The future of this island is in a period of unparalleled uncertainty.
Referendums, General, Local and Presidential elections are taking place that will affect the lives of young people for decades to come and WE the young people are completely left out of the democratic process.
More and more countries are seeing the value of lowering their voting age, recently Wales for example, or other countries such as Scotland, Austria, Argentina, Cuba or Brazil. But still in 2018, young people on this island are still left voiceless.
This is because the franchise for elections in the UK is set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983, as amended, and to vote in any election a person must be 18 or over. Section 1 of the Act sets out the age for Parliamentary elections and Section 2 for local elections; the age requirement is the same in both cases.
The Scottish Parliament was able to legislate to reduce the voting age for the referendum on independence showing that when young people are given a say on the future of their country, they use it. 16 and 17 year olds engaged wholeheartedly in the Scottish Independence referendum, with 75% voting and 97% registering to vote. Even young people who were opposed to extending the voting age for the referendum agree that they participated with enthusiasm and provided valuable insights to the debate.
Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson said that after watching and debating in front of 16 and 17 year olds throughout the referendum, including stadiums and theatres packed full of school students eager to get involved, she changed her position in support of extending the age to vote. Furthermore, research undertaken by Jan Eichhorn at the University of Edinburgh found that young people accessed more information from a wider variety of sources than any other age-group and turnout was higher than among any youth age bracket.
So... Any progress for #VotesAt16 in the North?
Well, 51 MLAs backed a motion proposed by Megan Fearon from Sinn Féin and the Green Party’s Stephen Agnew with the SDLP, UUP and Alliance amongst those in favour.
Megan Fearon noted that she had only been entitled to a vote three years previous to the motion, despite being “very politically aware” since her early teens. She went on to note that “much more must be done to engage with this younger sector”.
The SDLP's Colum Eastwood also commented “Young people are the future, denying them the right to shape that future is senseless." As well as UUP's Roy Beggs "It is important that we recognise what they have to offer to society and I believe that enabling them to vote at the age of 16 is a positive way of doing this."
Yet we have one party holding us back once again. But with a government who are already blocking not just change, but fundamental civil rights, for same-sex couples and Irish Language speakers, the hope for 16 and 17 year olds voting is bleak.
The common argument used is that 16 and 17 year olds are "too immature" to vote. Which begs the question what makes someone mature enough to vote? Could it be working full time? Living in your own home? Being married and having children? Joining the armed forces? Paying income tax? Join a political party or trade union? The last time I checked it is legal for 16 year olds to do everything aforementioned. Or perhaps there's something life changing about simply existing for a few extra months despite our political engagement and understanding that us kids haven't quite grasped yet.
This generational injustice is nothing short of arrogance towards those young people who will fill the shoes of our current (sort of) government in years to come. This week marks 100 years since some women were granted the right to vote and 50 years since NICRA's campaign for One Man One Vote. This same arrogance is shown towards the North's 16 and 17 year olds. Arguments used against the Suffragettes and women in general, such as "There is little doubt that the vast majority of women have no desire for the vote." or "Because women have at present a vast indirect influence through their menfolk on the politics of this country" only mirror the arguments used today.
"It is not only war we have declared. We are fighting for a revolution!" wrote Christabel Pankhurst in 1913. These words produced a radical and militant campaign in the hard fight for equality and without a doubt there is a somewhat (however non-violent) similar young force here to be harnessed to affect change but it’s up to the politicians to seize it. With Stormont's failure to deliver on issues that connect to young people the most, such as Equal Marriage, an Irish Language Act, scrapping tuition fees, liberalising licensing laws, and a coherent strategy to fight Brexit, no wonder the youth are enraged and that a movement of light protest has moved to a movement of introducing new legislation. Politicians need toensure that this enaggament remains. Fighting the system has turned to using the system and if we the young people can't beat them? We will join them, outsmart them, and at any opportunity rebuke the current injustices against ourselves.
The days of young people being undermined, undervalued and underappreciated are over. However, what the youth must remember is that currently, with a collapsed assembly, there can be no change, no voice, and no #VotesAt16.
PS - You could marry your MLA but not vote for them - what's the craic with that?
Chris Anderson is a 17 year old student, Homeless Volunteer and member of SDLP Youth Executive from North Belfast.