Vote? Young people in the North don’t see the point

Young working-class Protestants and middle-class Catholics switch off from politics

Given its impressive list of funders, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, Charter NI operates from a surprisingly shabby home complete with a peeling exterior, and worn carpet and cracked ceiling tiles inside.

For a community regeneration body based in east Belfast, though, particularly one staffed partly by former loyalist prisoners and their family members, the office walls are strikingly free of unionist regalia. Indeed, the only political document on display is a trade union poster fulminating against welfare benefit cuts, bar some photographs in the chief executive’s office of loyalist flute bands.

The chief executive, the tattooed, self-proclaimed ex-UDA commander Dee Stitt, is eager to discuss the work Charter NI is doing in loyalist communities. He is still smarting from an interview last year with The Guardian newspaper, one that went so badly wrong that he afterwards faced persistent calls to quit, or that he should be fired.

In that interview he denounced the British government, offering the tongue-in-cheek observation that the North Down Defenders flute band, which he runs, was a form of homeland security.


Today, Stitt is more concerned about the failure of young people to get out and vote. Working-class loyalists, Stitt said, do not understand politics and as a result do not know how to make the system deliver what they need.

The current row between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party, one that led to the collapse of the North’s political institutions in January, is a turn-off, Stitt said.

"Years ago maybe these tribal things would have mattered to people but you are 20-odd years into a peace process. People have moved on from that sectarian squabbling," he told The Irish Times.

Despite Stitt’s argument about sectarian squabbling, loyalists would not be relaxed about the introduction of an Irish Language Act – one of the major blockages in negotiations between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Sometimes, the argument is made that younger Protestants are not voting for the DUP. More seriously, however, the reality is that younger Protestants have turned their backs on politics entirely.

Voter research

An analysis by academics at Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies showed that about two thirds of electors (65 per cent), between the ages of 18 and 24, did not bother to vote in last June’s Westminster election.

The percentages of Catholics and Protestants that stayed away were broadly similar, but there were key differences in the types of people in the two communities who take a hands-off attitude to politics.

The absent Catholics, according to the research, tended to be professional types; but the Protestants who stayed away were poorer, those with few other ways to influence the world around them.

Some 60 per cent of Protestants aged 18-24 did not vote in June, many from communities plagued by unemployment, poor education and health.

In the past, Prof Peter Shirlow of Liverpool University, who led the research into voting turn-out, has pointed out that younger Protestants are firmly prepared to vote to support the union in any Border poll.

“However, a large section of the 18-40 Protestant electorate appears at the very least to be indifferent to politics at Stormont, especially on the unionist side.

“If you combine this section of the electorate’s liberalism on social issues like abortion, gay marriage and mixed marriage we conclude that the type of social conservatism of the DUP is putting off these voters,” he said.

“I think it’s an absolute disgrace there’s no government at the minute,” said Thomas, a Protestant youth worker in east Belfast, who has turned away from the DUP.

Like others growing up in east Belfast, Thomas, who declined to give his full name, imbibed the same message: “If we don’t vote for the DUP, there’s going to be a united Ireland. And that was drilled into my family strongly.”

That warning no longer strikes home but he has not switched to the DUP’s main rival, the Ulster Unionist Party, believing that a vote for the UUP is wasted “because they don’t get in”.

The 33-year-old remains a committed unionist, however, and would vote to remain in the UK were a Border poll called. But he is not fearful about the result of such a poll. Having got to know some Catholics through his work, he now believes that a majority across Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK if faced with such a question in the years to come.

Relieved of pressure “to stand up for the union”, Thomas, like many others of a similar age and background, is not just disconnected from the bickering between Northern Ireland’s political parties, but exasperated by it. He repeatedly referred to getting away from “Protestant-Catholic” politics where issues are framed along sectarian lines and, instead, wants to see the parties on both sides working together.

However, like many young working-class Protestants, he has little hope that politics will change , a belief based on the sight of continuing economic stagnation seen everyday in their communities.

Not far away from Charter NI’s offices in east Belfast, in the rather smarter surroundings of a visitor centre run by EastSide Partnership, chief executive Maurice Kinkead, speaking about young Protestants, echoed Shirlow’s views.

“I think there is some vague sense that the politics that are operating here is their parents’ or their grandparents’ politics. It actually seems to have nothing to do with them,” he said.

Catholic view

Thirty miles away in Ballymena’s Catholic St Louis Grammar School, a school that produced some of Northern Ireland’s best A-level results this year, the mood could not be more different.

The school itself is far from imposing. Once, a convent-run girls’ school, St Louis opened its doors to boys almost 50 years ago. Today, more than 1,100 students are spread out in a maze of buildings and classrooms. In the gym, hundreds of parents and pupils have gathered to applaud the achievements of current and former pupils, marked by cups, plaques and prize envelopes.

Each round of applause celebrates an individual’s success, but also signals the confidence and self-belief among local nationalists. Nevertheless, the sense of political disengagement is as evident here as in east Belfast.

Pól McAleese, 17, from Ballymena, who wants to be a commercial pilot, dismissed local politicians: “I don’t think they stand for what I want, so I will not vote for any of them.”

Planning to teach economics or business, 17-year-old Larne student Cora Brady said: “I’m not very engaged in the political process. I never really have been. I think it’s because I not really interested in it.”

Such examples of disengagement sends shivers down the spines not just of the DUP but also the SDLP: young working-class Protestants and young middle-class Catholics are switching off from politics.

The sense of hurt and offence which constitutes the lifeblood of much of the North’s political discourse means little to the young generation: “[They] don’t see themselves as victims of the conflict,” said Shirlow.

The challenge is to make politics relevant to young people in Northern Ireland, argued Conor Houston, a consultant with the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Belfast.

Younger people tend to be put off by “green and orange politics”, he said. “There are of course parties that offer alternatives to the green and orange but the view tends to be a plague on all your houses. And in the past nine to 12 months people just see dysfunctionality at Stormont.”

However, Houston believes that the young can be connected to politics. Politicians, though, must engage with them, rather than speaking “at them or to try and force opinions on them”.

Houston, who is one of the founders of the Young Influencers organisation and a member of The Irish Times Trust, was last month involved in a conference which brought together youth leaders seeking to explore what Britain and Ireland could look like in 2021.

“It was a weekend of high energy,” said Houston. “It proved there are young people who wish to engage and are passionate about wanting to make a contribution. But what also came out was that their views, their hopes just weren’t translating into the political arena.”