Belfast Telegraph

If 16 and 17-year-olds could vote, we’d not be in a Brexit mess right now

Belfast student Aron Hughes, who recently met with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, was part of the It's Our Brexit Too: Children's Rights, Children's Voices project, a collaboration between the ombudsmen for children in both NI and the Republic. He says young people have intelligent opinions on Brexit, which must be considered

Young people, including myself, didn't have the right for our voice to be heard in the Brexit referendum, but we have found other ways to influence the debate.

I was a part of the steering committee of the It's Our Brexit Too; Children's Rights, Children's Voices conference which gave young people a chance to have our say.

Our findings can be summed up in a quote from one young person: "The Brexit campaign was a 'British Exit' and didn't address Northern Irish issues."

In my opinion Brexit could be disastrous to our peace arrangements, our economy and our everyday life.

Just 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, we are reminded how far we have come from our troubled past and that young people like myself have had the privilege to grow up in a country free from war.

However, now with Brexit being forced upon citizens from all over Ireland, this Agreement is under threat of falling apart and moving us backwards.

I live in west Belfast, an area which is majority republican/nationalist, but is embracing other cultures in order for our local economy to strive.

If the violence and the divisions of the past were to return, the development of my local area would be much more difficult and could halt the progress of a socially and economically deprived area like west Belfast.

Brexit needs to be approached in a united and consolidated manner, with the clear aim of preventing a disaster from happening.

This approach should be adopted by all political parties, both the British and Irish Governments and the European Union.

Equally important are the issues of culture and identity.

I am Irish and I have an Irish passport, therefore I will be a European citizen regardless of how Brexit goes. However, there are thousands of citizens who hold British passports, including a lot of my friends, and there are people who hold both.

These arrangements are made possible under the Good Friday Agreement.

I fear that after Brexit these two identities will no longer be treated as equals due to Irish citizens being able to avail of all the associated rights of EU citizenship, where this will be unlikely for British citizens.

One of the main hurdles of Article 50 is the Irish border.

This hurdle can be easily resolved by simply respecting the wishes of the people in Ireland, that we don't return to any border, 'hard' or 'soft'.

A border will not be accepted and this is widely shown by the ongoing disagreement between the EU 27 and the British Government.

I, and most young people, have been lucky enough to grow up with no border, hard nor soft, and we want this to remain. Whether that's through a special arrangement, 'special status', special consideration or whatever you wish to call it.

Freedom of movement needs legal protection and this needs to be done sooner rather than later.

As part of the It's Our Brexit Too; Children's Rights, Children's Voices conference, many of the members of the steering group had the opportunity to present the findings of our report to politicians in London and Brussels, including meeting leaders of the Taskforce on Article 50. Oscar Despard (a student from Dublin) and I had the privilege to also meet the EU Chief Negotiator for the UK leaving the EU, Michel Barnier, and his deputy.

It was great to have these opportunities to influence how the agreement between the UK and EU can protect young people and their rights.

I believe that if 16 and 17-year-olds were allowed to vote, I don't think we would be in this mess right now and there would be some degree of political stability.

Being a member of this steering committee on Brexit has shown me that young people are passionate about protecting their future, and have serious and intelligent opinions on Brexit which need to be considered.

"Nothing about us, Without us."

Aron was a member of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People's and the Ombudsman for Children's Office steering group on the It's Our Brexit Too: Children's Rights, Children's Voices project

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