President Michael D Higgins highlighted the key role young people have to play in “recreating and reimagining” a bright future for both Britain and Ireland. The President was speaking at a youth workshop at City Hall on the second day of his state visit. Lord Mayor of London was there to receive him, telling the President that his excited Irish staff had been baking him biscuits in anticipation of his historic visit. Television presenter Grainne Seoige was MC for the event titled Take Charge for Change. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers also spoke.
The President has demonstrated his commitment to youth participation with his Being Young and Irish initiative. Speaking to those gathered, Michael D Higgins said: “My goal in that initiative was to engage young people as active and reflective citizens in contemporary Ireland and to recognise, affirm and encourage them as one of the key sources of wisdom in solving core social, political, economic and cultural issues. My vision for the initiative was that it would help build an active, inclusive citizenship for which we need a new discourse – one based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms.”
He added: “That is why I am so pleased to have heard how our fifty young people here today have expressed their individual and unique voices and have proven that they truly do have the power to effect positive transformation. They are demonstrating both a rigorous sense of active citizenship, and an ability to envision a future founded on a spirit of altruism, solidarity, and hospitality – a combination that has the potential to achieve great things.”
Acknowledging those from Northern Ireland, the President spoke about the remarkable young people he has already encountered there and that he has seen working for the stability the province now enjoys: “They are young people who understand only too well that prejudice or old grievances do not evaporate overnight when peace is announced or new legislation is passed. They know that animosities can only be removed when, as citizens, we transcend such legacies, let go and reach a true sense of human empathy and solidarity with each other, thereby diminishing the toxic impact of sectarianism.”
The event brought 50 outstanding young people from Britain and both sides of the border in Ireland together to discuss the challenges facing young people and explore new ideas to promote collaboration in topics such as youth citizenship in democracy, youth enterprise and innovation, arts/music and sport.
Another topic on the agenda was the joint award with students in Northern Ireland now having a choice whether they want to pursue Gaisce, The President’s Award, or The Duke of Edinburgh Award. The President presented two outstanding young people, Daniel Oliver and William Pauley, both from Northern Ireland with their awards. Both young men spoke to the crowd about their experiences with both awards.
19-year-old Daniel, currently studying Interactive Media at Southern Regional College in Newry, commends the leadership and team building skills he gained from the experience and says, without it, he would not be the person he is today. Daniel Oliver told The Irish World: “I couldn’t have believed it would lead to this when I started with Gaisce. It started with the school and I thought it would end with the school but I finished it off in seventh year and then it took off: I met the President and then I thought that was the end of it again. Then the President’s office got in contact with me and it escalated very quickly to me being here on top of this building.
“It’s all about taking the past and letting people know what happened but it’s also about moving forward. I think that’s why they’re getting the youth involved because the older people remember everything but we don’t. It’s stopping people having prejudiced views older people are passing down and letting people have their own opinion rather than views that were held back then. Because things do change.
William Pauley who received his Duke of Edinburgh award from the President only started the activity as something extra-curricular that allowed to hang out more with friends. 23-year-old William told The Irish World: “It’s a big honour to speak at an event like this. I didn’t think in a hundred years, I would be able to speak in front of an audience, let alone the President of Ireland. I’ll be boasting about when I go home to Belfast.”
William’s work for the award has born fruit in a job that now allows him to work with disadvantaged children: “When I started the Duke of Edinburgh, I suffered from severe dyslexia and I wasn’t really confident in speaking or anything like that. From doing the award and being encouraged to interact with other people, not just my own peers and friends, it’s given me a load of confidence.
“The young people I work with are lovely kids and with guidance, they’ll get far in life”