Northern Ireland

'Children of the Belfast Agreement' give their verdicts on the state of NI politics

Pupils chatting
Image caption These sixth form politics students, born around the same time as the historic Belfast Agreement, will be able to vote for the first time in May's Assembly elections

They are calling it the changing of the Stormont guard.

Next month's Northern Ireland Assembly election will see a huge turnover in faces on the MLA benches.

At least a third of those elected in 2011 are not even standing in May.

But is it a case of the more things change the more they stay the same?

To find out, I asked a group of teenagers whom I will call the children of the Belfast Agreement - sixth form politics students from two north Belfast schools - Belfast Royal Academy and Dominican College.

They were born around the same time as the historic deal and will be able to vote for the first time in May's assembly elections.

In general they are a lot kinder than many of those who phone radio talk shows to give their verdicts on our politicians.

But what they say will still resonate with those who believe that eighteen years on from Good Friday 1998, simply agreeing to share power is no longer enough.

'Old, conservative males'

Dominican sixth former Orlaith Feenan said young people needed to find out what was going on and become more engaged in politics.

"People mightn't watch or be interested in debates at Stormont because it seems just like a bunch of old, white conservative males shouting at each other when really there's a lot that's going on beneath that," she said.

Niamh Carroll from Belfast Royal Academy (BRA) said politicians seemed "to kind of manufacture crises for themselves".

"Every other week it seems we are hearing of a crisis whereas I don't think the public understands why they're making such a big deal out of some of these issues," she said.

Eimear Stanton from Dominican called for the assembly to be more representative of the people living here.

"I would like more young people, more women, more ethnic minorities rather than just the same faces that you've seen for the past 20 or 30 years," she said.

Image caption Abigail Magill from BRA says the 'very nature of the executive is remarkable'

Despite criticism, Abigail Magill from BRA said she believed great progress had been made "from the very difficult background that we've come from".

"The very nature of the executive is, I think, remarkable. That you have completely opposing parties, even if at times they don't get on well, it's still remarkable in itself," she added.

BRA politics teacher Katrina Barnett said her students were not motivated by the old orange/green politics.

"They are very issue-driven and looking for a party that represents them and they're maybe not seeing that which can be a wee bit disengaging for them," she said.

Image caption Dominican politics teacher Stephen Jenkins is hoping for a rejuvenation of interest in politics

Her counterpart in Dominican, Stephen Jenkins said "interest in politics always ebbs and flows".

"There was a massive influx of students after the Good Friday Agreement and again when Barack Obama was running for the Presidency," he said.

"I think an influx of new people in the assembly would lead to a rejuvenation of interest in politics at an academic level in schools and universities."

'Less baggage'

So the verdict from the Good Friday Agreement generation is mixed at best. What about the Class of 1998 - those politicians elected to the Assembly after the signing of the Agreement.

Former Alliance MLA Seamus Close said new politicians do not necessarily mean better politics.

"The politicians that will be elected in 2016, the vast majority of them will have less baggage than those that were elected in 1998," said the former MLA who is now a media commentator.

"But I think it has also got to be remembered that the ones who did the deals were the ones that came through the hard graft through the 70s, the 80s and the 90s and were able, to a large degree, to bury the past and continue to work and try to bring things together for the people of Northern Ireland."

But former Ulster Unionist minister, Dermot Nesbitt, has a different perspective.

"Eighteen years after the Second World War it was Beatlemania and I was a teenager and to me the war didn't exist," he said.

"We had moved on from warfare in 1963 and indeed the Beatles played in Hamburg quite often, a town blitzed by bomber command, and yet we had moved on so I can understand it if they say 'here we are eighteen years after the Belfast Agreement and we're still arguing at times over the same old same old'. It is time the politicians from all parties moved on."

After May, the children of the Belfast Agreement, the class of 1998 and everyone else will know if that is going to happen.

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