Young people have a new vision for Northern Ireland

Richard Haass needs support of the new voices of a younger generation and sustained political leadership

US diplomat Richard Haass, with Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan, speaking to the media at the Stormont Hotel in Belfast last Friday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA Wire

Has progress stopped or even reversed this year in Northern Ireland? Things are clearly better on many fronts , but violent protests over flags and parades, and disagreement on handling the past have been frustrating to all who want Northern Ireland to fulfil its potential for all its people. Richard Haass can hopefully move things forward, but he requires help. Also needed are new voices of a younger generation and sustained political leadership.

There have been glimpses of both. At the recent British-Irish Association conference in Cambridge, a group of young people from Northern Ireland spoke about their vision. Some had spent a year in the US working in companies as part of an Ireland Funds Northern Ireland programme. The aim is to bring back new ideas and contacts to grow businesses at home .

The earlier part of the session dealt with flags, parades and the past. However, the young people spoke of “making Belfast the digital capital of Europe”, of “creating new jobs” and of “working with all the people they had met to do something special”.

They brought a whole new mood and tone. Of course ongoing issues remain. They had opportunities that many do not. However, what was so striking was how they looked to the future to build something better, working with others (unionist, nationalist or neither) for the place they all call home: new voices making a real impact.


As political leadership it was great to see Peter Robinson speaking at the GAA celebration dinner. Just as Mairtín O'Muilleóir (the Sinn Féin mayor of Belfast) attending Remembrance Day ceremonies. Stepping beyond comfort zones, they showed real leadership.

At the same conference, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore acknowledged progress but argued more was needed. In Belfast, people recently had told him power seemed to go to those who shouted loudest. Others had spoken of their despair at the recent disturbances and the impact on businesses and jobs .

Gilmore recommitted the Government to work with the leaders of Northern Ireland and the UK government, offering leadership and willingness to compromise.

He said he could understand why unionists might have felt that the Irish Government could have done more around Border violence during the "Troubles".

This was a strong and historical statement, showing a willingness to offer and not just demand. This was of course before the Smithwick Tribunal report, which re-emphasised the importance of such attitudes.

Gilmore spoke not just of rights but of obligations. He acknowledged the rights of republicans to commemorate their dead, but the march through Castlederg offended local sensitivities. Orangemen had a right to march, but not in a provocative and offensive manner. He praised David Cameron's apology for Bloody Sunday.

Irrespective of one’s ultimate aspiration, it is surely in the interests of all (dissidents excepted ) that Northern Ireland create opportunities for all its young, irrespective of tradition or background.

This is a great objective in itself. However, paradoxically, by not pursuing it, both sides are actually damaging their ultimate objectives. Firstly, whether the citizens of the Republic would want a united Ireland is a matter of debate. One thing, however, seems clear: they would only really consider unification if Northern Ireland had achieved real peace and genuine partnership.

In that light, some recent actions of Sinn Féin are genuinely confusing. Sinn Féin has become an important political force in the Republic (in addition to the North). Some of its TDs are highly effective and frequently show political judgment resonating with significant elements of the public. Therefore it is genuinely confusing to see the flags dispute, Castlederg, naming a playground after an IRA volunteer and the call for a Border poll.

These actions provoked the predictably negative reaction from unionists. The vision of a Northern Ireland at true peace with itself recedes, as does an essential prerequisite for the Republic to consider unification.

For unionism there are no equal consequences to provocative actions. The union stands secure and polls indicate no imminent change. However, loyalist violence around parades and flags has created little solidarity from the rest of the UK. Perhaps no matter for now. However, with (a) possible Scottish independence, and (b) Britain's place in Europe being debated, potentially significant changes to the UK could follow. These could have huge and potentially negative implications for Northern Ireland. Violent attacks on security forces do little for Ulster unionism in the wider UK.

Such actions could also lead to greater disengagement by both the Republic and the rest of the UK in relation to the North. Settling for a level of containment from a distance – does that help anybody?

Building on the mood of the young people at the British-Irish Association in Cambridge and the establishment of an Ireland Funds chapter in Belfast, a wider collective of organisations is exploring whether younger voices can be brought together in some form of civic group.

Clearly many young people in Northern Ireland are already involved in political parties. Others seek alternative forms of civic leadership.

The NI Chamber of Commerce recently launched a campaign called Growing Something Brilliant which seeks to provide jobs and economic opportunity. The title looks to the future. It has that sparky Northern edge. It has no baggage, and is independent of any particular tradition or affinity.

Growing something brilliant is a great objective, not just economically – that is important – but something much bigger.

New voices and sustained leadership are needed to genuinely make it happen.

Hugo MacNeill is chairman of both the British-Irish Association and the Ireland Fund