Last week Ciara Maskey, a member of our youth committee, attended a groundbreaking youth conference in Belfast’s Europa Hotel.
The youth conference was organised as part of the ‘Children of Conflict International Conference,’ a three-day event looking at how the conflict in Northern Ireland has had a lasting impact on the lives of many young people, leading to a lack of education, unemployment and involvement in crime.
The innovative international conference brought together people from all walks of life, from academics and politicians to community organisations and teachers, to discuss what can be done to tackle the issues.
Nineteen-year-old Ciara, who helps us make decisions on how Lottery funding to support isolated young people in Northern Ireland is spent, spoke to the young people who attended the youth conference section of the event to find out first-hand what the issues are affecting their lives and what they feel needs to be done to improve the situation.
And the next day she attended the main Children of Conflict conference to make a speech feeding back what she had learnt to the large audience that attended.
The main conference was also attended by Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers, Martin McGuiness and Peter Robinson, and Ciara got the chance to chat to them and get her views across.
Here’s what Ciara had to say in her speech:
“What’s clear is that there’s a lot of energy, enthusiasm and bright ideas among our young people.
“Many of the young people who attended the youth conference were from disadvantaged backgrounds and were there as members of groups such as Opportunity Youth, the Princes Trust and VOYPIC and it was clear that they were keen to learn and develop as people.
“For me, it showed how many young people in Northern Ireland want to achieve something with their lives and they want to get out and try new things and test themselves, and with the right support, motivation, skills and mentoring they are capable of doing this.
“During the conference I spoke to a young man who was 18 and is in custody at Hydebank Youth Custody Centre. He said he was really nervous about employment and had low self esteem. This was his first offence but he is now even more worried that his criminal record will prevent him getting a job when he gets out.
“He is anxious that when he leaves custody he will have nothing to do and will fall back into the same behaviours, but he belives with the right role models and services in place he will be able to go on to further education. This is not the life he wants, but at the moment he doesn’t see any way out of it.
“Many of the young people I talked to also spoke about benefits. They felt that it knocks young people’s confidence and makes them feel as if they can’t go on to get better and it’s just an easy way to get money.
“One girl told me that it encourages young to be lazy, while another young man told me that young people should still get benefits when they go to tech or further education so they have an income to look after themselves.
“Sarah, 17, who has lived in care for most of her life and is supported by Barnardo’s, felt that there just aren’t enough support services out there for young people and many are being completely overlooked and left behind by the system.
“Another young person, Natalie, who is supported by Princes Trust, said that there should be training for parents who are on benefits so they can get jobs and be more positive role models for their children.
“She said they are afraid how it will affect their child benefits, so this stops them finding work. But with the right support she felt that parents could find jobs and when their children see them working that will encourage them to find employment.
“Finally, James, 21 from Poleglass in west Belfast, who is now a youth worker with VOYPIC but was involved in a lot of anti-social behaviour when he was young, said that the recession is having a big impact on the jobs available for young people and that the system is broken.
“He also stated that more help with job training and advice would be really helpful, perhaps with writing CVs, interview training and knowing where to go to access funds if you have an idea for a business.
“Overall, the young people wanted me to make clear that they are not lazy and no young people are incapable of what they want to do.
“While the services that are in place in Northern Ireland are making a difference and helping young people improve their lives, there is a need for more support such as more youth organisations and youth workers, more advice on education and business opportunities, more support for young people when they leave custody.
“There are young people out there who are disillusioned, we just need to show them that they are valued, they are important and they can make a difference in our society.”
To find out more about the Children of Conflict International Conference visit: http://www.childrenofconflict2012.org/