Leaders are failing the young people of Northern Ireland

A disillusioned new generation feels alienated from the ballot box, while others are being led astray by dangerous rhetoric and paramilitaries

Violence in loyalist areas of Belfast is "even worse now than it was in the Troubles" according to some local residents. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

In the very week of the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, we witnessed how fragile peace in Northern Ireland is.

Rioting broke out on the streets of Belfast. Cars were set alight only 10 minutes from my doorstep and a bus was hijacked and set on fire with petrol bombs.

My parents grew up witnessing these scenes, and this week they have felt frustrated, yet resigned. But I’m 22, and I’ve only ever known peace in Northern Ireland. Young people like me are angry and distressed.

We are seeing a new generation of young people – neighbours and classmates – being drawn into the violence that plagued our parents’ streets. The youngest person arrested last week was just 13 years old.

Abby Wallace is a writer living in Belfast

More than 600,000 young people have been born in Northern Ireland since the Belfast Agreement was signed. But under the broad umbrella of the “peace generation”, not all young people have felt this peace in the same way. This is because our leaders have failed to build on the Belfast Agreement in a way which would allow all of Northern Ireland’s youth to feel that we are no longer living in the past.

If the rioting in Belfast this week has shown us anything, it’s that more than 20 years on from the agreement, our peace walls are still necessary.

But by systematically separating a new generation, our leaders foster a mentality of exclusion and hostility – and this builds when we don’t help young people to look beyond the walls that divide us.

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More than 90 per cent of Northern Ireland’s young people are still educated in segregated schools. Significantly, the small number of integrated schools in Northern Ireland are always over-subscribed. Young people in Northern Ireland, and those who care for them, are crying out for togetherness.

Just because we escaped the trauma faced by many of our parents, doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the scars it has left

After decades without it, the Belfast Agreement also brought the promise of justice and equal opportunity for all. Young people would now have opportunities our parents could never dream of. Yet there is a striking correlation between the placement of segregated schools and segregated communities, and this disproportionately affects working class people. More than 90 per cent of social housing in Northern Ireland is still segregated.

By failing to invest time and money in any significant strategy to address this, our leaders are failing too many young people from working class backgrounds who still don’t mix with other communities.

Keeping young people apart is not only an outrageous nod to the past and a failure to honour the commitments of the Belfast Agreement, but it’s also dangerous and unfair.

Just because we escaped the trauma faced by many of our parents, doesn’t mean we aren’t subject to the scars it has left. One in 10 young people suffer from emotional problems in Northern Ireland, which has the highest rate of mental illness in the UK. This unaddressed trauma has now been inherited by a new generation through chronic under-investment in adequate mental health services.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Belfast Agreement. Photograph: Reuters
Former British prime minister Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the Belfast Agreement on April 10th, 1998. "I can be both grateful for the opportunities the agreement has given me, yet angry and aware that these opportunities aren’t the norm in Northern Ireland." File photograph: Reuters

The Belfast Agreement has undoubtedly changed my life for the better. It is a result of the predominantly peaceful Northern Ireland that I grew up in, meaning that I could proudly belong to a non-denominational school. My parents, in their school days, were patted down for explosives.

But I can be both grateful for the opportunities the agreement has given me, yet angry and aware that these opportunities aren’t the norm in Northern Ireland.

Looking to the future

It’s difficult to explain to people who didn’t grow up in Northern Ireland the weight attached to decision-making. Although the catalyst for this week’s events might stem from the announcement not to prosecute Sinn Féin, on top of growing loyalist dissatisfaction with the Irish Sea border; they are rooted in something much deeper and systemic.

Young people are exhausted by a leadership that doesn’t represent us or what we care about

What we are witnessing this week is a consequence of embittered deadlock unleashed on to a system which has failed to protect the most vulnerable people in our communities.

In the weeks leading up to this violence, our former first minister and leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, warned that recent events meant we were dangerously close to a line which, when crossed, could lead a situation too familiar to his generation.

Our leaders must start considering: what about my generation?

Young people are exhausted by a leadership that doesn’t represent us or what we care about. Disillusioned young people are alienated from the ballot box, and some who are left behind are being led astray by dangerous rhetoric and paramilitaries.

What remains powerful, is that for every person who engages in inflammatory discourse or behaviour, there are more who push for the peace which was promised to us more than 20 years ago. Young people are looking to the future, and it’s time our leaders caught up.

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