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EACEA National Policies Platform


5. Participation

5.1 General context

Last update: 22 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 11/11/2020 - 00:43

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  1. Main concepts
  2. Institutions of representative democracy

Main concepts

There is no official definition of youth participation. This chapter adopts the following working definition:

Youth participation is a process whereby young people, as active citizens, take part in, express views on, and have decision-making power about issues that affect them.

‘Youth engagement’ is also a frequently used term, referring to the same process.

The United Kingdom is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the concept of participation by children and young people is a rights-based one. 

The previous ten-year Northern Ireland Strategy for Children and Young People stated its intention to

“embed a culture of engaging with children and young people and involving them in decision-making” (p.27).

The Strategy covers the period from 2006 to 2016. An updated Children and Young People’s Strategy was published in December 2019.  It covers the period of 2019 to 2029. 

Priorities for Youth (Department of Education, 2013) states that one of the strategic aims of youth work in support of the Department of Education’s vision is:

“to continue to improve the non-formal learning environment by creating inclusive, participative settings in which the voice and influence of young people are championed, supported and evident in the design, delivery and evaluation of programmes.”

The Northern Ireland Youth Forum defined a participative structure as one that:

brings together children and young people regionally, sub regionally or locally to participate as decision makers. It does not have to be a formal structure, any way of involving children and/or young people in governance, planning, management or decision-making is considered a participative structure.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People defined participation in its 2018 publication as: 

“Participation means ensuring that a young person is aware of, informed about, and encouraged to communicate something about each decision that pertains to him or her that could result in significant changes being decided on their behalf, about their lives.”

Participation in Northern Ireland is set within the context of a society which is still largely segregated along religious and political lines and which is implementing measures to reduce this as part of the peace process.


Institutions of representative democracy

Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (Scotland, England and Wales) and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy and the Sovereign is head of state and head of government.

The power to make and pass legislation on what are termed 'reserved' matters (such as defence and foreign policy) belongs to the UK Parliament. The UK Parliament consists of:

  • the Sovereign (currently the Queen) in Parliament
  • the appointed or hereditary House of Lords
  • the publicly elected House of Commons.

The House of Commons is the lower house, where most of the work of Parliament is conducted. It is composed of 650 elected members, known as Members of Parliament (MPs), 18 of whom represent Northern Ireland constituencies. Note, however, that a review of parliamentary constituencies is currently underway; proposals include reducing the number of elected members in the House of Commons to 600, with Northern Ireland being allocated 17 seats out of these. In September 2018, the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland published its report for the 2018 Review of the UK Parliament Constituencies. More information can be found on the Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland website.

The power to make and pass legislation on what are termed 'reserved' matters (such as defence and foreign policy) belongs to the UK Parliament. Certain powers and responsibilities have been devolved to elected bodies in Northern Ireland. In 1999 the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive took legislative and executive responsibility respectively for a wide range of devolved matters, including youth policy, education, training and lifelong learning. 

Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are elected by the people of Northern Ireland. There are 90 MLAs, 5 from each of the 18 constituencies in Northern Ireland. Elections to the Assembly were held every four years, until May 2015 when the election would have coincided with the UK general election and was postponed to May 2016; a fixed term of five years was also established at this point. However, an early election to the Assembly was held in 2017, following the resignation of Northern Ireland's First Minister early on in the same year.

Elections to local government, commonly called local councils and of which there are 11, take place every four years. The last elections for local government were held in  May 2019. The number of councillors varies from council to council depending largely on the size of the council area. Voters in Northern Ireland vote by ranking all candidates in their area in order of preference. 

Voting, which is not compulsory, is by secret ballot at polling stations, although voting by post or by proxy is also available.

The first past the post system, a simple plurality system in which each constituency across the UK returns one MP, is used to elect MPs to the House of Commons. Voting at Assembly elections is by the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). STV is also used in elections to local councils and the European Parliament.

Further information on the systems of voting in use can be found on the UK Parliament website.