and excitement.
Unsurprisingly, the cost-of-living crisis is the bread and butter issue which appears to be driving the candidates’ campaigns. Parties across the political spectrum want to show that they care about what voters care about: rising fuel prices, food security, healthcare, housing and education.
This year, more women are standing for election than ever before. The percentage of female candidates varies between Northern Ireland’s five main political parties: women make up 56% of Sinn Fein candidates, 50% of Alliance candidates, 45% of SDLP candidates, 33% of UUP candidates and 25% of DUP candidates.
As a young person, it has also been interesting to observe how the youth wings of the leading political parties have heavily engaged in electoral campaigning. Yet, with just over one week to go, many people still know very little about these youth factions.
For so long, there has been an acute focus on youth disengagement from political structures and systems. Many young people choose to be active through non-traditional forms of politics, like social media, demonstrating an inherent distrust of political leaders and formal party politics.
In the context of Northern Ireland, youth disengagement from politics is somewhat bound up with our ‘brain drain’ problem: educated or professional people leaving Northern Ireland for a better standard of living somewhere else. We also experience high levels of educational migration, with over a third of Northern Irish students opting to study abroad.
The political landscape in Northern Ireland is one of the reasons that many of these students never return home. There is a widely-held feeling among young people that ‘things never progress’ with the political situation in Northern Ireland. That Northern Ireland is ‘backward’ and ‘stuck in the past’.
In some ways, public attention has been so intensely focused on this issue that we have forgotten about the youth wing of political parties.
These youth wings are made up of young people who are politically active. Youth members are aged somewhere between 15 and 30, and a party’s youth faction therefore offers a helpful glimpse of what these parties may look like in the future.
Yet, despite their activities, we generally know very little about them, what they advocate for, and how much influence they hold.
This year, youth wings of political parties across the country have been an electoral force. They have canvassed with their mother parties, advocated on social issues and engaged in public-facing events.
Due to the disruption to education provoked by Covid-19 pandemic, these youth wings have significantly increased in size. Young people are now more politically engaged because the past two years has taught us about how political structures operate.
The youth wings of political parties are therefore a channel of engagement for young people, providing a space for them to formulate opinions on social issues and think about solutions.
Political parties are often seen as an important recruitment base, but many young party members are not motivated to join because they aspire to have a career in politics. In fact, in contrast to their mother parties, it is not uncommon for youth members to ‘grow out’ of the party as their political ideologies shift and mature.
Of course, youth factions of political parties face similar problems to their mother parties. Youth factions in Northern Ireland have been criticised for not being demographically representative of young people. The majority of the party leaders are male, and this demonstrates a clear need to engage more young people from diverse social backgrounds.
However, for me, the most striking thing about youth factions is their capacity to collaborate and build strong working relationships with one another. By establishing meaningful partnerships with opposing parties, these youth factions actively foster democracy and strengthen community relations. They seek to build better futures and support people by promoting collaboration, demonstrating a readiness to work with others in a way that is not always mirrored by their mother parties.
In truth, the degree of influence that youth factions hold is questionable. Even within their mother parties, the youth wing is often marginalised, and MLA candidates reportedly fear that some youth activists may come across as ‘too radical’ for their older votes.
However, when it comes to younger voters, the youth wings of the parties are already informally promoting political debate and discussion. While parties have a long way to go when it comes to engaging young people, the youth wings talk about politics in a way which is accessible to a mainstream audience. They educate others, increasing youth understanding of political structures and electoral cycles.
This election has been defined by whether Northern Ireland will ‘break from the past’. However, valuable input and campaigning from youth party activists across the country has re-directed us towards a more useful question: how do we collectively build a better future? Let’s be grateful for them.