As part of a BBC initiative, on May 19th I was offered the opportunity to partake in a question time style political debate on TV along with a number of other young, politically minded voters who constitute our generation: The Good Friday Agreement Generation.
Hosted by Stephen Nolan and Tara Mills, a wide array of political representatives, ranging from the Green Party to the TUV, was present. The live debate was hosted at Blackstaff House in Belfast. From the beginning of the evening there was a buzz around the studio, with BBC news presenters and staff interviewing audience members. Further debates occurred between strangers who had never met before, a true celebration of how far Northern Ireland has come. Now, we can openly debate and discuss issues that have plagued our society for so long, peacefully and publicly.
I was able to make friends with both a Medicine and Law student at Queens (Andrew and Paul respectively), and from this we chatted the entire evening and debated issues as diverse as blood sports to same-sex marriage and education reform.
Once inside the studio, and in our assigned seats, a comedian warmed the audience up to riotous laughter. Confident, charged and vocal, we were ready for the programme to begin, and when the politicians for the main parties (SDLP, DUP, UUP, Alliance, SF) arrived on the scene, there was a markedly hushed tone present: a calm before the storm.
With an introduction highlighting the bloodshed of the troubles, and the unique political junction which people of my age face, we were into the debate.
Our first topic discussed an issue prevalent in Northern Ireland: Sectarian politics.
With this topic, politicians were grilled, particularly the DUP, over whether they would stand as Deputy Party. An evasive tactic was deployed by the speaker and a hasty retreat organised as a result of the onslaught of young people frustrated with the lack of progress in politics.
Leading on from this was a very topical issue in both Northern and Southern Ireland at the minute: Abortion. The debate was lively, passionate and we were able to hear from all sides of the spectrum, including the Green Party and their pro-choice commitment. It was a divisive issue with many of the audience making impassioned pleas for a woman’s right to choose, whilst others asked for a continuation of the status quo. The debate peaked when the UUP Member stated that he believed that Suzanne Lee, the woman who bought abortion pills online, should not have been prosecuted.
We then spoke at length about jobs, education and opportunities in Northern Ireland, raising issues of tariff fees for University, a lack of jobs for qualified individuals and corporate tax levels. In addition, it was noted how the social issues in NI would make young people less likely to stay here.
Our debate ended with the topic many were itching to speak about: Same Sex Marriage.
My friend Andrew prompted this topic, asking about the DUP’s unjustified use of the Petition of Concern to block the Same Sex Marriage Bill. I was then given the opportunity to speak, highlighting that 68% of the voting population in NI support Same Sex Marriage, as do a Majority of MLA’s, casting aside notions, suggested by the DUP, that wider society didn’t support the Bill.
I also asked whether MLA’s seriously think that their personally-held religious beliefs justify denying what a majority of the population of Northern Ireland want? However, due to the time constraints, we were forced to move on.
There was, however, an interesting moment of note when the UUP Candidate spoke of his support for Same-Sex Marriage and of lobbying his party colleagues to support it. This stunned many in the audience. He made a bold statement, highlighting how he respected each and every viewpoint we held, and even highlighted his own lack of formal education in an appeal to all in the audience, showing how politics isn’t always quite so black and white, and winning over much support in the process.
Soon, it was time for the debate to come to a close. With the cameras off, we descended into the main area and shook hands, debated and spoke to the politicians. I took plenty of selfies (Nolan was not impressed) and got pictures sitting at the chairs of the main debating table. Then it was time to say goodbye.
In conclusion, I would like to extend my thanks to Mrs. McGrath for her organisation of the tickets and in seeking out students for the event, and to Mr. Oliver for his recommendation of me to attend this event. I’d also like to acknowledge Claire and Marie at the BBC Office.
It was an informative, enjoyable and impassioned evening with other like-minded young people. The opportunity to represent the school, and myself, in this context, was empowering.
It means a lot to us, as aspiring voters, to be recognised as the next generation, and to cast a vision for NI of a modern, secular, post-conflict society - one not besieged by partisan disagreement and petty opposition, but made new through our own undying commitment to never go back to the way things were before.
Change is coming.