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Joint Committee on European Union Affairs debate -
Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Europe Day and the European Year of Youth 2022: Engagement with Comhairle na nÓg

Our guests are very welcome to today's committee meeting. This engagement marks Europe Day and the European Year of Youth and the topic of youth experiences and perspectives on Europe. The purpose of today's meeting is to mark Europe Day by amplifying young voices and hearing youth experiences and perspectives on Europe. Europe Day marks the anniversary of the historic Schuman declaration, a day to reflect on the strides taken to bring peace and prosperity to the continent of Europe. The war in Ukraine highlights that the ideals behind the setting up of what became the European Union are still very much necessary. This week also marks the 50th anniversary of the referendum in which Irish people voted to join the then European Economic Community on 10 May 1972.

The year 2022 has also been designated as the European Year of Youth and the aim is to boost the efforts of the EU, the member states and the regional local authorities to honour, support and engage with youth in a post-pandemic perspective. In this context the committee is pleased to be joined by representatives of Comhairle na nÓg, which are child and youth councils in the 31 local authorities of the country, which give children and young people the opportunity to be involved in the development of local services and policies. We are joined by Mr. Leo Galvin, representing Donegal, by Ms Prachi Agrawal representing Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, and by Mr. James O'Brien, representing Wexford. You are all very welcome as are your parents and guardians who are here with you today and who are in the Gallery. I will shortly ask each of you to contribute but before we begin I must read a note on privilege and house-keeping matters before you make your presentations.

All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if the statement of a witness is potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, the witness will be directed to discontinue these remarks. It is imperative that he or she complies with any such direction.

For witnesses attending the meeting remotely from outside the Leinster House complex, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does.

Witnesses participating in this committee session from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should be mindful of domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirements that they must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex to participate in public meetings.

I invite all of the witnesses to make their opening presentations, starting with Mr. Galvin, and then we will have questions from members.

Mr. Leo Galvin

A Chathaoirligh, a bhaill den choiste agus a chairde go leir. Is onóir mór é a bheith anseo inniu chun labhairt libh. Over the course of this year, the European Year of Youth, young people across Europe have been given a voice. It is a long-awaited chance to have a large scale input on European policy and legislation. Having attended several of these consultative events, I must say that the energy was electric. There was a feeling of "Oh my, the European Union wants our opinion!" It was an incredible once-off opportunity but what if it was not a once-off? What if the young people of Ireland were consulted more? What if the decisions the European Union makes had the input of young people more often? Day in, day out decisions are made and many of them affect young people's lives. As we sit in our homes and schools, the desire to have our say is growing. Organisations such as Comhairle na nÓg, SpunOut, the Irish Second-Level Students' Union, ISSU, and many more have the aim of allowing young people to voice their concerns. From lowering public transport costs for every young person in Ireland to gaining a seat on the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, their achievements have been earned through years of work. This clearly demonstrates that young people want a say and an input into the decisions that affect them.

The Schuman Declaration, which we are here today to celebrate, has inevitably led us to this point. A coal and steel community became a legislative and policy-forming coalition where everyone has a say. The benefits of this have been felt throughout the decades as it responded to the problems voiced by its members, especially in Ireland.

Many young people would not be here without the EU's open border policy, finding jobs that can sustain them abroad. I certainly would not be here if my mother had not been able to work in Ireland when she moved here from France. Many young people take public transport, which relies on funding from the EU. Motorways, railways and even infrastructure were built with EU funds, not to mention the transport schemes in rural areas. Even the clothes I wear today would not have made it into the EU without the many trade agreements the Union has made across the world.

Gabhaim buíochas as aird comhaltaí an choiste agus tá suil agam gur bhain siad luach as an méid a bhí le rá againn inniu. I will leave members with the words of Seamus Heaney, "The next move is always the test".

Ms Prachi Agrawal

I am delighted to represent Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown Comhairle na nÓg. After 50 years of our membership of the European Union, I reflect on how immensely this country has progressed because of it. We have grown from a country of political and economic turbulence to a nation with remarkable opportunities and overall standard of living. However, as times progress and change, we must adapt and maintain that level of remarkability for generations to come.

This generation has grown up during the age of uncountable historic events and there is no doubt this has had a monumental impact on the way we perceive the world around us. From living through a global pandemic to the current climate crisis, we have grown up looking at people suffering and the planet dying from a very young age. It does not help that we are growing up during a time of rapid technological progression and the rise of social media, being exposed to an abundance of content before we can even create our own opinions.

I will talk about how all of these issues are closely interlinked and how certain EU policies could potentially solve not one but many of these problems. On a European level, climate change has been a core topic of discussion and some amazing initiatives have been introduced. The European Green Deal, for example, aims to transform Europe into a carbon-neutral continent by 2050. Some funding provided by the EU has been used in fantastic ways, including to restore many bogs and in agricultural activity, but a lot more can be done.

The 2020 European semester country report for Ireland stated that transport and building were hindering our progress towards becoming carbon neutral. Using funding for accessible and affordable transport and green urban development could have a massive and positive impact on our progress.

As students, one of the best and most beneficial resources for us is education. Funding science sectors that investigate and develop reliable renewable energy sources, supporting students of all demographics to pursue environmentally-inclined careers and providing equal opportunities to students to keep different perspectives in the climate conversation would enable us to contribute to change from a young age and not feel helpless about our future. The benefits of education do not stop at climate change. The digital education action plan is a brilliant EU policy initiative that integrates technology into education. We noticed during the pandemic how crucial technology was to us. It allowed people to make a living, receive an education, stay connected and enabled the entire global market to still function. Technology has proved to be integral to our lives, especially those of this generation, yet there are many cases where the digital world has affected us in a harmful or detrimental way because of its growing dangers. Integrating technology into first, second and third level education through accessible and affordable equipment, digitally trained staff and inclusive and user-friendly lessons are just some of the many ways to allow children to understand the online world from a young age, thereby allowing us to feel confident in using technology because it is so prevalent in today's society. Technology could genuinely be the future if it is kept safe and used properly.

As I said, everything is closely related and linked. Quality education empowers students to explore opportunities and develop interests in fields that are necessary and useful in the future, such as climate change and technology. This is just one of the many knock-on effects the implementation of certain EU policies would have on this generation and the population as a whole.

Mr. James O'Brien

Dia daoibh agus táim buíoch as an bhfáilte a cuireadh romham freastal os comhair an Choiste um Ghnóthaí an Aontais Eorpaigh. As a member of Wexford Comhairle na nÓg, I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to the committee.

Recently, I was lucky enough to attend the 25th annual European Youth Parliament national session in Cork. I and many others each worked with a group of like-minded individuals on a committee to research, discuss and form a resolution. The committees debated and voted at general assembly to decide whether the resolutions should pass. A wide variety of topics was discussed, including the housing crisis, unpaid internships, artificial intelligence, or AI, the introduction of tighter restrictions on gender-based violence, the lowering of the voting age to 16 years and many other topics. The European Youth Parliament has proved to me beyond doubt that every young person in Europe deserves to have his or her voice heard when it comes to major issues such as these. These issues will ultimately shape the future that we are expected to and eager to lead.

While Comhairle na nÓg is an amazing tool for its members that serves to help young have their voices heard where they otherwise might not be, it is only representatives of young people's voices and the opportunity is not available to everyone. For many young people, having any kind of influence on the issues that directly affect their lives seems totally impossible.

Young people face problems that are not being addressed nearly as much as they could or should be and that will only grow exponentially over time. If young people had a platform to have their voices heard on issues such as prejudice and harassment towards members of the LGBTQ community, the way the education system and school curriculum are laid out and the housing crisis, it would go a long way to reduce friction between young people and those who have the influence to decide their future. Given the atrocities taking place in Ukraine, a lack of friction is exactly what we need.

Gabhaim buíochas le James as a ráiteas uile a bhí iontach gairid ach bhí na pointí iontach soiléir ann. I thank our guests for their short presentations. Members could learn from them as regards brevity. I thank them for their clear and concise presentations that raised important points. I will open the debate to members.

I really enjoyed the presentations. My first question is for all our guests. Both Mr. Galvin and Mr. O'Brien mentioned the issue of having one's voice heard. Mr. Galvin put it very well when he said, "Oh my, the European Union wants our opinion". It is great when people want to listen.

Mr. O'Brien can correct me if I am wrong, but I get a sense he is saying a lot is being said but nobody is doing anything about it, or at least there is the impression nothing is being done about his concerns. Have any of the witnesses put any thought into what sort of structured forums need to be put in place, not just on an EU basis, but more particularly on an Ireland basis and a local basis, whether in County Wexford or Dublin? The witnesses will move on. They will be elected to the Dáil and will be Ministers in due course. What sort of forums need to be put in place ensure that those coming up through the organisation in five or ten years' time can actually see the issues that are being raised and can track that it is actually being put in place and they are not just getting warm words from politicians about this?

Ms Agrawal's speech was particularly informed. It would not have been out of place in the European Parliament. However, that is not always the case for people of Ms Agrawal's generation. Does she believe there is a dearth of information, especially about European issues, whether through formal education or any of the organisations she is involved in? Would she like to see more information about how the EU works and how all three of the witnesses could influence those decisions? If so, how could that best be achieved? There is no point in us saying nice things and asking the questions. The most important thing we can take out of today's meeting is for the witnesses give us substantive things that we can work on. I thank the witnesses for attending and for taking the day off school to present here today.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

I can answer both of the questions in the same response. They are very connected to each other. In writing my speech, the information I used was not anything from school or anything that was formally given to me. I did a lot of research. I am really interested in EU affairs, policies and initiatives that have been taken because they affect me. They affect many people, but some do not know what is affecting them. The engagement could be done through councils and entities that have children sitting on them, have young people voicing their concerns about policies, educating and spreading awareness on what the EU is doing for us and how we can contribute to change. It would be extremely helpful if young people had a voice in European affairs and education on European affairs. As a young person, education is one of the most important things for me. In CSPE, I learned about politics in Ireland, but not on an international or European level. I would love to receive that education.

Mr. Leo Galvin

Just to build on what Ms Agrawal said, the forums already exist. There are already many organisations, forums and groups that cover what young people want to say, but on the manner in which it is dealt with, it is usually swept under a rug, almost. There is not much done with the information provided. I do not mean to be rude, but it almost works as a two-way street, to some degree. I have spoken to young people and many of them did not know that the Erasmus programme existed until I spoke to them. It is very much two way in that manner. They do not know what the EU is doing for them, but the EU does not know what they want.

That is an interesting observation. Does Mr. O'Brien wish to add to that?

Mr. James O'Brien

Building on what Mr. Galvin and Ms Agrawal said, it is all very connected with education and technology. Every person my age that I know is on social media. That could be a good way of building it in. The European Youth Parliament, in particular, it is modelled on the European Parliament. We spend days working on, researching and putting together resolutions. It seems a shame for all of those opinions not to be used.

Just for context, before I call on Deputy Howlin, are all of the witnesses at the same stage? Are they transition year, fifth year or sixth year students? Where are they in their own education?

Ms Prachi Agrawal

I am 16 and in transition year.

Mr. James O'Brien

I am in transition year.

Mr. Leo Galvin

I am also in transition year.

I have a quick question. Do the witnesses hope to study politics and society for their leaving certificate? Is that something they will be considering?

Ms Prachi Agrawal


You are going to do it?

Ms Prachi Agrawal


Mr. James O'Brien

It is not available in my school. If it was, I would study it.

Mr. Leo Galvin

I will be doing it.

The reason I ask the question is that the students in my home secondary school and alma mater are learning all about Erasmus through that subject. It is an invaluable resource in terms of information. However, I know that not every young person goes through the course. I call Deputy Howlin.

It is apparent that the Chairman is the former Minister for Education. Míle buíochas as na ráitis thábhachtacha sin. We certainly need to readjust ourselves to a listening mode, from what the witnesses have said. I have two questions. When President Macron embarked on the future of Europe dialogue, there was a certain dryness about it. There was a certain staleness about the notion that we were going to look at the institutions, how they operate and perhaps consider majority voting and so on. I think that has changed because of the invasion of Ukraine. The idea of Europe and the values of Europe have been re-looked at, with countries such as Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia applying for EU membership.

My first question concerns the idea of Europe that the founders of the EU had, post-war and after centuries of conflict. Is that a thing? Is it something that young people get? Do people appreciate that they want the notion of a democratic entity with values that are European? I would be interested in hearing the witnesses' perspectives on that.

My second question builds on Deputy Richmond's question. How well did the outreach to young people, in this outreach process, work? Obviously, the witnesses are very well-informed individuals. How representative do the witnesses think they are in terms of their state of knowledge? From what has happened in the outreach process, can we do things better? Have the witnesses suggestions on how to do that.

Mr. Leo Galvin

I am not too certain how we can ensure young people can view how their decisions or their input is taken care of. It could be done by showing young people bill digests, which could show them their input it is being taken into account and that a particular bill has what they want included in it. We could even show them their input is going into the European Parliament or the Council of Europe and is being considered, or at least shown to be considered.

Mr. James O'Brien

With regard to whether the ideas of Europe are a thing, as the Deputy put it, I personally try to recognise them as much as possible. I try to avoid conflict as much as possible. I do not know whether, generally speaking, they are as well recognised in our age group. I try to recognise them. I would not consider myself to be the most well-informed person here with regard to legislation and everything along those lines, but I try.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

On the question of whether the vision of Europe still exists in our mind, I think that in light of certain events, when we think of the EU, we think of a faraway place that has economic boundaries and government officials doing things that we never understand. It blends into the Deputy's second question on whether we are informed about legislation. It is hard, because sometimes we forget we are only 15 or 16. It is really hard to digest all the different legislation and things that are happening. I think the vision of the EU still exists and there is some meaning to it. I think we recognise we are part of a bigger union that was essentially set up to help us. However, it gets lost somewhere because we do not understand as much as we should.

The only mistake Mr. O'Brien, Ms Agrawal and Mr. Galvin made was that they did not get into ponderous meandering. We are not quite used to synopsised, short narrative. They will also discover very quickly that I am not used to it myself. They have dealt with a fair amount. The big issue to which we should be listening, as Deputy Howlin said, is the idea of engagement. Ms Agrawal got it there in that Brexit, the pandemic and the illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine, have probably shown us the absolute necessity of Europe and co-operation, if people had any doubts beforehand. Mr. Galvin was talking about Bill digests which tells a tale that the members of Comhairle na nÓg are probably outliers. Deputy Richmond, I and others were involved in the Conference on the Future of Europe. I completely understand making a considerable number of points and none of them making it on to paper and being utterly disregarded. That conference became a better process as it went on. It made many mistakes. Were the witnesses even aware of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the meetings and Ireland's engagements at it? Were they aware it was happening to any degree?

Mr. James O'Brien


That is what I would have expected.

Is that on Deputy Ó Murchú?

It is on all of us.

Yes, but Deputy Ó Murchú had to represent us.

In fairness, if Deputy Howlin goes through the issues I brought up, I am, on some level, a beaten docket but nobody brought up the issue of drug addiction when we talked about health. I had a meeting yesterday in the estate where I live. It was one of the first issues that people brought up with regard to drug dealing, crime and their impact. I could not see how that would not be brought up during the entirety of what is meant to be engagement with all citizens throughout Europe. There is an abject failure, not only to deal with young people, but to deal with large sections of society.

We are engaging with the members of Comhairle na nÓg who are interested. It is how we engage those who are not interested. People are distanced from politics in this day and age. They are definitely distanced from European politics. The fact that our guests all know the constituent institutions within the European Union makes them complete outliers. I doubt most people on the street know what the European Council, the European Commission or the European Parliament are. Ireland at this stage is probably different from it was ten years ago when we were dealing with austerity, which was seen to have been imposed to some extent by Europe. People are happy with Europe and see it as a good thing, not only in terms of the peace project but also because it is the means of necessary co-operation at this point in time.

The members of Comhairle na nÓg have already gone through the issues that are important to them. They spoke about social media. We could get into the rights and wrongs of social media companies. Europe has made some sort of moves with regard to taking them to task. What can be done, in real terms, to reach other people? How do we interest the disinterested, especially young people? At the Conference on the Future of Europe, we heard that its engagement would continue in future. This is engagement of which the members of Comhairle na nÓg were unaware. What can be done to involve our guests and other people? I said there would be a bit of ponderous meandering.

I have other questions on European politics and what should be happening on a couple of the major issues. Climate change is an issue throughout Europe. People became very worried about Marine Le Pen. Climate change is almost a weapon for the likes of Ms Le Pen but that will be the case until we can show that the state will step up to the mark throughout Europe, as opposed to putting further pressure on young people. My view is that there needs to be a step change in that respect. What is the view of Comhairle na nÓg's members? Will they pick a couple of the major issues?

Ms Prachi Agrawal

With regard to the Deputy's first question on how to interest the disinterested, I do not think that people are not interested. Obviously, you will find people who do not find interest in these things but the majority of the time, people just do not know that these things exist because we have not been taught that in school. In junior cycle, civic, social and political education, CSPE, was a one-hour class every week. Sometimes, we did national news and at other times we talked about recent news stories but it was not a set curriculum in which we had discussions about the European Union, the UN or policies that affect this generation.

Only certain people take either politics and society or economics, where the European Union is discussed in that sense, as leaving certificate subjects. Interesting this generation would be just showing it information. You would then naturally find people who did not think they were interested but when they have been given the source through education and have to get to school and sit through and listen to it, you would find many of them are interested. I do not know how we would interest the disinterested but I keep bringing up education because it is very important. Education on the European Union and international affairs is crucial. I have forgotten the Deputy's second question.

It was about 14 questions all in one. I mentioned climate change but I asked the members of Comhairle na nÓg to pick a number of issues in terms of what they believe, from the perspective of their generation, needs to be done at a political level and at a European level, in particular. They should feel free to throw in an issue that matters to them.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

In my presentation, I talked about living through an age where so many things are happening all at once. There is climate change, war and a global pandemic. It is overwhelming. If we narrow it down, climate change is one of the most important issues to this generation. We have seen school strikes and people on the street saying what needs to be done in rural areas to amplify marginalised voices. We then talk about social media and younger children of 11 or 12 years going on to social media apps such as Instagram and the apps completely changing their view on the world and how they perceive themselves. A lot of things are detrimental to this education but there is also a flip side to it in that climate change has taught us so much about the environment and the world we live in and how we can change it. Social media is an amazing invention. It has taught me a lot about opportunities around me and what I am interested in. Flipping these issues and turning them into positives could definitely help.

Mr. James O'Brien

I totally agree with Ms Agrawal on everything she has said. In terms of interesting the disinterested, if people want to be heard, then they are worth listening to. As Ms Agrawal put it, education is incredibly important when it comes to these issues. I apologise. I need to just gather my thoughts.

Does Mr. O'Brien want to take a second? We can go to Mr. Galvin and then come back to him.

Mr. James O'Brien


Mr. Leo Galvin

As far as engagement goes, if Ms Agrawal, Mr. O'Brien and I are the outliers, of whom I believe there are many more, many of us educate ourselves on these issues, as is evident.

We have had to do so because nobody chooses to go into the detail of them with us or inform us on them to the degree we are seeking. It is more about delving into the issue of people who are mildly interested. To get those people interested, aside from bribery, one could show them what the European Union has done for us. Many people do not even know about roaming charges. That was a massive piece of legislation and work done by the European Union. Not many young people are aware that this happened or that they existed. It is a matter of education. One cannot force a person into something in which he or she is not interested, but if you just tell them - I do not want to say it like this - the bare minimum, that can fuel their interest further. We believe the social, personal and health education, SPHE, and CSPE programmes are flawed because they do not complete the outcome they were designed to achieve. It is more a matter of considering those programmes and trying to change them.

As regards the Deputy's second question, one of the major topics currently for young people is transport. It has a lot to do with independence. In rural areas in particular, there is much discussion of climate change and going green, but if, in a virtuous attempt to do something, one takes away a person's ability to go anywhere, I cannot see how that benefits anyone. It would almost be better to target urban areas because although rural areas have a lot of emissions, targeting transport there is not a good idea, especially considering they have such a deficit in public transport.

I refer to general supports in schools in the context of mental health skills in particular, such as in respect of panic attack crises. I will not bring in the issue of child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, because it is far too large an issue. There is a need for general supports. CAMHS is an difficult system to get into, with long waiting lists for its therapists. I have never been in CAMHS but I know it is not an amazing system.

Mr. James O'Brien

Education is the most important thing when it comes to interesting the disinterested, as Ms Agrawal put it. If people are educated properly, one will naturally find that far more people want to be heard. As Mr. Galvin stated, the CSPE and SPHE programmes are flawed, but they are a good starting point on which to build. A change, even a minor one, in the curriculum is all that is needed to light the spark.

As regards the most important issues, there is an argument to be made that climate change is the most important issue because it relates to where young people will be going. If something is not done about it, they will be living in a world that is not feasible to live in. That is a major point of education in the context of the programmes as well. Mental health is another good one, as is support for minority groups such as the LGBTQ community. That support has been getting a lot better in recent years but there is still a deficit there in terms of how minority groups are seen and treated.

I assure the Chairman that I am not asking another question. In fairness, our guests were very clear in respect of the work that needs to be done on bridging the gaps, particularly as regards information. I have taken on board all their points in respect of the issues. None of it is shocking. It was all very well put. I apologise, but I need to leave the meeting now to make more ponderous and meandering points in the Dáil.

Mr. O'Brien, Ms Agrawal and Mr. Galvin are very welcome. I am always energised after listening to youth. I work a lot with youth in my area. I love listening to them. It is important that politicians listen carefully to what their needs are. Our guests have highlighted the lack of engagement of politicians at local, national and European levels with youth.

What does it mean to our guests to be a good European?

What are their views on a voting age of 16?

I also ask for their views on the effects the pandemic and the associated restrictions have had on young people in this country. How did that affect them?

I refer to the European grants that are available for youth. There are many grants available, such as from the European Youth Foundation. How does one get the word out about those grants? Very few Irish groups are on the list when those grants are announced.

What are our guests' two biggest worries as young people in Ireland today?

Those are my questions. If our guests could answer even a couple of them, I would appreciate it.

I thank the Senator for those good questions. Which of our guests wishes to respond? Ms Agrawal is smiling.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

The Senator asked about the impact of the pandemic on this generation. I could go on and on about how those two years impacted me personally, but also my generation. First, I referred in my opening remarks to technology being such an integral part of the pandemic, both positively and negatively. Social media and the Internet are so useful to me because I can stay connected and updated about things that are happening around the world. I started getting interested in politics and global affairs because I saw all these movements, such as Black Lives Matter, and policies that were happening all over the world while I was just at home, isolating or doing school online, and I thought there was something more that could be done. The pandemic was definitely an eye-opener for many people, but it was not the best for the mental health of people around the world. We were at home without social contact. We were not meeting up with anyone. We were at home for the majority of the time, on our phones and almost overdosing on social media, scrolling for hours on end and almost getting indoctrinated by the screen. When we got back to school, one could see how we had changed. We were a lot quieter and shyer because we had not had social contact in two years. There were added mental health pressures caused by being at home for two years, not knowing oneself as much and feeling that we almost missed our teenage years in that sense. It was a really difficult transition. On a European level, more could have been done in respect of mental health awareness. That was the biggest thing we probably needed at the time - someone or something to tell us that mental health can get bad and that is okay. There is a need for support systems because it is difficult to go tell a teacher at school that your mental health is bad but it is even more difficult to be at home wondering what to do.

I think the next question was what are our guests' two biggest worries.

Yes. What are their two biggest worries as young people in Ireland today?

Ms Prachi Agrawal

Climate change is definitely one of my biggest worries. The climate emergency is becoming a crisis and it has to be dealt with in the same way as Covid.

What is Ms Agrawal's second biggest worry?

Ms Prachi Agrawal

It is the growing inequality in Ireland. I refer to the disparity experienced by marginalised communities, LGBT communities and girls, among others. It is about gender inequality and things like that. I do not want it to get worse.

Mr. Leo Galvin

The Senator asked about a voting age of 16. I may be in the minority to some degree in this regard.

I have heard that young people are not too supportive of lowering the voting age. I believe voting at 16 years of age would be a positive and effective change, if not for the entirety of elections then perhaps just for MEP elections. Many countries have started out with lowering the voting age to 16 and allowing for the collection of data on how those elections fared. In certain countries, such as, I believe, Scotland, the turnout for that age group jumped massively. In Austria, over time, turnout lowered slightly for young people but it has continued to be quite high.

And your two biggest worries?

Mr. Leo Galvin

Yes, sorry. My two biggest worries at the moment - nationally?

Nationally. Let us take it nationally.

Mr. Leo Galvin

Okay. My largest worries nationally would be - I am not too certain. I apologise.

It is wonderful to have no worries in transition year.

Do you know what is wonderful? Sometimes when politicians do not have an answer, they just keep talking.

A politician in the making.

It is very admirable to be honest and say nothing.

Mr. Leo Galvin

I have far too many small worries.

Mr. James O'Brien

In terms of lowering the voting age to 16, as things are with the 16-year-olds I tend to interact with, I would not say the average 16-year-old is mature enough to vote. I do not mean that as an insult; it is my anecdotal experience. It would be a two-part process. It would relate to how educated people are. If the CSPE programme were built upon in a way that would inform people of the different parties they could vote for, that would increase the number of people who vote.

With regard to my two biggest worries, Ireland is perhaps one of the better countries for climate change but it is a worry regardless. The inability to do anything about it would be my other biggest worry.

I thank the witnesses for their honesty.

The witnesses are very welcome. It is brilliant to hear real voices talking about the real issues. It makes a pleasant change. I represent Wicklow. A large event was organised by Wicklow Comhairle na nÓg last Friday and was attended by more than 100 young people. They broke into workshops, and I had the privilege of sitting in on some of them and hearing about some of the real issues. It is great to hear the witnesses articulate many of the issues raised at that meeting. The issues included everything from mental health, the illegal invasion of Ukraine, hate speech, climate and biodiversity to drug use and a lot of other issues. The meeting was in line with what the witnesses identified as the real issues.

I want to pick up on a couple of points. Reducing the voting age to 16 is something I firmly believe should happen. The case of Scotland was raised by Mr. Galvin. The level of engagement by young people, the education built around that and the turnout on the initial day was fascinating to watch.

A significant piece of work was done in Leinster House in the previous Dáil term when a Bill tabled by my one of my colleagues, Senator Fintan Warfield, to reduce the voting age to 16 worked its way through the Seanad. Unfortunately, it did not progress. To see the level of engagement by young people in that process was fascinating. Having the witnesses before us today shows there is a level of knowledge. In my view, the witnesses are the very reason the age should be reduced to 16. That is not to be patronising; I am saying this because they are so articulate in terms of the issues. From an educational perspective, getting young people engaged in decision-making is something that should happen.

To follow up on the question of whether the witnesses think the voting age should be reduced, would reducing the voting age to 16 force the people who make legislation at European and State level sit up and listen to people like the witnesses? I have heard from young people that they speak, but there is a perception that the people who make the legislation are not listening. Would reducing the voting age help to change that and ensure the voices of young people would be heard, listened to and acted upon?

Over the past three months we have seen the fallout from the horrific invasion of Ukraine. That has also shaped a debate in this State around Irish neutrality. We have predominantly middle-aged people talking about our neutrality. If a decision was taken to drop our neutrality, the young people who are not making that decision would be affected. It would be fascinating to hear a young person's perspective on neutrality. The witnesses are the sort of young people who, in such a scenario, would be sent to the front line in a war situation as, unfortunately, we are seeing in Ukraine. I would like to hear their views on whether young people are engaged with and aware of the debate on neutrality.

I thank the witnesses. They have done very well today. The issues they have identified on behalf of their peers are consistent with issues raised by many of the people I had the pleasure of meeting the other day.

Mr. James O'Brien

I stand by what I said about lowering the voting age. I had not thought about whether it would have a knock-on effect when it comes to people our age being listened to, which it definitely would. It is something to take into account. There are many layers that need to be considered when thinking about lowering the voting age. I would be more in favour of lowering the voting age having heard what the Deputy has said.

With regard to neutrality, I consider myself a pacifist. I am a massive advocate for non-violence. What is happening with Putin and Ukraine is unprecedented in the 21st century. It is appalling. That goes without saying. However, where a diplomatic solution is possible, which I think it is in most cases, or at least should be, neutrality is necessary or at least helpful in fostering that.

Mr. Leo Galvin

Lowering the voting age would certainly force politicians to consider a young person's point of view and recognise young people's problems, because if such a change was made to the law, it would encompass a large portion of the electorate. Young people would be listened to much more because their voices would matter more to politicians if they were being told they can vote for them now and, therefore, they have to appeal to that cohort.

On neutrality, I believe very strongly that Ireland should remain completely neutral. Warmongering is not something that is positive. In our country’s history we have experienced what war and fighting result in. It is not long ago that we had the effects of a war, or an unconventional war, occurring on the Irish isle. I would strongly say that Ireland should remain neutral in all senses of the word.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

I completely agree with what Mr. O’Brien and Mr. Galvin said. In regard to voting at 16, I have not formed an opinion yet. However, I believe that, if given the vote, we would obviously be taken more seriously and given more of a thought by politicians because, as Mr. Galvin said, they would appeal to us and, in their campaigns, do things that appeal to 16-year-olds and those under or over 16. I support lowering the voting age. That is all I can say on that for now.

Neutrality, again, is something I feel extremely strongly about. In the 21st century, talking about going off to war is dystopian. It should not be happening. However, if it is, Ireland can help in many other ways, such as through immigration policy. We have accepted many Ukrainians into the country, which is fantastic. Helping in those aspects is much more helpful than, as Mr. Galvin said, warmongering. I believe that neutrality is important to Ireland as well.

Hopefully, our guests’ voices on that will be heard. It is all well and good for middle-aged people to talk about neutrality and what it means but it is young people who would ultimately be put on any front line. The voices of our young guests are powerful and I thank them.

I thank our guests for their presentations and for being here today. I am sure it is a little intimidating but hopefully they have relaxed more into it. It is very interesting to draw out their opinions on so many issues, including climate change, neutrality, the voting age and so forth. It has been a learning exercise for us. We get the message loud and clear that the voices of young people need to be heard and that is not quite happening at the moment.

We are celebrating 50 years of Ireland’s membership in the European Union this week. We had Europe Day on Monday. The presentations are part of the week-long schedule of activity. We had a comprehensive debate in the Dáil yesterday about Europe Day and what Europe means to us all. It is clear that membership of the European Union has transformed Irish society. We joined in 1972. Looking back on it, and I do not remember the 1950s and the period prior to membership, but Ireland was a very dark place at the time. The European Union dragged Ireland kicking and screaming into the 20th and 21st centuries. That is something we need to be conscious of.

The European Union espouses liberal democratic values and tolerance. The vision and ideals of the European Union must relate to young people, in particular. When we consider the Brexit vote in the UK in 2016 which led the UK to leave the European Union, it is interesting that research shows that young people voted in very large numbers to remain in the European Union and it was the older people who wanted to leave. That tells a message as well. Even in regard to rule of law issues, when the Polish Government introduced LGBTIQ+ exclusion zones, the European Union was very strong in saying that it was just not acceptable. Countries have to adhere to the values and ideals of the European Union if they want to be a member of the Union. I just put that out to our guests and hope they agree that the European Union is particularly good for young people in respect of the values that it espouses. I hope they will agree with me on that.

On climate change, which Ms Agrawal and others mentioned, the European Union is to the forefront in dealing with it. Ms Agrawal mentioned the European Green Deal and so forth. That is just one issue. Countries such as Russia, China and India are not pulling their weight in regard to dealing with climate change, which is a big worry. However, the European Union is to the forefront of that.

Do our guests agree that the European Union is actually good for young people? Where do they see themselves going in the future? Would any of them consider a political career, for want of a better word, joining a political party or becoming actively involved in politics? They have taken big steps in coming here today and becoming involved in Comhairle na nÓg. Would any of them pursue politics formally and perhaps run for office in a local council or the Dáil some day?

Is that an offer?

Mr. Leo Galvin

To answer the Deputy’s first question on the values of the European Union, I certainly agree with them. Ireland is much more of a moderate country, politically speaking. We do not have many extremist parties or extremist views. I believe the European Union, to some extent, is very much the same in that regard. As such, I very much agree with the values of the European Union.

On the second question as to whether we are considering some sort of role in politics, I would not be certain of it. Politics is a very complicated field to get into and especially to begin with. The world of political parties is an incredibly difficult one to navigate as well. I would shy away from political parties, but I would stand by organisations or different points from a very utilitarian sort of point of view. I would not side with any politics, if that makes sense.

I thank Mr. Galvin for his interesting insight into a profession that is rather complex and hard to navigate at times. It is very interesting.

Mr. James O'Brien

I apologise. What was the Deputy's question again?

I asked about the values and ideas of the European Union-----

Mr. James O'Brien

Of course.

-----and if Mr. O'Brien thinks they are good for young people. Also, would he consider getting further involved in politics?

Mr. James O'Brien

My apologies; I had a complete blank there. I believe it was Senator Keogan who asked the question of what it means to be a good European. What it means to be a good European and a good person in general are essentially one in the same. It means, for example, being tolerant of others, respectful, kind and actively trying to help people. That is why I would not necessarily consider politics as my first career option. I would perhaps skew more in favour of therapy or counselling, considering the mental health deficit that more or less everyone is experiencing, especially in the wake of the pandemic and everything happening in Ukraine and the world over, essentially. Helping people with that would be my main priority. The way we perceive the world around us impacts on our mental health. If that can be fixed, then the issues themselves do not matter to the individual as much. That is not to say the issues are not important or anything, because obviously they are.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

I definitely agree with the values of the European Union. The whole idea of diversity, inclusivity and culture is one that interests me very much.

I hope that in the coming decades the world will have this unity of tolerance and inclusion with every country. In Ireland we learn about European countries through modern foreign languages. Irish is recognised as a national language in the European Union. It is amazing for our culture and heritage and for learning about other cultures. I am very interested in politics. Perhaps one day I might decide to run in a general election. I am not sure because there are not many young people in the Dáil at present. I am not sure how inclusive it would be for me to go into an election as the youngest in it. I am not sure the Government likes young people in politics that much.

The door is always open. It is very interesting to get this feedback from the witnesses. Before getting into formal politics, perhaps they could champion issues. I will use this as a preamble to introduce Senator Martin, who is an example of somebody who was not a member of a political party in university but he championed and campaigned on various causes. It was politics without being part of a formal organisation. That is a big build-up for him.

I thank the Chair. Deputy Haughey's question was a good one. I hope the witnesses think about it because they would be wonderful additions but they must have the calling. I spoke to someone I had not seen in a number of years who had entered the seminary as a priest. He did not stay for too long and only did a couple of years. When I asked him about it he said he did not have a vocation but his mother had one for him. He realised he did not have it himself. It has to come from within. There are many types of callings in politics. There are advisers in the background and people involved in communications. Without telling the witnesses who know so much what to do, perhaps they could put their toes in the water by checking out student union politics. This would give them a flavour and taste for it. The witnesses are wonderful ambassadors. This has been insightful session. I am sorry I had to leave to go to the Seanad and I privately apologised to the Chair. I returned because it is wonderful the witnesses are here.

I have several questions that are not connected. A bugbear of mine has been the lack of law on the curriculum at second level. Until a few years ago I was trying to demystify the law in second level schools with the public access to law programme. Do the witnesses agree it is a shame it is not on the State curriculum? The function of a proper legal system is part of the democratic process

I know the witnesses are discerning and they have the undoubted capacity but do they have the time to analyse, assess and differentiate between advocates of various methods of how to tackle climate change? I have not met a politician who is against tackling climate change. I am not politicising it and I will not say what party I or anyone else is in. It can be a generalisation. Do the witnesses have time to drill down a little bit? They are leaders. Some people say they are totally in favour of tackling climate change but might be utterly against any imposition of carbon tax or considering water as a finite resource, even among the most well-off. There are people with the genuinely held view, with which I do not agree, that cutting sod turf should not be stopped. They say they are totally in favour of tackling climate change but that sod turf should remain. I do not want the witnesses to tell me the differential results of it but have they had an opportunity to drill down behind the slogan on tackling climate change and look at what people want to do in this respect? I am not necessarily speaking about party politics but individuals. There is a wide sphere of approaches to this biggest challenge facing humanity. I would love to get the views of the witnesses on this. Do they assess various ways of taking tangible steps to achieve the desired response?

Mr. Leo Galvin

I will begin with the question on law in post-primary schools. I believe law should be taught but that is only because I have an interest in it. For many people law is an incredibly long-winded subject that takes a long time even to comprehend let alone get into the details of it.

Mr. Galvin would like it optional and not compulsory in the curriculum.

Mr. Leo Galvin

Not even to that degree. Law itself as a subject would not serve much of a purpose unless people went on to do a law programme. Even then, an advance placement in college could suit that fancy. That would be a difficult vocation to get into. It falls back to the interest of students and the interest people have in law and politics. We are not ingrained with this interest. It is only that if people happen to have it, they can go and search for it.

My next question was on climate change responses.

Mr. Leo Galvin

Once more that falls to the education side of things. If people are not aware of the political sides of the argument or the people campaigning for it, I am not too certain how it would go. Our organisation works on a consultative and project basis. Unless we are doing a project on climate change, we would not examine a person or group for this type of work.

Ms Prachi Agrawal

With regard to law becoming a subject, I agree with Mr. Galvin's point on interests. If law becomes the subject, why would we not learn about engineering at post-primary level? Law is important in the sense that we should know about the Constitution and our rights, but it could be introduced through other ways in the curriculum, such as civil social and political education courses or social, personal and health education. Law as a subject on its own might not appeal to many people. It might cause some people to lose interest because they would have been learning it for six years and would think they know everything they need to know about it. This is my opinion. I do not think law should be a subject but we should learn about certain aspects of it such as the Constitution.

With regard to climate change and analysing exactly what needs to be done, in our organisation we focus on issues that affect young people such as fast fashion. We have worked on this for the past two years. Identifying how it affects us is the way we analyse it. Climate change impacts different people in different ways. Everyone has some solutions.

Mr. James O'Brien

I agree with Mr. Galvin that law should not necessarily be a subject in and of itself. We should definitely know our constitutional rights and we should know about the legal system. Elements of the legal system can come up in subjects such as history and English specifically. It would come in to civil, social and political education the most, and that curriculum could be changed to teach us about our rights and how the legal system in Ireland works. It would also come into being educated on various tactics or strategies for tackling climate change.

There is a definitely a responsibility on young people and people in general to do individual research on how they feel about it and what they would do about it. If it were part of the curriculum, it would go a long way to ingrain it more into our lives and give us a more active reason to think about it, as opposed to it being an ethereal thing we cannot really grasp.

On climate change-----

Mr. James O'Brien

That was what I meant. Apologies, I might not have specified it. Making climate change a bigger part of the curriculum would incentivise more interest in it naturally.

I thank our guests. From the feedback from the members here today, this has been quite a significant intervention. Sometimes things can be a one-off and tokenistic but perhaps the committee should have a further discussion on keeping this going in terms of hearing the voice of young people. Today was very important. We are thankful and grateful to you, our guests, for having the courage, first of all, to come before us and then being so honest, frank, comprehensive, precise, concise and illuminating. We have all been out of the loop for the past few years. We just do not pick up where we left off. The world has changed. Everything has changed. Commissioner Johansson was here a few weeks ago and she said, "You are only ... [young] once, but you are 50 forever". It was a very interesting one. We have to listen to you, our guests, because you are the next generation. You lost out a good bit during the Covid lockdown and we must be very attentive to what you are saying. We are grateful to you for coming here today. I thank you so much for doing so. Arís, ar son an choiste, gabhaim buíochas libh fá choinne an taispeántais chuimsithigh. Tá níos mó rudaí ag bogadh ar aghaidh agus tá tionchar suntasach sa domhan, i gceantair áitiúla agus náisiúnta fosta, agus glór na hóige i gceist. Go raibh maith agaibh agus ádh mór oraibh amach anseo.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.02 a.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 May 2022.