On 22nd November 2012, having won School and Club interview heats, I was selected from over 3000 applicants as one of twenty-four winners of the 2013 Youth Leadership Development Competition. I would be joining pupils from schools across Ireland for a week long leadership programme in Belfast, Dublin and Strasbourg, culminating in a Euroscola Day in the European Parliament.
Jury's Inn in Belfast was the group's first meeting point, and on 3rd March 2013 I duly arrived to meet my counterparts, knowing none of them. Our awkward introductions were quickly forgotten, however, and firm friendships were soon formed. Our first evening together was spent discussing the programme for the week ahead, and deliberating on the European issues we had each been given to research for the Euroscola. Peter Cardwell, an alumnus of the Programme and currently a producer and presenter for UTV, spoke to us about his career in the media. We were assured of a very exciting week.
Monday morning began with a short walk to the Belfast-based EU Commission Office in Northern Ireland. There, Mrs Collette Fitzgerald, Head of Office, highlighted the current challenges facing the EU, and the role of young people in providing solutions to these problems. Mrs Fitzgerald, a former Deputy Head of Innovative Actions Unit of the European Commission, provided a wealth of information on the European Union, and the opportunity to question her on current EU structures allowed us each to consolidate our knowledge.
A tour of the Belfast City Hall followed, giving all the participants an introduction to the Northern Irish politics, about which they would be learning more in our afternoon visit to the NI Assembly Buildings at Stormont. At Stormont, we listened to Members of the Legislative Assembly from all the main political parties, before questioning them on their policies. This opportunity to challenge political representatives gave us a valuable insight into the political systems and culture in Northern Ireland. We received a tour of Stormont and of the UTV Stormont Studio, before we watched part of the Assembly debate on Party donations, which proved to be a contentious issue. At close of business, we journeyed south to Dublin, where we lodged on O'Connell Street.
Day Three of the Programme brought us to the European Parliament Office in Dublin. Anne McAvoy and Harry O'Connor, Secretary and Deputy Head of Office respectively, spoke to us about the history and development of the European Union, and about how it may change in the future. We were presented with our Rotary Certificates by District Governor Jack Cunningham, before crossing the road to Leinster House, the Irish Parliament Buildings. There we met Simon Harris, Ireland's youngest TD, and Senator Jillian Van Turnhout, former Vice-President of the European Economic and Social Committee. They told us about their very different journeys into Irish politics, and answered our questions on the Children's Rights issues on which they campaign. We were given a tour of Leinster House, before watching Leader's Questions in the Dáil, and a Senate Debate on the Electoral Bill.
A 2011 Study on Twitter showed that Irish citizens were most unhappy, according to their Tweets, at 4am on Wednesday mornings. At 4am on Wednesday 6th March, I found myself in the departure lounge of Dublin Airport. This may sound like a recipe for such unhappy Tweets, but the death of the Venezuelan Leader, Hugo Chávez, while unfortunate in itself, became the subject for a surprisingly lively debate, and any unhappy sentiments related to our early start were quickly forgotten. We flew to Frankfurt, before driving to Strasbourg in time for lunch. In the afternoon, we explored the old city, including the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral, stopping at every traditional chocolate shop along the way. Final preparations were made for the Euroscola, and I savoured the delights of some of the regions local, and entirely uncooked, meats.
Thursday was the pinnacle of the Rotary Youth Leadership Trip; a day of debates and international cooperation in the European Parliament. 500 students from 21 EU Member States were gathered in the Louise Weiss Parliament Building to discuss issues ranging from internet safety to the Common Agricultural Policy. We were welcomed to the debating chamber, the 'hemicycle', by Lotte Tittor, Secretary of the Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs Committee in the European Parliament, who gave us an introduction into how EU policy affects national governments and European citizens. In the plenary session which followed, I was given the opportunity to pose a question to Ms Tittor and her colleagues, and I asked what the EU was doing to address the unemployment problems that face Europe's young people.
Each participant had been given a specific area of EU policy to consider for debate, and after lunch, we split into six Committees to form proposals on our chosen topic. Mine was agriculture, and I would be working with about 100 other young European delegates to solve the shortcomings and controversies of the Common Agricultural Policy. The horse-meat scandal, which had hit the headlines earlier in the week, provided a tasty backdrop to the Committee session, and we were all keen to get our teeth stuck into this meaty debate. Each group was asked to elect a President and Spokesperson and, in a whirlwind of handshakes and electioneering gold, I became the later for the Agriculture Committee. This presented me with an unforgettable experience; to be a Chairperson for my Committee, to present the group's proposals to the 'hemicycle' as a Commissioner, and to defend these proposals when questioned by members of the other Committees.
The Agriculture Committee entered into an interesting debate, which continued across multiple European languages, and I had a full batch of proposals to present to the hemicycle. I survived interrogation by the participants, and the proposals were voted on and passed with a majority of 211. The day ended with the European Anthem, 'Ode to Joy', and the Rotary team left exhausted, but in high spirits, having been a dominant force in proceedings from start to finish.
Our return on Friday to Dublin and normality came as a shock after a week of so much excitement and learning, and, as I said goodbye to my 23 new friends, I realised just how fortunate I was to every have been selected for such a trip.
The Rotary Youth Leadership Development Trip was an extraordinary week, with so many memorable and varied experiences. My working knowledge of Northern Irish, Irish and European politics and government structures has greatly expanded, as has my understanding of the work of the leaders of these democracies. The chance to question these men and women is enviable, and the opportunity to listen to the questions of my fellow participants was truly priceless. The opportunity given to me to act as a Chairperson and Spokesperson of the Agricultural Committee was one I will never forget, and the experience I gained from presenting and defending my Committees proposals will be hugely beneficial to me for the future.
The strength of the friendships I formed with my fellow participants over the course of the week was remarkable. To have the opportunity to listen and talk to them, challenge them and be challenged by them, and to learn from them was invaluable. I have made friends I will remember for years to come, and have gained an important perspective into what young people can achieve in their careers and lives.
I would like to thank Mrs Davey and Methodist College Belfast for giving me the opportunity to compete in the Rotary Youth Leadership Development Competition, and I hope my experience will encourage pupils to apply in future years. I would like to thank Mr Brian Ferguson and the Rotary Belfast Branch for preparing and supporting me at the regional interview stage. Finally, I would like to thank District Governor Nominee Phillip Beggs, President of Letterkenny Rotary Club Hazel Russell and New Generations Chair Jenny McCrea for organising the trip and leading us on such a great learning experience.