Covid-19: Young people in NI ask Stormont for more support

By Jayne McCormack
BBC News NI Political Reporter

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It hasn't exactly been the easiest year to be a young person.

Managing the usual challenges of study, work, family and finding their place in the world have been complicated by the pandemic, placing plans for the future on hold.

Getting answers to some of the issues they're most concerned about from those in power hasn't always been simple.

A planned press conference fronted by the first and deputy first ministers to take questions exclusively from young people was cancelled months ago - it has yet to be rescheduled.

BBC News NI spoke to four members of the NI Youth Forum about what they think the executive could be doing better to support the next generation.

The Executive Office has been asked for comment.

Lauren McAreavey, Belfast

Lauren graduated from university in July - a milestone moment for many young people after years of education - but the virus meant her ceremony had to take place over Zoom from home.

"I do feel like I lost out, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing for many people and it was tough," she said.

She said there was a perception that politicians still do not understand many issues young people are dealing with.

"I think we're asked a lot, but it's tokenistic - as if they don't take it on board and we're just put on the back burner."

She added that some of the information coming from the executive about the coronavirus guidelines was not accessible to young people, so they could understand and follow it properly.

Blair Anderson, Ballymena, County Antrim

Blair has found it a struggle not to have as much contact with her family, and says household restrictions have taken their toll on her mental health.

She would like Stormont politicians to consult young people more about the decisions they're taking.

"Ultimately it's hard for us to have trust in politicians when they can't come and talk to us," she said.

"We had a press conference due to take place in the summer, but it didn't happen and young people were put to the bottom of the list again.

"No effort has been made to put that back together and for young people to have their voices heard."

She added that young people "get blamed quite a lot" for not sticking to the rules.

"But if they were more clear and engaged with us, then things might be different," she said.

Mícheál Jordan, County Fermanagh

Image source, Micheal Jordan

Unlike some of his friends, Mícheál has been able to stay employed during the pandemic.

However, he says living on his own, worrying about money and being unsure about whether he would retain his job at times, was difficult to cope with.

"There has to be more emphasis on helping young people get through this rough patch," he said.

"We feel left out of the conversation.

"Some of us can vote, some of us coming up will want to vote - how do you expect people to engage with politics if you exclude them?"

He said he didn't envy the politicians' task, but added that a press conference exclusively for young people could "ease minds" and improve trust in those on the hill.

Oisín-Tomás ó Raghallaigh, Strabane, County Tyrone

Image source, Oisin-Tomas O Raghallaigh

Oisín-Tomás described himself as "pretty lucky" compared to some of his friends, when it comes to struggling with student accommodation or employment.

"But the biggest issue for me has been losing contact with friends, the university experience is very different - we're not making friends or engaging in the same way," he said.

He also said he understood that politicians had a lot on their plate, but improving communication needed to become a priority.

"We were all really disappointed when the press conference was cancelled at short notice - it isn't a significant ask," he added.

The Youth Forum has met assembly members virtually from some parties and the Public Health Agency, but they still want to improve engagement with Stormont ministers.

"I don't think you can expect a 14 or 20-year-old to read an extensive document to understand what you can or can't do under the rules - just break it down in a way we can understand too."