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Stormont Rolling News

Opinion Young people north and south look forward while political figures dither over the past

While politicians argue over commemorations, Emma DeSouza says new youth-led cross-border research shows young people have moved on.

MUCH DISCUSSION HAS been had recently in political and media circles about language when it comes to events and titles on both sides of the Irish border.

The Irish Government this week scrambled to make a call on who should or should not attend a religious service in Armagh later this month after the president declined to attend. Despite a long-recognised propensity for acute political acumen, consistency and integrity, Michael D Higgins’ stance was met with volleys of criticism, in particular from unionist representatives. The ensuing discord ignited a debate on the importance of language in commemorating our past.

While these latest events have served to fill many an opinion column, they have also illustrated one of the ongoing issues when it comes to Northern Ireland, that time and again we see a political class that is, arguably, utterly removed from everyday issues. Meanwhile, it could be argued that younger people are far more politically engaged and modern in their thinking.

While conservatives often perceive youth culture to be naively idealistic, new research from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum paints a picture of a generation politically informed, engaged, focused, and motivated to correct high-level policy issues impacting their everyday lives.

Amidst the issues queried in the forum’s interim report, climate change, mental health, education, and human rights were each cited as the most pressing concerns.

The findings of the youth-led cross-border research were made under the oversight of a steering group comprised of children and young adults between the ages of 13 and 23 and offer an honest and unobstructed view from the perspectives of young people across a wide range of social, political, and moral issues.

Politically and technologically engaged

A majority of those surveyed expressed high levels of interest in local politics, believing political engagement to be a worthwhile focus of their time and energy. Exemplifying this sentiment, participants conveyed an understanding of Brexit, the Northern Ireland protocol, as well as the potential for a border poll.

A marked appetite for political participation was also evidenced earlier in the year when over 1,200 13 to 17-year-olds applied for 90 places on the Northern Ireland Youth Assembly. However, this political fervour is often ultimately tempered over time due to a lack of meaningful outlets for participation or rights to active citizenship prior to the age of 18.

Those who advocate for voting rights for 16 and 17-year-olds argue that embedding active citizenship at an earlier age is habit-forming and provides valuable insight into the priorities of young people.

Despite this level of political engagement, respondents felt that ‘young people have no opportunities to influence decision-making’, a sentiment which correlates with data from last year’s Northern Ireland Life and Times survey in which 82% of 18 to 24-year-olds expressed the feeling that they had no influence at all over decisions in Northern Ireland.

This level of disenfranchisement indicates worryingly low morale in political institutions with participants citing a high level of distrust between those in office and the public. But having come up in a society built upon the repeated mistakes of those tasked with the care and betterment of its people, can they truly be blamed?

Following the advent of smartphone technology and the widespread adoption of social media, people are exponentially more connected than ever before. This societal cohesion enables young people to bypass the institutional structures and restrictions dividing their communities by providing convenient resources with which to expand their understanding beyond the scope of a still predominantly sectarian classroom setting.

When queried on key social and political histories, including the partition of Ireland and The Troubles, an overwhelming 96 per cent of participants expressed an in-depth understanding of the subject. Echoing this statistical trend, 91 per cent of participants stated they had an understanding of the Good Friday Agreement, roundly dispelling the misperception of young people as either apathetic toward or ignorant of the tumultuous past Ireland is still grappling with today.

Shifting identities

Evidence continues to show that “peace babies”, as the gone-too-soon Lyra McKee would call them, no longer wish to be confined to the binary interpretations of identity prior generations have historically identified with.

Year on year, data shows young people in Northern Ireland are increasingly distancing themselves from the many sectarian labels saddled upon them, the bulk of which are entirely absent of nuance, and ultimately reduce them to either a unionist or a nationalist.

In the Republic of Ireland, young voters have been central in the effort to unburden their society of the country’s conservative past. In this ‘Beyond Borders’ survey, young people across the island reported feeling comfortable with their identity, and a further 96 per cent claimed to be comfortable with the identity and culture of others.

Meanwhile, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was in the headlines criticising Labour for their use of the nomenclature “North of Ireland”, as if it were some deliberate insult to unionist identity. Language in this part of the globe is complex and personal, reflective of the lived experiences and beliefs of each individual. For a growing majority, the words of Seamus Mallon have never been more relevant – “I don’t care what you call this place, so long as we call it home.”

When tallying the many findings revealed by the NIYF’s research, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates the gulf between young people and politicians on both sides of the island. In the Republic of Ireland, the government parties spend more time obsessing over the opposition than they do addressing the dangerous climate, housing or health crises – while in the North, unionist parties are too busy wrapping themselves in Union Jacks and braying about perceived betrayals to their Britishness on Ulster Day rather than dealing with a health service on the brink, or the dangerous combination of rising energy costs and universal credit cuts which will push countless more families below the poverty line.

A generation looks forward

When asked about the social and political issues that interest them most, only seven per cent of participants cited the legacy of the past or Brexit. This isn’t down to ignorance; it’s a focus on the here and now, and the future.

A third of respondents stated that there was no politician or party that represented their views. Political parties on this island continue to be consumed by the past, whereas young people are increasingly preoccupied with the priorities that matter.

With the NIYF’s research and data collection having been conducted during the pandemic, the impact of Covid-19 on young people was a central focal point of the survey. The results make for sober reading, with 79 per cent of respondents stating that the pandemic has had a negative impact on their mental health.

Issues surrounding the right to education were raised, amongst numerous other similarly crucial youth entitlements, adding considerable weight to the concerns that young people – being perhaps perceived as more resilient than other demographics due to their age – were an afterthought in much of the policy decisions.

That such a high proportion of the young people surveyed are experiencing strains on their mental health should be a point of immediate concern, as young and impressionable individuals without access to proper mental health services – or even basic mental health awareness – are more likely to suffer severe and debilitating long-term effects as they grow older.

1.3 million people have been born on the island of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement was signed into effect – this is a new generation with a new set of priorities. The persistence of outdated voting structures and dogmatic politics risks us losing the value and enrichment which would invariably bloom from enfranchising Ireland’s youth.

Civic society organisations such as the Northern Ireland Youth Forum play their part, it’s time the political parties caught up by placing the values and concerns of the next generation as a priority not just for young people, but us all.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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