Children of the new Northern Ireland

Weekend Read: Teenagers in Northern Ireland who turn 18 this year grew up after the signing of the Belfast Agreement, in 1998, and have known only peacetime. Ten of them talk about their lives, attitudes and expectations

Jerry Maguire (above): ‘It’s not fair that the lives and actions of the older generations are having such an effect on us’

Jerry Maguire, who is from west Belfast, is a member of Socialist Youth

I’m happy we have a peace process, but I don’t think our politicians, our elected representatives, care for young people’s needs. So many politicians are openly homophobic. That’s just not right in this day and age. I see morality as something that’s constantly changing, evolving all the time.

Love doesn’t have a gender, you know? Why should we be oppressed by these kinds of religious views when we don’t necessarily hold them ourselves? It’s not fair, because we don’t get to have our say. There’s nobody we can see who will challenge them.

Power-sharing in Northern Ireland was devolved from Westminster, but our politicians have to implement their austerity. We have no money, our minimum-wage system is an absolute shambles. We’re living in a society we’re alienated from.


But how can we challenge their views of what they want us to be when there’s no political platform for us? Seventeen-year-olds have no right to vote. We can’t say who we want to run the economy.

The past plagues our political system. I live in west Belfast, I’m part of a socialist nonsectarian party, and I go out into all sorts of communities, but I still get asked the question ‘Where are you from?’ It shouldn’t matter where I’m from.

Why should young people grow up in a new world in Northern Ireland when it’s still being plagued by the past? We didn’t make the past, and we can’t change it. It’s not fair that the lives and actions of the older generations are having such an effect on us.

I know so many young people who are trying to change the situation to make it better for everyone. We must stand up for ourselves, be a real voice for the working class and for young people.

James King: ‘I want the new experience of moving away, seeing new cities, meeting new people. This is such a small place’

James King is a politics student who lives in Portadown, Co Armagh

I’m definitely planning to move away from Northern Ireland. I don’t want to stay here. My plan is to study politics at Aberdeen University, in Scotland. I want the new experience of moving away, seeing new cities, meeting new people. This is such a small place.

I am interested in the politics here – I’ve enjoyed getting a better insight into how the country is run – but with knowledge comes frustration: the politicians are so caught up in arguments that it’s hard to see what the real issues are. It’s like one step forward, two steps back. The DUP and Sinn Féin refuse to set aside their differences, and that’s something that annoys me every day. There would be so much more progress if they would really work together properly.

I feel disconnected: this sense of despair, a feeling of helplessness. It’s like there’s nothing you can do about it. For me to even consider coming back after uni would depend on whether Northern Ireland has changed politically, and it’s hard to see that happening, the way things are now.

To me the Troubles seem distant. I can’t really relate to that at all. But I suppose it does have an effect on you, even though I can’t remember that time. I mean, if there is a bomb scare on the train I wouldn’t call that frightening. It’s frustrating, an inconvenience, but not scary.

Where I live, in Portadown, it’s a strong unionist area, but I notice that it’s much more culturally diverse in Belfast, where I go to school. That gives you an insight into what the outside world is actually like. I mix with a wide range of groups, people of different ethnicity, different sexuality, and my family say in that way it’s very different to what the country was like when they were young.

I guess I’ll miss it when I go. I wouldn’t say it’s a bad place. I like the people and I like the landscape. Imagine Northern Ireland without the people: it would still be a beautiful country.


Karen Wong: ‘I enjoy the peaceful, slow pace’

Karen Wong moved to Northern Ireland with her family when she was eight. She is originally from Hong Kong

The thing I love about living here is the peace. I enjoy the peaceful, slow pace. It’s comfortable. That’s why I want to stay in Northern Ireland and go to university here. Well, I didn’t want to be burdened by student loans, either, which is another reason for staying.

When we first came here my parents used to warn me about racism and things like that, but I really think it has improved quite a bit. On a day-to-day level it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. It’s only in July that my mum says I should stay at home. I do enjoy very quiet places. It might be nice to live in the countryside. That would be even quieter.

Sometimes I go into town with my friends, and I do attend a youth group at our church, the Belfast Chinese Christian Church. I’m quite involved with that. But I prefer to stay at home most of the time. I enjoy art – doodles, drawings, that kind of stuff.

School has been pretty good. There are a lot of Asians at my grammar school in comparison to other schools. Even in primary school people were very accepting of me. Northern Ireland is definitely getting more diverse, and I think people find it very easy to adjust to it.

I don’t really know about the past in Northern Ireland. I’m not as familiar with it compared to other people, and it’s hard to see the point of it. I remember in history class we learned about the Troubles, and we had to ask a grandparent what times were like back then. I felt a bit awkward, because I don’t know anything about that.

Lydia Black: ‘I’m not worried about bomb scares or things like that’

Lydia Black, who lives near Downpatrick, in Co Down, is a practising Christian

I’m planning to do medicine if my exam results go okay. Queen’s University Belfast would be my first choice, but I’d consider going to England or down south to Trinity College in Dublin.

I like living here. Belfast has a lot to offer: the new Titanic centre, places to visit. When you go into Belfast people are so friendly: they talk to you, engage with you. In places like London the people can be hostile.

We lived in Monaghan until I was born. My dad is a Presbyterian minister, and he got death threats from the IRA. So my family have been affected by the Troubles, but not me directly. It’s not something I have experienced or could even imagine. It sounds completely out of the blue. I feel a lot safer now than people did back then. I’m not worried about bomb scares or things like that.

I’ve become more interested in where I live as I’ve got older. You observe what’s going on around you rather than just being in your own wee world.

I’m quite involved in my church youth group, and also in outreach, where we visit people who are not able to get out of their houses. I teach Sunday school, too. I’m in charge of the three- and four-year-olds. My Christian faith is a big part of my life. You have a community you can rely on for support, and you can build each other up in your faith. I’ve made loads of friends who I think will be with me for a long time.

I think a religious perspective can help in lots of ways. But I wouldn’t be of a mind frame that we should just stay in our own wee group. It’s good to communicate with people who aren’t Christians, too. Then we can work together to resolve all kinds of social issues.


Kayley Curtis: ‘If you’re calving cows in the middle of a field it’s good to know you have 20 farmers who can help you’

Kayley Curtis belong to a Young Farmers' Club near Warrenpoint, Co Down

I joined the Young Farmers’ Club three years ago. We’re basically a group of people who help each other out. We talk about the price of milk, the price of beef. We’re a community within an industry: we help each other through the hard times. It’s about friendship, social support. Most people are aged 20 to 25, and there’s a few younger people like me.

Last week we had a social night. It was actually a jiving night. The shapes that were being pulled were incredible. We do a lot of fundraising, too. We had a carwash and raised £1,000. Half of that went to our own branch and the other half went to the Chest, Heart & Stroke charity.

It gives you hope to continue on. You see that everyone has the same struggle, especially in the winter. If you’re calving cows in the middle of a field it’s good to know you have 20 farmers who can help.

I’m in my last year at school, but I’ve decided to defer entry to university. I don’t know what I want to do with my life. It’s hard to decide. You feel so young, even if you don’t look it. I haven’t been so scared since I was doing my eleven-plus exam.

I love politics, but I’m not keen on Northern Ireland politics. I don’t like the idea that you’re born into a vote. You know, this idea that if you’re born into a Catholic family you vote Sinn Féin, or if you’re born into a unionist family you vote DUP.

I don’t feel inspired to vote, because I don’t really see how you could make an impact. In my opinion it’s always going to be the same make-up at Stormont: the same faces, the same messages. But these are the decisions that impact on everyone’s everyday life.

I am only 17, so a lot of memories I have are from when I had my childish head on. It was only when I was about 11 that I started to see things for what they actually are.

We talk about the Troubles sometimes, but it’s more like humorous tales, nothing serious. Stories about people who blew up their own pub to get the insurance money, that kind of thing. Where we live is two miles from Narrow Water Castle [where an IRA double bombing in 1979 killed 18 British soldiers and a civilian], but we never talk about that. Never a word is spoken.

Andrew: ‘When I came out my mum didn’t take it well at first, but she came around’

Andrew lives in a village in Co Derry. He asked us not to use his surname

It was quiet growing up here. There were no major happenings – nothing I can remember, anyway. It was a peaceful place to grow up.

I first came out when I was 13 or 14. It took me a while to figure things out. I told my friends first, and they were all okay. Then I told my family. My mum didn’t take it well at first, but she came around.

I guess there’s a lot more awareness now, especially among the younger generations. I haven’t had any discrimination, nothing like that.

My mum introduced me to the Rainbow Project in Derry. They have a youth service, a sort of drop-in thing. They have been supportive, and I’ve made some good friends there.

We organised a celebration for National Coming Out Day last year. I made some cupcakes, and I think they went down pretty well.

The question of gay marriage has not been handled well. The DUP putting a block on the vote – that was ridiculous, to be honest. Not democratic. I guess politics hasn’t caught up with society. It’s a generational thing. I hope as the new generation of politicians come in that will start to change.

I don’t think about the Troubles. It’s ridiculous that there’s still sectarian stuff. I don’t understand why that’s still going on. I don’t know people who have strong opinions on it – not in my age group, anyway. It just wouldn’t be discussed. We weren’t affected by it; it’s not part of my world.

I’m weighing up my options at the moment, thinking about what I want to do in the future, where I want to be. I might move to Belfast, or one of the bigger cities. That would be a change.


Calvin Thompson: ‘I do feel quite integrated, actually. People are all the same’

Calvin Thompson attends Malone College, an integrated, multicultural and multiethnic secondary school in Belfast

I love Northern Ireland. It’s home. I like the compactness of Belfast, the ease of getting about. You get all the benefits of a big city as well as the benefits of a small one.

I know a lot of people have negative impressions about it, especially people who don’t come from here. But, when you think about it, every country has its bad history. The trouble here is that some people still think the history is the present. They’re so caught up in the past.

There’s a lot of fear among the older generations, the ones who went through it all. Like, if I were to go anywhere that’s deemed to be a place of Catholic heritage, my grandad would say, ‘Why are you going there?’ But I’ve never experienced any sectarian abuse.

The past isn’t irrelevant, no way. It’s still history. It’s important to learn about the terrible events that happened. I usually hear about it from my grandad. He was born in Taughmonagh, then he lived on the Shankill, then on Donegall Pass.

He told me a story about how he was once going down an alleyway with his friend – they were taking a short cut – and suddenly a policeman stopped them, grabbed them, tackled them down. There was a bomb in the alley, right at their feet, and they hadn’t noticed it. I find it extremely hard to believe this kind of thing. I mean, it’s just so hard to imagine.

Integrated schools are the way forward. People get very open minded when they go to integrated schools. I think they are the only people who have a right to run the country, because they know each other’s differences and are willing to accept them.

I feel rooted here. I do feel quite integrated, actually. I think that’s the future way to make this country great. You learn that there is no difference really. People are all the same. They’re human beings.

Thomas McCluskey: ‘It was surprisingly easy coming out. I haven’t faced any homophobia’

Thomas McCluskey came out two years ago. He lives in north Belfast

It was surprisingly easy coming out. I haven’t faced any homophobia.

I definitely think things are improving. I’m never in an environment where being different is a problem.

You have to accept who people are and get on with life. Even people who you might have thought are stereotypically homophobic, certain Christian people, have actually been accepting of me.

Growing up in an area where you might not be accepted if you were a Roman Catholic, or if you were a Protestant, that was more of an issue than being gay. Personal things, stuff about yourself, that wasn’t that important.

It was about being in the right area, the right crowd. Religion took more precedence. Being gay was only an issue to myself. I didn’t want to be different.

I think equal rights are being used as political leverage. On those grounds Sinn Féin are seen as being more forward than the DUP. It’s about political point scoring, not the issues themselves.

Part of me wants to leave Northern Ireland and part of me wants to stay. I’d like just to see everywhere else, and compare it with here, but I’d probably end up coming back.

As much as it’s hard here, it’s still my home, and home is a powerful draw. My family all live within throwing distance of each other, and we are extremely close, even though we fight and argue sometimes. When I came out they were really supportive; there’s been a lot of acceptance and a lot of encouragement. They didn’t make a big deal about it.

I was raised not to be sectarian or anything like that. But I think we are almost tiptoeing around the past. We are afraid to actually talk about it. That makes people anxious. It makes everything worse. The conversation needs to change and to move on towards the future.

The best thing about Belfast is seeing it move on. Twenty or 30 years ago you would still worry about where you could go, who you could see. I’m part of this change. I can go where I want. I both hate the place and love it – but I’m changing it right now by going down that street.


Saoirse Barry: ‘I’d like to stay and see if there’s any chance that Northern Ireland can change’

Saoirse Barry, from Holywood in Co Down, is interested in green politics

I have a family background in the Green Party. I remember my dad dragging me into political meetings from a very young age. But in the past two or three years I've got more and more interested.

The other parties in Northern Ireland are a little bit crap. I think they are out of touch with the youth, dredging up the past all the time, always harking back: it’s not relevant to young people. The Troubles were an awful thing, but we need more forward momentum for the sake of the new generations coming up. It wasn’t a nice time, but we need to get over it.

I like the way the Greens are staunchly nonsectarian. They are really mixed – not Catholic or Protestant – and they’re left wing and they are forward looking. They tackle important social issues like abortion.

Northern Ireland is so whitewashed. It’s really quite conservative. If we had a referendum on gay marriage or abortion I don’t think it would go through. It’s the older generation who vote; young people are less likely to do it. I did a project to find out how many people vote, according to age. In the 65-plus group it was something like 70 per cent. But the 18-to-24 group was minuscule, and while other groups were growing it was actually dwindling. This is why we live in the backward place we do.

When they had the referendum in Scotland they invited 16-year-olds to vote. They said, ‘Come on, this is your future.’ A lot of the time young people feel like politics is nothing to do with them. We need to talk about the future, not the past, so that they feel they have a stake.

The people here are the best in the world. They’re so friendly they’ll just sit down beside you, when you’re on the train or whatever, and have a random conversation with you. You don’t get that anywhere else.

When I was younger I really wanted to get out of here. I felt the politics of Northern Ireland could do nothing for me. Now I’d like to stay and see if there’s any chance it can change. I’d like to be part of the fight to change the place.

Patricia Lee: ‘People don’t really understand young people in care’

Patricia Lee lives in care in Belfast

Growing up in Northern Ireland was okay. This is where I’m from. I have been in care from when I was three and a half.

I can’t remember being taken into care. I was in a long-term foster placement at the start, and then moved around to other foster placements. Now I live in a children’s home.

I’m not sure when I stopped going to school. I think I was about 15. I think it was about the same time I was moved into a short-term home. The teachers there were dead on; I just didn’t want to go. I think I got some qualifications, but I don’t know what they are.

Right now I’m on an employability programme, working on my Essential Skills qualifications. After I leave the scheme I hope to get some sort of job, but I don’t know what yet.

My interests are changing all the time. I wanted to be a lifeguard at one stage, then a painter and decorator, but I don’t really know. I want to move into independent living, like a different children’s home where I can live independently.

I don’t really pay attention to politics and that kind of stuff. I don’t really remember anything like that going on.

Life is really hard for young people because of drugs and alcohol, being victims of crime and stuff. They’re not living a normal life. Children in care get arrested for minor things. People don’t really understand young people in care. It’s hard for young people to get jobs and get somewhere to live. Especially whenever you’re in care or when you have to leave it at 18. There’s not very much support.

I want to stay here because it’s where I’m from. I’ve been on holiday to Scotland and England, but I prefer it here. I want to be near my friends and family. I’d like to stay close to people.

The best thing about my life is that I still have contact with my foster mum. It’s nice to know she still cares about me after everything. She’s got two wee sons that I love.

TIMELINE: key dates since the Belfast Agreement

April 10th, 1998: Belfast Agreement signed at Stormont.

August 15th, 1998: Twenty-nine people (one of them pregnant with twins) are killed by a bomb planted in Omagh, Co Tyrone, by dissident republicans.

December 20th, 2004: The Northern Bank robbery in Belfast, allegedly by the IRA, nets £26.5 million.

January 30th, 2005: Robert McCartney is murdered, allegedly by members of the IRA, in Magennis's Bar in Belfast.

December 19th, 2005: The first same-sex civil-partnership ceremony in the UK takes place in Belfast.

March 26th, 2007: Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley meet face to face for the first time and come to an agreement over devolved power sharing.

April 2nd, 2011: Ronan Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic PSNI officer, is killed when a dissident-republican bomb explodes under his car.

May 17th-20th, 2011: Queen Elizabeth makes her first state visit to the Republic of Ireland.

March 31st, 2012: Titanic Belfast, the world's largest Titanic-themed visitor attraction, opens to the public.

November 2nd, 2015: A majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members vote to allow same-sex marriage; the motion is blocked by the DUP.