Young people in the north and south look ahead while politicians hesitate about the past
There has been a lot of discussion about language lately in political and media circles when it comes to events and titles on both sides of the Irish border.
The Irish government tried this week to make a call as to who should or should not attend a service in Armagh later this month after the president declined to attend. Despite a long-recognized propensity for acute political acumen, consistency, and integrity, Michael D. Higgins’ stance has met with fierce criticism, particularly from union officials. The resulting discord sparked a debate about the importance of language in remembering our past.
While these recent events have filled many columns of opinion, they have also illustrated one of the current problems facing Northern Ireland, that we keep seeing a political class arguably completely removed from everyday issues. It could now be argued that younger people think much more politically and more modernly.
While conservatives often perceive youth culture as naively idealistic, new research by the Northern Irish Youth Forum paints a picture of a generation that is politically informed, engaged, focused and motivated to correct high-level political issues that affect their daily lives.
Among the topics surveyed in the forum’s interim report, climate change, mental health, education and human rights were each identified as the most pressing concerns.
The results of the youth-led cross-border research were developed under the supervision of a steering group made up of children and young adults between the ages of 13 and 23 and offer an honest and undisguised view from the perspective of young people on a wide range of social, political and moral issues.
Politically and technologically committed
The majority of respondents expressed a high level of interest in local politics and considered political engagement a worthwhile focus of their time and energy. As an example of this mood, the participants conveyed an understanding of Brexit, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the potential for a border survey.
There was also a strong appetite for political participation at the beginning of the year, when over 1,200 13- to 17-year-olds applied for 90 places at the Northern Irish Youth Assembly. However, this political zeal often deteriorates over time due to a lack of meaningful opportunities to participate or the right to active citizenship before the age of 18.
Proponents of 16- and 17-year-olds argue that anchoring active citizenship at an earlier age is becoming a habit and provides valuable insight into young people’s priorities.
Despite this level of political engagement, respondents felt that “young people have no way of influencing decision-making,” an opinion that correlates with data from last year’s Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, in which 82% of 18 – Under 24-year-olds said they felt they had no influence on decisions in Northern Ireland.
This level of disenfranchisement suggests worryingly low morale in political institutions, with participants citing high levels of distrust between officials and the public. But can they really be blamed if they grew up in a society based on the repeated mistakes of those charged with caring for and improving their people?
With the advent of smartphone technology and widespread adoption of social media, people are exponentially more connected than ever. This social cohesion enables young people to bypass the institutional structures and restrictions that divide their communities by providing appropriate resources with which they can expand their understanding beyond the framework of a still predominantly denominational classroom.
When asked about major social and political stories, including the Partition of Ireland and The Troubles, an overwhelming 96 percent of attendees said they had a deep understanding of the subject. Following this statistical trend, 91 percent of respondents said they understood the Good Friday Agreement, which completely removes the misperception of young people as being apathetic or ignorant of the turbulent past Ireland is still grappling with today.
Evidence continues that “peace babies,” as Lyra McKee, who disappeared far too soon, would call them, no longer want to be confined to the binary interpretations of identity that earlier generations have historically identified with.
Year after year, data shows that young people in Northern Ireland are increasingly distancing themselves from the many sectarian labels that are imposed on them, and most of which are completely devoid of nuances, and ultimately reducing them to either unionists or nationalists.
In the Republic of Ireland, young voters have been at the center of efforts to rid their society of the country’s conservative past. In this Beyond Borders survey, young people across the island said they were comfortable with their identity, and an additional 96 percent said they were comfortable with the identity and culture of others.
Meanwhile, DUP boss Jeffrey Donaldson was in the headlines, criticizing Labor for using the nomenclature “Northern Ireland” as if it were a deliberate insult to union identity. The language in this part of the world is complex and personal and reflects the lived experiences and beliefs of each individual. For a growing majority, Seamus Mallon’s words have never been more relevant – “I don’t care what you call this place as long as we call it home.”
When you add together the many results of NIYF research, the evidence overwhelmingly shows the gap between young people and politicians on both sides of the island. In the Republic of Ireland, the ruling parties spend more time obsessed with the opposition than dealing with the dangerous climate, housing or health crisis their Brits do on Ulster Day, rather than dealing with a health service on the precipice, or the dangerous combination of rising energy costs and universal credit cuts that will bring countless more families below the poverty line.
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A generation is looking ahead
When asked about the social and political issues that interest them most, only seven percent of the participants mentioned the legacy of the past or Brexit. This is not due to ignorance; it is a focus on the here and now and the future.
A third of the respondents said that there was no politician or party who represented their views. The political parties on this island continue to be consumed by the past while young people are increasingly preoccupied with the important priorities.
As the NIYF’s research and data collection was conducted during the pandemic, the survey focused on the effects of Covid-19 on young people. The results make for a sober reading: 79 percent of those surveyed said that the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health.
In addition to numerous other, similarly important youth claims, questions of the right to education were also addressed, which gave considerable weight to the concern that young people – who may be perceived as more resilient than other sections of the population due to their age – were only considered retrospectively in many political decisions.
That such a high proportion of young people surveyed suffer from mental health stresses should be of immediate concern, as young and suggestible people without access to adequate mental health services – or even basic mental health awareness – are more likely to suffer. severe and debilitating long-term effects with age.
1.3 million people have been born on the island of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement came into force – a new generation with new priorities. The persistence of outdated voting structures and dogmatic policies risks losing the value and enrichment that would inevitably come from promoting Irish youth.
Civil society organizations such as the Northern Ireland Youth Forum are doing their part.
Emma DeSouza is a civil rights activist for the Good Friday Agreement and vice-chair and NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.