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Minister John Gormley's opportunity to leave a legacy of inspiring youth leadership

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John Gormley
I’ve been a bit pre-occupied this week.

On this, the week of our Budget misery, I’ve been less concerned at the latest splurge of head-melting figures of what Brian Cowen has called “progressive” (if he added “-ly pushing us off a cliff” he might be approaching accuracy) and paying more attention to an issue close to my heart that, in the grand scheme of things, is just as important as Dáil votes and Finance Bills.

I was the first person elected to the Donegal Youth Council eight years ago, and I’ve been closely involved ever since. The high water mark of that involvement was between 2006 and 2008, when I was a mentor/trainer for that season’s youth councillors. Being the Emilio Estevez to those mighty, mighty ducks is the best thing I’ve done in my life without any shadow of a doubt. But this week, the Youth Council was suspended. The last co-ordinator’s contract expired last week, and due to a national hiring freeze the council can’t hire another one. The decision to hire lies directly with the Department of Environment, and with Minister John Gormley.

You may not have heard of the Donegal Youth Council, but this government would do well to follow at their example. It was the first directly elected body of its kind in the Republic of Ireland. Girl councillors have been in the majority for almost all of the past eight years, while the amount of women in politics at a national level is woeful. Youth Councillors are elected in a climate where 80% turnout would be considered disappointing, while the national average is much, much lower. Youth Councillors have a larger mandate that 90% of the members of Séanad Eireann.

In the past eight years the Youth Council have been ahead of the curve on so many of the issues that affect us today. They’ve been pioneers in shaping mental and sexual health policy on a national level, and in boldly raising awareness on what were even a short time ago taboo topics. Even Mary Harney acknowledges their crucial role in making the cervical cancer vaccine a public health imperative. Their “Agenda Day” held in Letterkenny brought people of all walks of life from guards and young people to older people and businessmen together for an unprecedented public discussion on their views and concerns for the future of the town. They’ve organised public general election debates. They have done and continue to do similar work on road safety, on positive attitudes to drugs and alcohol, on education reform, on public transport and infrastructure, on the environment, on sporting policy, on loads more besides. They also have the not inconsiderable duty of serving 12,000 young people in the county, each with their particular personal concerns.

It’s disconcerting in the extreme then to learn that the Youth Council might be in danger. Not because of a lack of funding or interest, they’re not the problem at all. It’s a simple staffing issue. The youth councillors themselves initiate and steer their own agenda, but without a coordinator to guide and advise them, they can’t do their job properly. The last batch of youth councillors were only elected a matter of weeks ago, so the role of the co-ordinator is even more pertinent still. It’d be an incredible shame if the hard and valuable work of the last eight years was lost in such a way.

That work is even more important in light of the Budget and the circumstances the country finds itself in. You might be forgiven for thinking that with the savage cuts happening in all sections of Irish life that something like the Youth Council is a kind of luxurious folly. But exactly because of the effects of our economic woe, it’s never been more important to have eager, engaged and active young citizens bringing hope and positivity to the country. Think tanks and ten point plans for transforming the country endorsed by popular media figures are all the rage right now, but the Donegal Youth Council have been putting plans into action long before the latest think tank was thought up.

Whoever they work with and wherever they’re working, they’re continuously told they’re the best at what they do, not just in the country, but on the international stage. We should be emphatically proud that the enduringly neglected borderlands in the North West of Ireland is home to what is genuinely considered a world class organisation. But they don’t do it for the glory, or because they think it’d be good for their CV. They do it because they care.

If Ireland is ever to be a place of true prosperity again, it needs citizens who take responsibility and initiative for making their communities better places, who from a young age feel they have a say and a hand in the issues that affect them. It needs citizens who have a vision of what the country can be and get to work on making it reality, and who think of public services not as something passively received but actively shaped. The Donegal Youth Council fosters all these values, and it is vital they’re allowed to continue with that work. It is a shining example of politics at its purest, and public service at its finest.

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