Last Saturday the Donegal Youth Council was hard at work in the council chamber at the Letterkenny public services centre. They don’t shy from difficult issues – this year mental health and road safety are among their priorities.
But just weeks ago the council’s future was uncertain. The contract for the council’s coordinator had expired, and the position was another victim of the hiring freeze. The council was suspended while then-Minister John Gormley was called on to intervene, and a temporary solution was reached to restore the position through the end of March.
“We were pretty angry,” said Donegal Youth Council Mayor Nicole Boyle of Dungloe, age 17. “We have a voice, and we should be allowed to have our voices heard.”
All 29 county councillors agreed. Speaking to Highland Radio, Donegal Mayor, Cllr. Cora Harvey, said, “This is their voice at the table in all the decision-making in the county, so I think it’s vital that their voices are heard and I support it 100 percent.”
The council executive has until the end of March to find a more permanent solution to ensure the effective coordination of the youth council, Mayor Harvey said. The county council and the Health Service Executive established the youth council in 2002.
The 36-member youth council mirrors the organization of the county council with an important difference: The youth council is not party-political. Here, it’s only about the issues.
Along those lines, the young councilors are organizing two candidate debates in advance of the General Election. Candidates “have been dead keen for it,” said Paddy Duffy, the adult debate coordinator for the youth council. He said the events will focus on issues that matter to young people. “All the questions coming from the floor are coming from young people,” he said.
The Donegal Youth Council debate for candidates for Donegal North East is scheduled for 7-8.30 pm, Feb. 15, at the council’s public services centre in Letterkenny, and the debate for candidates for Donegal South West is scheduled for 7-8.30 pm, Feb. 16, at the council public services centre in Donegal Town. Youth councilors held a workshop on Saturday afternoon to determine the format.
“We want to get our issues out to them and see what they think,” Nicole said.
Thoughtful and determined, Nicole was drawn to the youth council when a council staff member came to her school in the autumn to discuss their work. “I fell in love with it,” Nicole said.
She was familiar with the responsibilities of public office: Nicole already serves as head chair of the student council at Rosses Community School (RCS) in Dungloe, where she is in her fifth year. “I kind of got a taste for it,” she said. Nicole, daughter of Rose and Brian Boyle, is the youngest of five children.
Nicole said that too often people focus on teenagers when they are in trouble. But there is much more to them, she said.
“I wanted to give a voice to the people of Donegal,” she said. And she was quick to dismiss the perception that young people were not interested in civic affairs: “From the people I work with, they’re interested in it all right,” she said.
When youth-council elections were held last October, Nicole and a third-year RCS student, Karl Doherty, were among those elected in the Glenties Electoral Area. Youth councilors on the current council range in age from 13 to 17.
This current council has more younger members than there have been in the past, with at least one junior student in each electoral area. The October elections were also patterned after the local elections that select county councilors, even drawing young tallymen to the count to track their candidates’ progress.
Working through the
Youth councillors work through the issues together, building consensus on the best way to move forward.
“We have our debates and when we’re talking about the issues we have a fair idea of what we need to do,” Nicole said.
High on the youth council agenda will be road safety and issues of mental health surrounding bullying in schools, cyber-bullying and homophobic bullying.
“We feel strongly about these,” the youth mayor said. Some young councilors have been affected by the tragic road traffic accidents Donegal has seen and the council is already discussing the need for more awareness and the possibility of slower speed limits for younger drivers.
On bullying, the youth mayor said, “No one should feel scared to go to school. They should feel safe. They should feel confident.”
Youth councilors work with their adult counterparts on the county council to bring young people’s concerns to the Lifford chamber. Expect to hear more from them.
“We’re all up for it, to make a change,” Youth Mayor Boyle said. “We know what we want.”