Tomorrow thousands of voters from across Tyrone will go to the polls in an election to the Stormont Assembly, which is being viewed as one of the most important for years.
Concerns around the ‘cost of living’ crisis, long hospital waiting lists and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Protocol have been dominating the news agenda.
There are also contrasting views over the potential for a so-called Border Poll on a United Ireland.
Perhaps most historically of all, the poll could also see Sinn Féin becoming the largest party, and with that, the historic appointment of a first nationalist First Minister.
As their leader in the North, it’s certain that this role would fall to Clonoe woman and Mid Ulster MLA, Michelle O’Neill, provided unionists would then play their part in nominating for the post of Deputy First Minister.
Across Tyrone, too, hundreds of 18 year-olds are preparing to vote for the very first time.
Ahead of Thursday’s poll, students from three schools in Omagh have been giving their views on what is motivating them as they get their first direct taste of the democratic process. The teenagers are part of politics and journalism classes at the Omagh CBS, Sacred Heart College and Drumragh Integrated College. They represent a new generation of voters, who, all the indications suggest, are less concerned about the traditional, tribal politics and more interested in seeing improvements in living standards for the future.
Omagh CBS student, Paul Furey, reckons that the likelihood of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party would be a turning point in the history of the North.
“It’s difficult to say how that will play out at the moment, because there is the possibility of Stormont collapsing,” he said.
“I see the cost of living crisis as the biggest issue, and the main problemfacing so many households. That’s definitely something which Stormont needs to be sitting to try and address.”
Another CBS student voting for the first time is Jason Havlan. He thinks things are finally showing signs of coming together, but isn’t sure whether that will happen or not.
“If this election goes well, then hopefully it will be very positive for the country. If there isn’t an Executive formed, then that will just show the divide is still there. If the people at the top cannot work together, then how can they expect everyone else to? The politicians must show an example.”
Conor McGirr, also a student at the CBS, believes strongly in integrated education and would like to see the Stormont Assembly placing more emphasis on it.
“I think there should be more integrated education and less of school being segregated by religion,” he remarked.
At the Sacred Heart College, Nataniel Bogos, believes politics here and around the world is interesting because of how much it affects the lives of everyone.
“Politics is something which has the potential to change the lives of people for the good. It’s vital that our politicians make sure we all have a future, and they invest in education.”
Amy Donnelly says the number of problems being faced by people here and around the world makes this election especially important.
“Stormont needs to be at its best to look at these things. For that to happen, it all depends on who is voted in. There needs to be better communication between the MLAs at Stormont.”
Emma McNamee is aware of the even numerical spilt between Catholics and Protestants, and the prospect of a Sinn Féin First Minister.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge for both Nationalists and Unionists if Sinn Féin become the largest party. I feel that they will work it out.”
It’s just a year since the Sacred Heart students closely studied the political system here, and that has made Julie Laird especially interested in this Thursday’s election.
“I think our system is good and effective. Power-sharing is the way forward because it can unite everyone and bring them together,” she said.
“Education and something like the Strule Education Campus is a big issue for me. Unfortunately, the latter has taken longer than expected. I think our local politicians can influence things more because they have been out campaigning and getting to know constituents.”
The main issues for students from Drumragh Integrated College were varied but all had a similar theme: Communication.
Some of the students felt as if politicians do not speak to people of the young generation, and the policies that are being made are not aimed at improving their everyday lives.
One of the politics students, Kayla Houston, said that she was looking to vote for someone who put issues that were important to young people first.
She said, “I think local politicians could do a better job engaging with young people. Sometimes, the issues they campaign on and speak about are not for us. For example, young people are interested in the lack of school and university places, and with the announcement that there will be less places for people next year, it can be very worrying.
“I have not heard any of our local politicians talk about this.”
Chloe McArtan also said she wished local politicians would focus on local issues that they have power over. Chloe said, “I want to vote for someone who will help the people where I live. The important issues for people are everyday ones. When voting, I will definitely be thinking about what that candidate can do for me, and the people around me.”
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