If you read the papers and believe what the surveys tell you, increasingly more people are being turned off by politics in Northern Ireland. In particular young people seem to be leading the way in terms of political apathy, with 50.3% of young people thinking that our politicians are either ‘totally useless’ or ‘very bad’.
To find out why young people feel such apathy towards politics in Northern Ireland, over the next few weeks, we at The Scoop, will be interviewing some of the younger members of the 5 main political parties in NI – some of whom themselves were recently elected! We’ll be finding out why they got involved in politics, what they believe “turns their peers off” from politics and how they feel they that they personally can make a difference in NI.
Our roving reporter Paul Wyatt met with one of the first people on our list – the Ulster Unionist party’s Alex Redpath – to ask a few of these questions.
At 24, Alex Redpath is one of the youngest new councillors to have been recently elected. Alex first joined the UUP when he was sixteen and although he found that at his first association meeting it tended to be older members, he didn’t let that put him off. Alex found mentorship from his older colleagues, and discovered that the UUP’s youth wing, the Young Unionists, provided a great social as well as political experience. After eight dedicated years of membership as a Young Unionist, Alex has now taken the reigns of the Youth Wing of the party, as he now is Chairperson.
With young people seemingly so disengaged with politics, Paul asked Alex just how he thinks young people should get involved in politics.
In Alex’s experience he has found that young people are increasingly coming through lobbying groups and charities, which in his opinion enables them to come prominence through daily interactions in their roles with numerous politicians. Of course, the most obvious way to become active in politics would be to join a political party, although Alex advises young people to sit down and carefully think about your own values before taking the leap. In his experience, he has seen many people going through up to three parties in the space of a couple of years, however in his opinion “doing that won’t do you any favours”.
With the average age of the UUP Assembly group at Stormont working out at approximately 55 years of age, the UUP may not initially appear to be that attractive to young people. Paul asked Alex whether this had concerned him when he joined the party, and whether the status quo has remained….
Alex give a very firm rebuttal, stressing that the Young Unionists have had 10 of their members elected to council out of a total of 89 elected Ulster Unionist Councillors. In addition to this he noted that what this equates to is the UUP having 10 members who are under 30, represented on seven councils, which is the same as the Alliance Party and he feels that for the Young Unionists, that’s a very good thing.
It wasn’t long before Alex and Paul chatted about the LucidTalk poll from April that showed the apparent massive disillusionment that our young people have with our current politicians. Paul really wanted to know if Alex thought that these young people had got it right – Is he totally useless?
Unfortunately Alex never quite said whether or not he was useless, (And we at The Scoop imagine that he doesn’t think he is), however despite this, he did recognise that young people are disengaged with politics. His reasoning for why young people are so disengaged was put down to the fault of the DUP and Sinn Fein. To this end Alex said, “at some levels it’s quite frankly pathetic. The way the DUP and Sinn Fein run this country is absolutely lamentable”.
Conversation soon progressed to what actions Alex actually takes himself to get young people involved in the political process, and how, if at all, Alex feels that due to his age, he can connect better with young people than some of his more mature colleagues in the UUP.
Social media seemed to be a big area of action. As one of the youngest councillors in Lisburn, Alex feels that social media is a great way of engaging with young people, especially to answer any questions that they may have about the party and his role as a political representative. Yet social media isn’t the only way that Alex likes to engage with young people; he says that he is working closely with the current affairs societies in local schools, where he encourages young people to get involved in politics, regardless of what political party they align themselves to. On whether or not politics should become a compulsory subject at GCSE level to make young people more politically aware – Alex doesn’t feel that this is the right option, but instead is in favour of beefing up the content of Learning for Life and Work classes in schools.
Despite Alex’s youthful enthusiasm as a politician and an elected member of his local council, we won’t be seeing Alex move to the blue benches of Stormont anytime soon. Alex ruled out standing in the 2016 Assembly election because he feels that being elected to the Assembly at the age of 26 (which he will be in 2 years time) would leave him no other option but to become a career politician – something he wants to stay well away from and because of which, he is still practising as a solicitor.
Although Alex’s future political position is not exactly clear, due to the fact that he will only seek reelection as a councillor upon whether or not he feels that he has positively contributed and achieved his goals by the end of his term, he will continually remain to be involved in politics in some capacity. In Alex’s opinion, the future of the Young Unionists and the UUP is bright, stating that it won’t be too long before we see some of his fellow Young Unionists in the Assembly – so watch this space!
Keep an eye on our blog, radio channel and twitter feed for the remainder of our interviews in this series, and further information on current affairs.