Ellen Fearon: ‘It’s time to vote at 16 in Northern Ireland – I’m baffled young smart people can’t have a say’

I was 22 when I first heard about a mysterious virus in Wuhan that was making people very sick and spreading rapidly.

I haven’t given it much thought – it will definitely never come to Northern Ireland!

And yet I’m about to turn 25 and wonder how I ended up spending the majority of my term as National Student President coping with the impact of Covid. Did any of us really imagine it would last this long?

READ NEXT – “Students have the opportunity to make positive changes”

As I begin my final six months in office, I can confidently say that I have done everything possible to ensure that students were represented and supported during this time. And this summer, I will pass the baton to a new student president who will continue the fight.

Of course, there is another (almost as exciting) election taking place this year.

On May 5, Northern Ireland will vote for a new NI Assembly for the first time since the assembly collapsed in 2017.

During this time, we not only managed a pandemic, but we had to deal with more than two years without a government in place. My feeling is that the public has a lot to say about what happened and will use their voice at the ballot box. However, many people who will be affected by this election will not have a chance to speak.

I represent thousands of students under the age of 18. I am baffled, sometimes on a daily basis, that these smart, eloquent young people are unable to vote, when the day-to-day decisions of politicians are likely to affect them longer than any other group in society.



Ellen Fearon backs votes at 16

Last week my team and I spent hours studying the Department of Economy’s proposals to halve apprenticeship places, cut school maintenance allowance, cut student places and raise tuition fees.

These cuts would devastate the education sector and leave thousands of young people with no choice but to leave Northern Ireland to get an education.

The depth of the cuts is truly shocking, but the fact that young people were targeted did not surprise me.

It’s easy to focus your cuts where it won’t hurt your poll count.

The fact is that 16 and 17 year olds already have a lot of responsibilities in society.

They can quit school, work full time, pay taxes, consent to medical treatment, change their name by deed, apply for a passport, and consent to sex.

But they do not have the right to vote for the leaders of their country.

When a group is able to play such an active role in our society, would it make sense to give them a say in how that society works?

Other countries think so.

The voting age is 16 in Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Jersey, Malta and Nicaragua. In Scotland and Wales, 16 and 17 year olds can vote in local legislative and municipal elections. And the Republic of Ireland is studying the possibility of lowering the voting age to 16 for local and European elections.

A common argument used to explain why the voting age should not be lowered is that turnout is generally lower among younger age groups.

But research from countries that have changed the voting age to 16 is likely to surprise skeptics and delight fans of youth turnout.

According to some studies, the younger the first voter, the higher the turnout, which can lead to greater civic participation overall.

In Austria, where the voting age is 16, voting rates among 16 and 17 year olds were found to be higher and more comparable to those of the general population than voting rates among 18 to 20 year olds.

Around 75% of 16- and 17-year-olds turned out to vote in the Scottish independence referendum, a figure dreaming of electoral commissions around the world, and they remained interested in politics longer thereafter. They were more likely to sign petitions, participate in demonstrations, and read and learn about politics.



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It doesn’t take much more than common sense to figure out why this might be.

At 18, young people often leave home for the first time, say goodbye to a permanent address for a few years and face a multitude of new life experiences.

Politics isn’t usually the focus of people’s minds when going through so much change, and to add to that, you couldn’t even register to vote online until a few years ago.

Introducing people to the democratic system while still living in their family home, and very likely still in full-time schooling, gives them the opportunity to learn about elections and register on the lists while they are still in a stable. environment.

The truth is that we need young people to vote, for the good of all of us.

Recently, the first ever meeting of the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly took place. Ninety young people aged 13 to 18 came together to discuss what they thought were the biggest issues facing Northern Ireland, which would inform their work plan.

They chose education, environment, health, rights and equality as their four main themes.

The words ‘unionist’, ‘nationalist’ and ‘sectarianism’ were not used once in the debate.

Imagine the Northern Ireland we could have if these young people had more of a say?



Should 16 and 17 year olds be allowed to vote?
Should 16 and 17 year olds be allowed to vote?

Electoral policy is not devolved and remains the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Office.

In order to lower the voting age, the NI executive must make a formal request for these powers to be vested.

Just over a decade ago, the NI Assembly passed a motion supporting lowering the voting age to 16, but no action has been taken to implement the decision.

Given that since then the voting age has been lowered in half of the UK’s countries, now is the time for the NI Assembly to renew its commitment.

I believe we can make the NI Assembly election in 2022 the last that excludes 16 and 17 year olds.

are you with me?

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