Speaking to a number of young people recently ahead of this year’s Assembly election, I was struck by the political acumen of a cohort who understand the past but are determined not to be held back by it.
“What happened in the past can’t be just forgotten about, but it doesn’t mean it can hold us back from what really needs to be done now for the future,” 18-year-old environmentalist and climate activist Emer Rafferty told me. “Any of the people in my field will definitely vote because we know that we really need to get people in power who think like us, have the same agenda as us. But at the same time, what we are doing is not just to benefit one part of society; it benefits everybody.”
More than 600,000 people have been born in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998. Identity and culture do not have the same connotations for this generation that they did for their parents.
Small yet significant changes are occurring across Northern Ireland every day, from sport, to community work, to activism.
It's called 'Derry' for me because it's less letters. It doesn't really matter, the symbolic has never mattered to me
Research from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum has found a generation focused on mental health, climate, human rights, and a wide range of social and economic issues such as housing and education.
When participants in a recent survey were asked to list the topics and issues of interest to them, only 7 per cent included the legacy of the past or Brexit, in comparison with the 54 per cent who listed mental health issues, or the 42 per cent who cited human rights issues.
The findings also show that young people have a keen interest in politics, with 64 per cent agreeing that “taking part in political activities was worth their time”. However, a similar figure of 62 per cent felt that “young people have no opportunities to influence decision-making”.
What this points to is a generation both politically engaged yet disenfranchised by historical failings. “Faith in Northern Ireland politics is down the drain, so badly,” says Rafferty, “and I really do think it’s this generation that I’m in now that have such a different view on what a priority is.”
Matthew Taylor, the 19-year-old co-founder of Pure Mental NI, a youth-led mental health charity, recently shifted to the SDLP after four years as a UUP member. “If we are at the forefront of something, we have to reflect what we want young people to see, and I want young people to see policy over party,” Taylor posits.
“I’m from a very unionist area. There are flags basically on every single lamp-post, and I can probably see the flames from the bonfire just down the street, but it’s called ‘Derry’ for me because it’s less letters. It doesn’t really matter, the symbolic has never mattered to me; it’s always been about the social and economic bit. That’s how I think you get change. ”
He speaks of the persistent feeling of societal obligation to vote for a particular party purely to keep another party out, and the detrimental impact that sort of thinking has on the election results and politics. “If everyone thinks like that, obviously that’s going to happen, but if everyone instead votes for the party they actually support, then that will change.”
Cabrini Brown, a 24-year-old student and athlete who grew up in a unionist area, told me: “Certain people, they just breed the hatred down through generations.” She recently joined East Belfast GAA and faced criticism from within her own community. “Sometimes the bad comments or the hate fuelled me, I think it was just more trying to get people to understand how it benefited me.”
Despite her unionist background, she didn’t associate herself in “any shape or form” with unionism, outside of going to church. “I don’t want anyone to vote based on their religion. Fair enough, have your religious views, but don’t bring that into politics.”
Despite these optimistic signs, the pressure on young people to vote along traditional sectarian lines cannot be denied, according to Niamh Mallaghan, secretary of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum. “Young people can be persuaded by their family quite a lot, there’s a lot of influence in some communities to do a certain thing in a certain way.”
For many, this year’s election will be their first.
Their experiences during the pandemic coupled with a new set of priorities may coalesce to produce a very different outcome than we’ve witnessed in prior elections.
With several marginal seats, and a staggering near-90 per cent of those aged 20-24 on the electoral register following last year’s canvas, political parties should not take the historically inherited support of the post-Belfast Agreement cohort for granted.
They may find that this particular generation’s determination to champion what’s truly best for the people and future of Northern Ireland is strong enough to outweigh the familial pressures these parties have relied upon to ensure their positions of power.
Emma DeSouza is a writer and citizens’ rights campaigner