NI Assembly election: Political speed dating, and the youth vote

By Iain McDowell

  • Published

Political speed dating

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The speed-dating style hustings meant candidates could be put on the spot over disability issues

Ever fancied a speed-date with a politician?

That's kind of what Mencap gave disabled voters, their families and carers the chance to do in a hustings with a difference in County Tyrone on Thursday.

Rather than pitching questions to a panel of prospective politicians, the disability support charity called on constituents to chat to candidates over a cup of coffee.

Seven election hopefuls put their points forward, with a bell ringing after 10 minutes to signal that it was time to switch to the next table for another conversation in a speed-date-style.

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Joanne McDonald said politicians should not forget about those with learning disabilities

Mencap's Barry McMenamin said the cafe-style chats gave people the chance to raise their issues directly with those hoping to win their vote.

"Candidates go around the tables - the people with learning disabilities and their families are sitting at the tables," he explained.

"They are looking the candidates in the whites of their eyes and asking them: 'When you get to Stormont, what are you going to do for us?'"

Health issues were high on the agenda, along with knocking down barriers to employment, and enabling easier transport to appointments and to work.

Most families pointed out that the Western Health and Social Care Trust was "at the bottom of the barrel" when it came to disability funding, with the uncovering of a multi-million black hole in cash for support services.

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Candidates switched from table to table to tackle the issues raised by constituents

Bob Henry, who has two adult sons with disabilities, said they had "nobody to lobby for them".

"What I see here in this area, people with a mental or learning disabilities are on the bottom rung of the ladder," he added.

"They don't get away from the bottom rung, because they're an easy target because they have no comeback, nobody to speak for them, nobody to lobby for them."

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Barry McMenamin (left) said the event gave disabled people the chance to look their candidates "in the whites of their eyes"

Joanne McDonald, who has a learning disability and works as an equality officer for Mencap in Omagh, said disabled people "need our voices heard".

"Bear in mind that people with a learning disability do need access to the same services as everybody else," she said.

"But maybe we might need the right services in place that meet the needs of people with a learning disability, and don't forget about us."

A youthful view

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They might not be able to vote for real, but young people had their say in the Upper Springfield mock election

"Listen to young people, because they are the future."

That was the message directed at politicians at the Upper Springfield mock assembly poll in west Belfast on Thursday night.

About 60 children and teenagers from youth clubs in the area gathered at Whiterock Leisure Centre to speak to election candidates, before casting their votes for their favourites.

Michael McAllister, a youth worker at the Upper Springfield Development Trust, said the event was organised because next week's election "is going to affect them", even though most won't be able to take part in it.

"It's about politicians coming down to young people's level, and young people having their say," he added.

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Election candidates were quizzed by young people from west Belfast youth clubs

First up, the candidates made their opening pitches with their parties' priorities, but those lacked entertainment value for much of the audience, with some "near falling asleep in their seats", as Michael explained.

But that soon changed, when the election hopefuls spoke to the young people in small groups to take questions on the issues important to them.

And no topic was off limits, with children as young as 10 asking about Brexit and the Irish language, while others pushed for answers on LGBT rights and abortion reform.

Seventeen-year-old Leah won't get to mark a real ballot paper on 2 March, but she said young people "need to get involved more" in politics.

"In the future, they're going to be the people to make the world go around, so why not have their opinion when their young?" she asked.

And her friend Chloe, who'll also miss out on a vote, urged those who don't intend to exercise their democratic right to think again.

"Have a real good think about who you would love to vote for, and honestly, just go for it, give your point."

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Chloe and Leah said young people need to up their involvement in politics, even if they're not yet able to vote

Watching on was Koulla Yiasouma, the Northern Ireland commissioner for children and young people, who said that just because younger people can't vote "doesn't mean they don't have a voice".

"We have nearly 500,000 young people living in Northern Ireland - what happens in Stormont affects them very intimately, so it's absolutely right that they engage with the politicians," she said.

"These kids will remember what happened today, and when it is their turn to vote they will have built up those skills to take part in the democratic process."

And Michael said the candidates should leave the mock election with plenty on their minds.

"Young people want to develop themselves, develop their area, they want to improve for the better," he said.

"But are they being left behind? That's the question the politicians need to ask themselves."

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the Northern Ireland Assembly election trail with a daily dose of the main stories, the minor ones and the lighter moments in the run up to polling day on Thursday 2 March.