NI Assembly election: Patients' priorities and trusting teens

By Iain McDowell


Prioritising the patients

Image source, RCGPNI
Image caption,
Karen Mooney and David Keenan sit on the RCGP's Patients in Practice advisory group

People should put their priorities for the healthcare system to Stormont candidates during the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign, a patients' group has urged.

GPs have consistently pointed out to politicians that their services are on the verge of collapse, with practices threatened with closure.

Now Patients in Practice, a group that gives its views to the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), has unveiled a manifesto to lay out what is important to those on the receiving end of GP care.

The document says patients want timely, guaranteed access to a family doctor in their area and measures put in place to tackle waiting lists.

David Keenan, the group's chairman, said its members "agonised" over what the manifesto should cover.

He said several major issues - from disability care to mental health - were contributing to a "stressed, under-resourced and under-supported healthcare system".

People should challenge prospective politicians on their views for the future of healthcare in Northern Ireland, he added.

And he said that would help to "get the message across" that healthcare is "not a party political issue".

"What I want the people out there to hear is: 'Talk to your politician,'" said Mr Keenan.

"Ask them about your healthcare, ask them what they're going to do about it.

"You are the expert in your condition - make sure your politician knows how much you're hurting and how much you need a healthcare system to help you now."

Heat at the hustings

Image caption,
Audience members put their questions to election candidates at the Agape Centre

It got heated - in more ways than one.

Monday night saw one of the biggest election hustings events of the campaign so far, with a couple of hundred people packed into the Agape Centre on Belfast's Lisburn Road.

It was organised by Challenges NI, the political discussion series founded by two students at Methodist College in the city, Thomas Copeland and Jack O'Dwyer-Henry.

The crowd was so sizable that some people had to be seated in the foyer, and even with the windows open the room quickly heated up.

And as the debate wore on, the temperature rose on stage, too, with the RHI scandal, abortion reform, the migrant crisis and Brexit all on the agenda.

While invitations were extended to unionist parties, none of them accepted the chance to appear on the panel, leaving it somewhat left-leaning.

Politics pupils Thomas and Jack organised their first hustings in the run up to last year's assembly election and hadn't expected to have to pull another one together quite so soon.

Image caption,
Thomas Copeland and Jack O'Dwyer-Henry have their doubts about the Stormont system

Thomas has turned 18 and can vote for the first time in March, but 17-year-old Thomas will have to wait.

They said people in Northern Ireland had "lost faith" in a Stormont system "that doesn't work for them", and there is "very little appeal" for the generation to remain in the region.

"The idea of having a functioning political system and a government that doesn't constantly collapse and a political party system that isn't inherently dysfunctional is something that I would really hope Northern Ireland matures towards attaining," Jack said.

But it remains to be seen whether or not the political system is up for change, Thomas said.

"I'm a little bit cynical myself about the very way that our institutions are set up," he said.

"But I hold out hope that we can resolve ourselves in a situation in the future where we're not looking back at the past with such disappointment."

Too young to be trusted?

Image source, Lismore CS
Image caption,
Pupils at Lismore Comprehensive School have been reviewing the parties' election broadcasts

It's a debate that rages around every election - should the voting age be lowered?

While young people in Scotland can vote when they reach 16 years old, those in Northern Ireland have to wait until adulthood.

But that hasn't stopped politics pupils at Lismore Comprehensive School in Craigavon, County Armagh, from keeping an eager eye on the election campaign.

Only a handful of them have turned 18 and are eligible to vote on 2 March, with others missing out by a matter of months.

And they're adamant that they aren't too young to be trusted with a ballot paper.

There's a feeling of frustration from those who haven't made it on to the electoral register because of their age.

"We have to live with the consequences of this decision for the next few years, so we should, at least, have a say in it," said one 17-year-old.

"It's very frustrating because I study politics, so I have a view of the different political parties and I don't get my chance to vote," one girl said.

Image source, Lismore CS
Image caption,
Some Lismore students can vote in the election, but others will miss out by a matter of months

"I have more of a fresh overview of everything because I'm younger and I don't focus as much on the past."

And another girl said that teenagers aged 16 and over should not be less "highly valued as everyone else just because we're younger".

"We can get married, we can join the Army, but we can't vote for the type of place that we want to live in."

For those who will have a say on polling day, there is a sense of anticipation as well as a recognition of the responsibility that comes with casting their vote.

"It feels exciting but it's a tough, tough decision because I don't believe in any of them," said one first-time voting pupil.

Those in the sixth-form politics class at Lismore believe that taking an active interest in the election is an important way to encourage political engagement in young people.

They've been reviewing the parties' election broadcasts, casting a critical eye over what the leaders have had to say for themselves.

And they'll also put their questions to candidates at a schools' hustings event next week before hosting an election of their own on the same day as the assembly poll.

Pounding the pavements

Image source, BBC/Emmet McDonagh Brown
Image caption,
Emmet McDonagh Brown has been posting his weekly canvassing stats on Twitter

Surely there's nothing better than an election campaign to get rid of those few extra pounds picked up over the Christmas period?

Party activists are pounding the pavements across Northern Ireland in the hunt for votes, clocking up hundreds of miles and burning off thousands of calories in the process.

Alliance Party candidate Emmet McDonagh Brown is one of those who has been keeping track of his stats.

With more than a week of the campaign remaining, he said he's walked 108 miles around his constituency on the election canvass so far.

We'll be keeping an eye on which candidates are fleet of foot between now and polling day, and we want them to let us know their scores from walking door-to-door.

BBC News NI's Campaign Catch-up will keep you across the Northern Ireland Assembly election trail with a daily dose of the main stories, the minor ones and the lighter moments in the run up to polling day on Thursday 2 March.