Northern Ireland Election 2016

Teenage kicks: NI politicians face 'Good Friday Agreement Generation' in televised debate

On Wednesday evening, politicians from the Northern Ireland Assembly's main parties will face first-time voters in a televised BBC debate
Image caption On Wednesday evening, politicians from the Northern Ireland Assembly's main parties will face first-time voters born after the Good Friday Agreement in a televised BBC debate

Eighteen is an age that is meant to mark the start of a time of maturity...

But 18 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, politics in Northern Ireland still shows signs of growing pains.

Yet amid the many crises at Stormont, it is easy to forget the progress that has been made since the peace deal was first published in April 1998.

To the current generation of school-leavers and job-starters, the widespread violence that scarred towns and cities for decades is history they have learned at school - not experiences they lived through like their parents and grandparents.

'How far we have come'

Rowan Armstrong, a first year engineering student at Edinburgh University, says that when he tells young people from Scotland and England he is from Northern Ireland, "they ask is everything okay".

"They seem to think the Troubles are still ongoing and they don't realise how far we have come," said the 19-year-old.

Image caption Rowan Armstrong and Ross Hayburn are doubtful if there will be enough job opportunities to keep them in Northern Ireland long-term

"You just want to take them somewhere like the north coast and they would just fall in love with it."

The stretch of coastline near Portrush and Portstewart offers spectacular scenery and big waves.

Rowan and his friend Ross Hayburn regularly surf in the sea there, but they are doubtful if there will be enough job opportunities to keep them in Northern Ireland in the long-term.

The new troubles are linked to the economy, rather than paramilitaries.

Job prospects

"From speaking to people who have been to university, they say all the jobs are in England, Scotland and further abroad," says Ross, who is on a gap year.

"In terms of staying here for job prospects, I would say it's easier to find [work] in other countries."

Keeping the brightest and best graduates is a real challenge for the power-sharing government at Stormont.

Image caption To the current generation of school-leavers, the widespread violence that scarred towns and cities for decades is history they have learned at school

On Wednesday evening, politicians from the Northern Ireland Assembly's main parties faced first-time voters in a televised BBC debate in Belfast.

They are being called the 'Good Friday Generation', because this will be the first election in which anyone born after the signing of the agreement will be able to vote.

'A bit of a mess'

Despite the progress of the years since that deal, politics remains a divided and at times divisive business.

Unionists and nationalists may share power, but it is in an enforced coalition and disagreements have, on several occasions, threatened the future of the ruling executive.

"It is a bit of a mess," said Callum McKinney of Loreto College in Coleraine.

"They always seem to be arguing and never seem to get along.

"I think they are holding us back."

Image caption The BBC spoke to a group of sixth-form students and first-time voters from Loreto College and Coleraine Grammar School

Callum was part of a group of sixth-form students and first-time voters we spoke to from both Loreto and Coleraine Grammar School.

One of the major sources of problems at Stormont in recent months has been the failure to agree a process to deal with the legacy of the Troubles.

But many of the 18-year-olds - who grew up in a time of relative peace - were frustrated by that continued focus on the past.

More open minded?

"Maybe it's because the older generation did have to grow up in a time when there was a lot more segregation and violence between the communities," reasoned Hannah Anderson of Coleraine Grammar.

"But I do believe the younger generation are a bit more open-minded."

Image caption Hannah Anderson of Coleraine Grammar believes the younger generation are more open-minded

"If they want more young people to vote for them, they need to focus on things that really concern them, such as university fees."

The other big issues they singled out were related to the economy, abortion reform and the failure to introduce same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland - all subjects that have been the source of dispute at Stormont.

Coming of age

However, there was also a recognition of the difference power-sharing has made, even if it is imperfect.

"If you look at Northern Ireland maybe 30 or 40 years ago, you can see it was in chaos," noted Gareth Doherty, one of the sixth-formers.

Image caption Gareth Doherty says Northern Ireland has come a long way since the Good Friday Agreement

"There was really no form of progressive government then but if you look at it now it really has come a long way.

"It is a lot better than it used to be."

Change does not happen overnight and politically the assembly is still evolving.

But perhaps 18 years after the agreement, politics in Northern Ireland is beginning to come of age.