Moving beyond sectarian world views: Conversations on young people and the Good Friday Agreement

Moving beyond sectarian world views: Conversations on young people and the Good Friday Agreement
by Sam ALLEN for Shared Future News
25 April 2018

Even 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement there is still uncertainty over the future of Northern Ireland. With the current political deadlock at Stormont, legacy matters still unaddressed and unknown consequences of Brexit pending, there is understandable worry, especially among young people.

At the Law School of Queen’s University Belfast there was a discussion hosted by the The Royal Irish Academy on issues that young people in Northern Ireland will have to deal with in the coming years. The speakers on the panel included Dr Dirk Schubotz, Siobhan Fenton, Koulla Yiasouma, Bronagh Hinds and Professor John Morison.

After introductions by Professor Morison, Schubotz spoke on the findings of a recent Young Life and Times survey. The survey was designed to discover the attitudes of young people on the topics of identity, culture and community relations. Key questions addressed whether young people had a sense of belonging, if they felt like they had an influence in politics and of course, Brexit. The results of the survey will be released on 23rd May.

Journalist Siobhan Fenton discussed the current climate for the LGBT community in Northern Ireland and identities beyond just Nationalist and Unionist. She also spoke about her soon to be released book, The Good Friday Agreement, and young people’s views of politics in Northern Ireland.

Yiasouma talked about the challenges Northern Ireland still faces today, particularly in areas that were most affected by the conflict. Regarding the future for young people, language and how we talk about what happened in the past were highlighted as major concerns.

Finally Hinds voiced her thoughts and opinions. She covered issues such as the history of the Good Friday Agreement and the present state of the peace process. Key points touched on were the representation of women in politics and changing attitudes to gay marriage.

In a discussion with the audience, one person said that the politicians of Northern Ireland are simply not listening to young people: “They tell you to go get an education, go do all this — you get your education and you do everything you should do. And they don’t do their job… but they tell you what you should do.” The attendee felt that politicians in fact belittle young people.

Same-sex marriage was brought up on several occasions as a social issue in which attitudes have dramatically changed in recent years (75 percent of NI adults support same-sex marriage quoted one attendee). However due to increased political deadlock, people are voting for parties that have openly opposed gay marriage despite what they themselves may personally believe on the matter. The point being that many issues such as this are being boiled down to “orange and green”.

Another result of the political stalemate was that it has created a sense of apathy amongst young voters. It was argued that those aged between 15 and 18 tend to be very politically engaged but this interest for some reason diminishes as they get older. A suggestion brought up to keep young people involved was to encourage them to align themselves with a specific issue, something important to them, rather than the political parties.

Additionally serious concerns were expressed over the consequences of Brexit, and specifically what will happen to the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Several people felt that a hard Brexit could have a major impact on the daily lives of those who live near the border. One commenter said they were worried that they that would have to bring their passport to go to their nearest shop. While half-joking, this was raised as a genuine question on how Brexit will change some areas more than others — and not necessarily for the better.

Another participant remarked “Northern Ireland is silent in the whole Brexit conversation because we have no government; we have no politicians that are representing us. We have a bunch of incredibly hard working civil servants who are all over this … but they are not getting a seat at the top table.”

It was also stated that a problem with the talking about Brexit in Northern Ireland was that it was, as stated earlier, being turned into an “orange and green” issue. Once it descends into this binary choose, then people are hesitant to voice their opinions. “We need to rescue our issues from being abused as orange and green issues”. Others agreed, saying that Brexit will affect people of all ages in Northern Ireland and Ireland, regardless of their religious or political background.

There were fears that the possibility of a hard border was reinforcing sectarian divisions because, as previously mentioned, it was being framed as a Catholic versus Protestant matter. Other attendees felt that this was more of a problem with older generations since most young people have moved beyond sectarian world views and have unrelated qualms; “It’s a good thing they’re not thinking in other terms [sectarianism]”.

The test may be how today’s young people can translate their non-sectarian world views into political progress in this contested space, as they get older.

Other events hosted by the Royal Irish Academy can be found here:


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