Back in the #28DaysNI project, I wrote about Youth Activism and the necessity for young people to be engaged with the politics of Stormont. In the piece, I quite naively spoke about my own personal experience as a member of a party and argued that this was the only way for a young person to be politically active. I was quite gladly proven wrong when I sat down with Jack O’Dwyer-Henry and Thomas Copeland of ChallengesNI, to ask them a few questions about their experience organising hustings in South Belfast and how they feel about the current state of Northern Irish politics.
Introduce yourself for the readers; explain your background and why you’re interested in politics.
J: I’m Jack O’Dwyer-Henry, and along with Thomas here, I’m the co-founder of ChallengesNI. I’ve had an interest in politics for years, but back in 2015 we decided to set up ChallengesNI, which is a sort-of political discussion organisation. It helps promote debate before elections and during the course of the electoral cycle. People can come along to a panel of politicians/candidates and question them about policy, and directly challenge the Politicians about issues that they’re passionate about.
T: The first aim of ChallengesNI was to challenge political apathy around young people. We’re politics students at Methodist College Belfast. We felt in the greater school community there wasn’t as much interest in politics as we thought there should be or needed to be to have a functioning youth movement. So, we thought that ChallengesNI was an effective vehicle in which young people could get interested in politics.
What was the motivation behind ChallengesNI? Was there a moment you decided it was needed or was it a gradual idea that developed over time?
T: I guess we set it up initially about late 2015. It was first set up, as previously said, to challenge apathy among young people. In particular, it has to be said that up until the 2017 election there were certainly demographics to show that apathy across the board. In the last Assembly election there was a 55% turn out which is really quite…dire. Especially for somewhere that calls itself an active functioning democracy. We were quite delighted that in the 2017 election there was a turnout of 64%, and we’ve noticed that there are many more civic platforms for debate with politicians to discuss issues. That’s definitely led to some increase in turnout for this election.
J: Partially leading to voter apathy were feelings that politicians were not offering any solutions that meant anything to the people. A part of what we’ve done in our hustings, which is quite important, is that we brought forward the smaller parties and those candidates that, due to their lack of media attention, would have left most people unaware of their policies. In fact, these parties usually get a very warm reception from the audience, and therefore a more informed electorate will lead to people voting differently, and for parties that are more closely aligned with their political views. Although it must be pointed out: while we have seen a massive rise in the turn out, that didn’t necessarily correlate to people voting for any of the smaller, more progressive parties. The Green Party, for example, despite a 10% increase in voter turnout, actually lost 200 votes.
T: In this election particularly, 57% of voters still voted for the same two parties – the same status quo. We are certainly delighted in the increase of electoral turnout, but that definitely has not materialised itself in the smaller parties, progressive parties, or cross-community parties. People are still voting for the status quo, and as young people, we found that quite disappointing. There’s a dysfunctional executive and it hasn’t really delivered on issues that young people care about: the economy, abortion, and social issues like equal marriage.
J: We should note that the Alliance and SDLP in particular have been saying there’s a mandate for the parties to work together. The majority of the results shows that people vote for DUP/SF to get a majority in the assembly, and they have proven that they cannot co-operate – leading to misrule, allegations of corruption, and to duplicity. It’s questionable if people want to have a functioning, stable government.
How did you set the hustings up? Were there any problems or setbacks to organising the event?
T: In a way, it’s quite easy. We’re lucky in our constituency that there’s a diverse amount of people who stand. There were 14 candidates that stood who come from across the political spectrum. It’s really fascinating for a sort of debate; it’s conducive to have a debate where people can get challenged for views coming from the right and coming from the left. So I think the most difficult thing is having people come along. Politicians in general love to talk; that’s not a difficult thing. The most difficult thing is getting an audience in South Belfast who are really interested, and more importantly, getting an audience of people who are normally politically apathetic. It’s events like hustings where people can start to see that Northern Irish politics isn’t about Green and Orange; it can and will be about all sorts of issues. A normalisation of politics to left and right.
J: I supposed in our first hustings there was an issue with the amount of candidates standing that we had to run the panel in two parts; one for smaller parties and one for larger parties. However, in the most recent election, because of the snap nature, not all candidates were standing as had been in the previous election. Another problem has been the DUP, the largest party; they did not attend our hustings before this election and we had some difficulty getting them along to the hustings last time. It’s representative of a wider trend of the DUP – certainly in recent months – dodging media attention and dodging similar public engagement.
How did you get William Crawley on board for this year’s and last year’s hustings?
T: We were very lucky with William Crawley; we should express our thanks with him and the Agape Centre for what they have done for us. William Crawley, for our hustings last year, we just sent him a message and because it was in Belfast he was able to host the hustings. He’s a man who has inspired and adores Northern Irish politics so he was prepared to come along and do our hustings for us. We’re really grateful for that.
What was the response from the audience? Has it generally been positive or has there been criticism?
J: We’ve always been surprised at the amount of people who come along. There were 230 people who came along to our event before this election. I think the audience are quite interested and most people haven’t had an experience like this, or an opportunity to engage with politicians in such a public form. People seem to enjoy it and aside from the politics it’s a very entertaining and sociable evening. I suppose, in terms of criticisms, there were people that were disappointed in the fact that DUP were not there, and I suppose the lack of events like this. We did get questions from people in other constituencies why there weren’t events like that happening in their area. I think Northern Ireland, due to its past, doesn’t have the tradition of having hustings before elections due to security reasons. Hopefully, in every constituency, before every election, all the candidates will attend a series of hustings where all of the constituents can engage with them in a public forum.
Do you want to expand on Challenges NI? What’s the plans for the future of the organisation?
T: That’s a difficult one, because we’re both in Upper Sixth and at the end of school people go their separate ways. We’re a little unsure as to where it would lead, but we hope to carry it on and hopefully we can have a big event in September time. It’s definitely an organisation that we can say we’re proud of: the effort we put into it and the fact that it’s a sort of template that can be replicated across Northern Ireland. There’s a real possibility that if we’re available, ChallengesNI will be coming back in the future.
J: We gave advice to a man in South Antrim and help to set his hustings up. We would like to encourage people across Northern Ireland before every election to have these events. It doesn’t require much organisation and other people can definitely establish their own, creating a new movement with people organising these community led local debates that cause real discussions across the country.
Are you hoping to collaborate with other groups?
T: We don’t have any concrete plans at the moment, but we would certainly be happy if people approached us and we were able to collaborate. We would be delighted to do that but it will be based on the individual – we can’t promise anything at this current point.
How do you feel about the current political situation in Northern Ireland? What would you like to change in Northern Irish society?
T: A difficult question. We call ourselves the “Good Friday Agreement” generation. I was born in 1998 and Jack in 1999, so, from our point of view, it can be said that young people can be quite frustrated with politics in this country. They haven’t seen the trouble or violence that Northern Ireland went through. There’s certainly a feeling among young people that the Good Friday Agreement has served its purpose; in a way, I would agree with the Green Party and their calls for a Convention on an update to the Good Friday Agreement. While the Good Friday Agreement cements in place co-operation between Unionism and Nationalism, it also cements division between the two sides. Every Assembly Election, we have an election within Nationalism and an election within Unionism. That’s why there are increasing calls to have one Unionist party. In an ideal democracy, there should be a number of Unionist parties that reflect left and right on the political spectrum. The UUP has suffered from this election because many, many people feel that the only way to keep Sinn Fein out is to vote for the DUP. This is cemented in our government institutions, and that is something I feel definitely needs to be looked at.
J: Looking at this in a broader perspective Northern Ireland has existed for just under 100 years. Its politics have been dominated over issues of Unionism and Nationalism. With the Good Friday Agreement we have had an end to the troubles, and we have this latest election which is the first brought about by an incident of corruption within our government. It wasn’t to do with the national question, it was to do with the alleged multi million corruption scandal. If the green/orange divide cannot be broken off of the back of that, I don’t really have much optimism for this province. Northern Ireland is an artificial state that was created to have an inbuilt Unionist majority. Unionism has now lost that majority, and Northern Ireland has expended that purpose in terms of its creation. If there has been ‘normalisation’ of its politics, I genuinely cannot see any normalisation as long as partition continues – because partition itself is abnormal. Therefore, I think, in opposing Brexit and if the Northern Irish people’s wish to remain in the EU is respected along those lines in the coming decades, hopefully the real question and momentum is put behind the reunification of this island.
T: We’ve expressed some real non-objective political views there. We’re optimistic in terms of the people of Northern Ireland; the people here are fantastic. You tend to find that it’s the politicians and institutions that instigate the battle between Nationalism and Unionism. We’re optimistic in the people of Northern Ireland, but we would express some criticism in the political institutions that are set up here.
Thank you for taking the time to speak with FBTN. Is there a way that our readers can find out more about ChallengesNI?
T: Oh definitely – follow @ChallengesNI on twitter! Also follow me at @thomasdcopeland and Jack at @JackODwyerHenry. Our Facebook is also there if people want to keep up to date with what’s going on with ChallengesNI.
Matt Grant is a People Before Profit activist from the Lisburn Area.
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Photo Credit: Luke Molloy Photography and Challenges NI