Youth leaving Northern Ireland due to sectarian divide

Executive should have strategy to address loss of talented young, says think tank

In 2019 there were more than 17,000 young people from Northern Ireland studying in Great Britain, with up to two-thirds deciding not to return after graduation.  Photograph: Getty Images

In 2019 there were more than 17,000 young people from Northern Ireland studying in Great Britain, with up to two-thirds deciding not to return after graduation. Photograph: Getty Images

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Young people are choosing to leave Northern Ireland and not return due to sectarian divisions and political instability, according to a new report published today (Monday).

Among the more than 300 students surveyed, poor community relations and the political and religious divide were the main reasons given for leaving the North, followed by the prospect of better job opportunities and a more varied social and student experience.

Students described being “sick” of “ongoing community tension”, and felt the “heavily segregated nature of education created limited contact with young people from different religious/political backgrounds and contributed to a desire to study elsewhere”.

Every participant raised concerns about political instability, and none expressed confidence in governmental decision-making.

Students also felt they were not represented by politicians or the political debate in Northern Ireland.

The report recommended that the Northern Executive should develop a strategy to address the loss of talented young people.

It also said Northern Ireland as a society “needs to acknowledge the impact of its poor community relations”, and that the Executive “needs to demonstrate that it is working collectively to move Northern Ireland forwards”.

Brain drain

Northern Ireland has a long-standing tradition of a so-called “brain drain” of students who leave to study in Great Britain and do not return.

In 2019 there were more than 17,000 young people from Northern Ireland studying in Great Britain, with up to two-thirds deciding not to return after graduation.

Should I Stay or Should I Go? Reasons for Leaving Northern Ireland for School or Work was published on Monday morning by the independent Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal.

The report noted that previous discussion about students leaving Northern Ireland has often emphasised that many young people are “pulled” away by the prospect of high quality university courses and economic opportunities elsewhere.

While the new research showed these remained “important motivating factors”, participants “also said clearly that there are very significant ‘push’ factors causing young people to leave Northern Ireland and not return, particularly poor community relations and perceptions of ineffective government” .

The report surveyed more than 300 current university students who had left Northern Ireland to study elsewhere, and carried out in-depth follow-up interviews with 40 current leaver students.

Among those surveyed only 12 per cent said they planned to return to Northern Ireland after graduation.

The report also interviewed older professionals who had left Northern Ireland and stayed away, and found similar concerns to those raised by today’s young people.

Migration

The director of Pivotal, Ann Watt, said the “unprecedented” study provided “clear evidence about the reasons for Northern Ireland’s significant economic migration”.

“The Northern Ireland Executive has no plan or strategy in place to address economic migration. This lack of action needs to change,” she said.

While there was no “silver bullet” for fixing community relations, “better political leadership would go a long way to both improving those relations and also changing how Northern Ireland talks about itself – as a place that is looking forward, and wanting to make the best for itself and all its people in the rapidly-changing modern world, rather than somewhere that cannot get beyond binary sectarianism or arguments about the past.”