In just under a week’s time, the people of Northern Ireland will visit polling stations across the country to vote for the next Stormont assembly. The struggle with every election is getting young people to vote, but why are the youth of the province so afraid of politics? Kevin Mc Stravock investigates
With the people of the Republic of Ireland having cast their votes for the Dáil at the end of February, all attention now turns to their neighbours across the border, Northern Ireland as they gear up for the Stormont Assembly Elections on 5th of May.
A key concern, as with all elections, surrounds voter turnout, particularly given that the voting numbers decreased by just under 8% between the previous two elections, falling from 62.87% in 2007 to 55.71% in 2011.
Northern Ireland officials are particularly keen to engage with those in the 18-22 age bracket, whose turnout in political elections tends to be lower than any other age group (just 51.3% of young people voted in the previous Assembly elections compared to over two-thirds of people aged 65 and older).
Encouraging voter registration
This is something NUS-USI, the joint British and Irish national students union, aims to combat with its’ #OwningOurFuture campaign which began with a voter registration tour in conjunction with the Campervan of Dreams earlier this year. Between the 1-5 February, NUS-USI toured universities and colleges across Northern Ireland to encourage young people to register to vote.
For NUS-USI President, Fergal McFerran, encouraging young people to have a say in the formation of their local government is hugely important. “It’s so important for us, because for many of our current generation of students it will be the first time they’ll cast a vote in an Assembly election,” he said.
“As far as we’re concerned, this election should be a defining moment for the future of Northern Ireland.”
However, it’s not just NUS-USI who are rolling out registration campaigns. With a number of elections looming including Scottish and Welsh parliaments and London Mayor, the Electoral Commission have been targeting young people across the UK in particular with an ad campaign featuring a number of stars of the teen soap Hollyoaks which was aired regularly on Channel 4 in the run up to the registration deadline on the 18th April.
A spokesperson for the Election Commission said: “Amongst our key target audiences are young people, students and private renters and we have undertaken additional activity to reach to these groups.
“Like the Gogglebox campaign last year we have worked in partnership with Channel 4 again to promote electoral registration – this time working with Hollyoaks. This campaign is targeting young people across the UK given the numerous elections that will also be taking place on 5 May.”
At a more local level, the Electoral Commission has partnered up with a number of organisations to run Northern Ireland specific electoral registration campaigns. As well as their work with NUS-USI on the #OwningOurFuture campaign, they also partnered up with The Rainbow Project to encourage young people from the LGBT community to register to vote.
A ‘disconnect’ with the youth
But why are young people so reluctant to vote? Fergal believes that “there is a disconnect between what goes on at Stormont and the lived experiences of our young people and students.
“People regularly roll out the lazy line that young people don’t care about politics, I completely disagree with that. I just think many young people need to be better convinced of how devolved government in Northern Ireland can improve their lives.”
“Voting is an important part of the process in putting the hopes and ambitions [of young people] on the political agenda.”
Fergal wants to encourage all young people to vote
Dahviad Tierney, a second year Media Studies & Production student from Carrickmore is a registered voter because his parents encouraged him to.
“I only vote because my parents encouraged me to care about voting,” he told me. “They made me vote and I will always continue to do so. However, if they hadn’t done so, I doubt I would care, it’s a case of how young people are brought up to think about voting.
“If we have a chance to have a say, as minimal as it may be, we should take it”, he added.
Some young people believe that more needs to be done to make politics more appealing to young people. Connor White, a Media Studies student from Carrickfergus says that he’s undecided about voting in the Assembly elections.
“I’m registered to vote but I don’t know if I’m going to. Politics in Northern Ireland is stuck in the past, and doesn’t appeal [to young people].
“There are too many radical politicians on both sides who aren’t interested in change so nothing ever does change. They’re more interested in slagging each other off than they are in engaging with young people”, he added.
For some non-voters like Colin McKee, a Business Studies student from Newtownabbey, campaigners don’t do enough to educate young people on politics.
“A letter through the door doesn’t make me pick it up and want to vote for them.”
Colin McKee says politicians don’t do enough to encourage him to vote
“I don’t feel like I’m given accessible information on why I should vote or the importance of voting so it basically feels like I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said.
This is something echoed by Katriona Kirwan, a Modern Languages student from Newcastle who plans to vote this year having not voted in previous elections.
“I haven’t voted in the elections before because I wasn’t educated enough in school about politics to make an informed decision on who to vote for. There wasn’t much information available to me on how or where to vote and politicians don’t make much of an effort to engage with young people”.
She added: “After the shambles of last year’s General Elections where David Cameron was re-elected and has since went on to cut disability benefits, I have now decided that I will definitely vote in future because if not then I’m positively contributing to people like that being put in charge.
“I feel like politics should be compulsory in school. We should be educated enough to make an informed decision on who runs our country. I think that young people don’t vote because they aren’t taught anything about politics and know nothing about it.”
Eoin Boyle, a Journalism student from Carrickmore thinks more young people will vote if the politicians here make a change.
“I think young people are not voting partly because of apathy, but more so because they are tired of the pathetic “green and orange” rhetoric still spewing from Stormont”, he said.
“Many feel that Stormont is a crèche for those who cannot/ will not face up to their responsibilities. They are angry because their future, and the future of those they love are resting on the arms of individuals who can’t behave or be trusted.”
However, Eoin also believes that the lack of political presence in universities is a contributing factor towards youth apathy. “This is a huge contrast to our parent’s generation. At university, politics was booming and it was part of the student experience.
“Now there is a void and that’s a great shame,” he added.
The void between young people and the older generations is part of the reason Computing student Gavin Corry doesn’t vote. “Voting has always felt like a thing for the older generation and I feel if I was to vote it would have no impact,” he explained.
“Me thinking that my vote will have no impact goes hand in hand with how I think voting is for the older generation. My one vote as a 22 year old is worth nothing so it seems pointless.
“I know 90% of my friends don’t vote and mostly for the same reasons. If it didn’t seem so pointless for our age group then there would certainly be a lot more people voting.”
An MLA’s views
Clare Sugden, an MLA who is re-running for her seat as an Independent candidate in East Londonderry says that she’s “not surprised” to see the apathy of young people towards politics. She believes that engaging with young people is “about taking an interest in them and what matters to them”.
Claire believes that the disconnect between young people and politicians is due to the poor representation of young people in the Stormont assembly. “The most recent mandate that has now dissolved was not representative of Northern Ireland generally, and specifically not representative of young people.
“The average age of a politician was in his mid 60’s…so I do think there is a bit of a disconnect between MLA’s and young people. Stormont still seems to be talking about the issues they were talking about twenty years ago. If that’s the issues they’re going to talk about then of course young people are going to switch off.”
Listen to the full interview with Claire Sugden below:
Universities – No place for politics?
For Fergal, encouraging young people to engage in politics is a case of bringing politics to them. “If we want young people to make a genuine contribution to politics then we need to start bring politics to them, out of Stormont and into the places where they are.
“Our generation are quite often studying full-time, working at least one part-time job, volunteering alongside those activities and have lots of other pressures on their lives. Investing time and energy in politics, in understanding how Stormont works and in figuring out the details of the issues making the headlines is actually quite difficult.”
When looking at the political presence in Northern Ireland’s two largest universities, it could be argued that politics doesn’t appear to play the same role it used to.
Across the four campuses of Ulster University, just two politically affiliated societies are currently active. The Jordanstown campus, where Politics is offered as a degree also offers a Socialist society as well as a society for Politics students and those interested in politics.
Its’ rival university Queen’s also offers just a handful of political societies. This begs the question whether young people aren’t engaging with politics because their universities aren’t.
Claire believes that increased political activity in universities could help to engage young people in the voting process: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be politicial parties as such.
“People could take an interest as a pressure or specific interest group, for example ‘Free Education for Students’ if they were to start a petition on that, just to get people more politically active.”
However Fergal believes that political activism is just as healthy now as it was twenty years ago:
“Political activism today just looks slightly differently to what it looked like twenty years ago. Quite often we’re now given a seat at the table, whether that be a students’ union being involved in decision-making in their institution, or NUS-USI being consulted in bigger decisions by the Government.
“Students still protest, occupy buildings and do all the things they used to do, but I think as a movement we’ve become much more nuanced campaigners and that is of course only possible because of the work of the generations who came before us.”
So why should young people vote? According to Claire, it’s simple. “It’s that same old thing, you get who you vote for”, she said. “But, I think it’s also important to note that you get who you don’t vote for.
“If students and young people are frustrated with the politicians at Stormont, if they think they’re not representative, only they can change that.”
For Fergal, the only solution to the frustrations felt by young people here in Northern Ireland is to vote: “One thing that is abundantly clear to me is that our generation have massive frustrations with Northern Ireland politics, but beyond that, and perhaps more importantly, they have even bigger hopes and ambitions for what a better society could look like.
“Voting is an important part of the process in putting those hopes and ambitions on the political agenda.”
Regardless of your interest of lack thereof in politics, the message coming from Northern Ireland’s leaders, both inside and outside of Stormont is loud and clear; your vote is your voice.