Earlier this week I talked to Mairead McGuinness, Irish MEP and Vice President of the European Parliament, at the annual European Youth Event in Strasbourg. I asked her a couple of questions in relation to herself, young people and politics. Here is what she had to say:
How did you get into politics?
Some people think it was by accident but I think it was by design. From an early age I was interested in politics. I come from a big family – huge debates around the dinner table – but I didn't actually get involved until I was older.
As a journalist I was doing work with politics, agriculture and the environment so I suppose there was always a very close link with politics. I jumped to the dark side, or from the dark side, depending on your view, in 2004 when the European elections came up.
Life itself, sometimes things happen and if you're willing to take that leap without the parachute of safety you can get there, but I did find the campaign quite challenging.
I have to say, when I look back, it was a huge opportunity to realise a dream, represent Ireland in the European Parliament and continue to do that even though there's been enormous change since I've been a member of the parliament.
It [politics] was always in the back of my mind. I always say when I go into schools and colleges some of you don't say exactly what you want to do because you're not sure or you don't know. You think you have an idea but you're not going to say it out loud in case you get laughed at but I think if you're open enough to taking a little bit of a risk or going with your gut instinct, even if afterwards it's quite alarming.
I had been a very public figure to television on Ear to the Ground and other programmes – but that's a very different thing than being a public figure as a politician.
The jump is quite sudden and sharp and different but you can actually make a difference, you can actually do things.
What would you say to a young adult who is thinking of going into politics?
What I would say to them is that there are 3 or 4 different ways some people are already engaged in politics; through a youth organisation, through political parties or some are engaged through social groups.
Even if you're in a GAA club that can be quite political. In fact, I say to women in particular that the GAA would be a great place to start your political career. A lot of men have a presence in the GAA and there's a network, one of the things women perhaps don't have.
Many people were motivated by the referendum in Ireland. They saw an area where change was needed and they got involved.
Or you could be like me and always had an interest. I would've voted Fine Gael all my life. I wasn't a member because I was in journalism therefore I wasn't politically active. I think it would've been wrong to be. But when I decided it was time for a change I took that opportunity.
It's good to have people from different backgrounds and ages getting involved in politics. I had no family connections with politics so I wasn't experienced in that way but my family were very much watching current affairs. We weren't involved actively but it was there big time. We had opinions, lots of opinions!
What would you like to see both young people and MEP's gain from this event?
I think the fact that there's so many young people here, it's extraordinary! It would gladden your heart that people come together from so many different nations.
I met with a group of young Bulgarian students from a very poor region of Bulgaria, but they were very proud; they presented me with a book from their region. They're very pro-Europe. Not as that kind of soppy ideal, but as they get the concept of countries working together.
I think sometimes when we're debating in that chamber that there's hostile views from either side and we're drowning each other out – coming to something like this and just listening and being here does you good.
I'm not going to be in politics all my life. I'm at a point where I'm going to run again but this, here, is the generation that will be.
The thing I'd really like to come from this is not just dealing with climate change and migration but we, as human beings, are going to need to agree on some very tough things and that's the problem. We know what we need to do but we're failing as human beings to come together because more and more we're seeing division; in the house of the European Parliament; between the EU and the US; North and South Korea; the Syrian conflict, and that's only some of them.
Human beings are really good at divisions, war, strife and argumentation. We're not very good at coming together. Those who founded Europe did something incredibly unique, and they did it at a time when there wasn't social media and instant reaction. They had time and space to say, ''We can't keep killing each other. We have to be better than this.'', and they did that. And I think that if we fail to build on that it would be a disgrace.
Keeping it together is tough, but from what I've heard so far young people are pretty tough and they're prepared for challenges.
In relation to this event, what issue is the most important to you?
What's most important to me is that young people felt that it was important enough to come here with the ideas on the future of Europe, which includes climate change and migration , and they believe that they'll make a difference by actually coming here.
Especially in Ireland, I've been really feeling enthused by the number of young people who took ownership of the referendum. It was a grassroots small movement rather than a political one.
I thought it was a very difficult debate which we needed to have in Ireland. There were moments that were challenging but it was good that people didn't have their minds made up entirely. They were able to look at both sides of this argument and come to a decision which they felt was best for the country and for women.
The people who were energised by it won't go away.