On Saturday 9th September, members of the Young European Movement (YEM) travelled to the historic campus of Queen’s University Belfast to launch their first branch in Northern Ireland, the Young Europeans NI, in partnership with JEF Ireland.
A packed audience of young people gathered to debate and constructively discuss the future of Northern Ireland in a changing Europe, looking at topics such as Brexit and the damage which it has inflicted on opportunities for young people.
Following introductory remarks by YEM President, Klajdi Selimi, and JEF Ireland President, Robert O’Donnell, a panel discussion on Northern Ireland’s future relationship with Europe kicked off, with an impressive line-up of Northern Irish speakers; leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mike Nesbitt MLA, deputy-leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Stephen Farry MP, and Leader of the SDLP in Stormont, Matthew O’Toole MLA.
Despite coming from three distinct political parties and backgrounds, each panellist agreed that Brexit has inflicted tangible harm on Northern Ireland’s politics, economy and society, and that it is incumbent on young people in Northern Ireland to champion a more open and inclusive future.
The second panel discussion which took place included Colm Markey, Member of the European Parliament for Ireland’s border region, Malcom Byrne, member of the Irish senate, and Claire Hanna, Member of Parliament. This discussion focused on how the EU can work more closely with politicians and civic society groups in Northern Ireland to improve lives, touching on issues such as future membership of Erasmus+ and peace funding.
After an interval for lunch, two invaluable workshops took place for participants, the first led by Christine Lavell, Vice-President of JEF Europe, who led an interactive session on what political activism is, and secondly by Elisha Duddy, a former trainee at the European Parliament Liaison Office, who led a training session on how to apply for careers with the EU institutions.
The final panel discussion was youth-focused, with four incredible young voices to the floor. Aobh Hollywood, President of the SDLP Youth, spoke about her desire to build a more progressive Northern Ireland which empowers young people. Eilidh O’Connor, President of Second-level Students Union of Northern Ireland (SSUNI), passionately advocated for how students in Northern Ireland can become empowered to make changes in their schools.
Jay Singh Basra, Chair of the Unionist Youth Network, spoke about how young unionists need to play a role in shaping Northern Ireland’s future, while Luke Patterson, President of Alliance Youth, spoke about the need for Stormont to return and deal with the challenges facing young people across all communities.
Once the afternoon’s political events drew to a close, participants migrated to the Parlour Pub for food and beverages, networking with one another and building coalitions for positive European campaigning into the future. The feedback was hugely positive and the Young European Movement looks forward to holding more events in Northern Ireland in the near future.