Time to listen to the ceasefire generation
by Allison LIRA for Shared Future News
27 March 2019
The Ardoyne Youth Enterprise, in partnership with Imagine! Festival, brought together a panel of speakers at the forefront of youth advocacy, to discuss the lack of institutional engagement with the voices of young people in Northern Ireland and why this needs to change. The event was chaired by Catherine Morrison and the panel of speakers included Koulla Yiasouma (Northern Ireland Commission for Children and Young People), Judith Thompson (Commission for Victims and Survivors for Northern Ireland), Phil Glennon (Northern Ireland Youth Forum), and Thomas Turley (Ardoyne Youth Club).
The transgenerational impact of the conflict
After a round of introductions, Judith Thompson (Commissioner for Victims and Survivors) kicked things off with a few reflections on her time engaging with the consequences of conflict. Thompson pointed out that conflict has wide ranging implications and that the impact of the Troubles cannot be contained to just the 3,500 people that were lost. Families, first responders, and whole communities were damaged. She noted that although the loss of life in Northern Ireland is small compared to other conflicts, within the context of a small, fairly tight knit society, the impacts of those deaths have been devastating.
Through her work, Thompson has come into contact with the transgenerational impact of trauma. In speaking to families and young people, it was evident to her that young people have been adversely affected by the conflict-related trauma, despite never having experienced it directly. Thompson acknowledged that there is still a lot to learn about how trauma is passed down and how to stop it. However, she is sure that it is being passed down and there is some understanding of the features of this dynamic. Some of the transmission of trauma has to do with a culture of silence that exists in some family units and communities. Other times, the consequences of the conflict may be addressed in ways that are unhelpful. Lastly, there are the externalities of trauma, such as addiction, that have adverse effects upon children and young people.
Thompson also identified ongoing paramilitarism as another major stressor on young people’s mental health. She noted that although people like to think that paramilitarism is a thing of the past, it’s not. Children are being brutalised by paramilitary groups today. She argued that this ongoing danger to young people in Northern Ireland is of deep concern and needs to be addressed, as it is strongly connected to trauma production. She emphasised that along with the individual impact of paramilitary activity, an ongoing paramilitary threat inhibits communities’ ability to adapt and progress: “What does all of this do to trust … between communities, and between communities and governments?”
To combat the transgenerational impact of conflict-related trauma, Thompson expressed that conversations between generations are just as important as conversations between communities.
The role young people do and don’t play
Next to speak was Koulla Yiasouma, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. Yiasouma lamented the lack of attention that is given to children and young people in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and the documents and legislation that came after it. She noted that in the Agreement, children and young people are only mentioned once. Yiasouma criticised the government’s lack of engagement with Northern Ireland youth, saying that policy having to do with the well-being of children and young people is “being done to them not with them”. As a product of this, Yiasouma thinks that governing bodies have missed the mark on what Northern Ireland youth need.
Although Yiasouma acknowledged that Northern Ireland is a safer place since 1998, she argued that Northern Ireland can do better. One of the areas of improvement is the way that youth organisations are funded. Funding is often piecemeal, which affects the civil sector’s ability to plan comprehensively and for the long term. Another point of concern is the heightened levels of mental health issues among young people. She noted that more people have died since the ceasefire than died during the conflict and emphasised that this is related to the mental health and wellbeing of today’s young people. Yiasouma criticised the continued segregation of children in both housing and education. She wondered what continued segregation is teaching them.
Although praising the work of youth organisations, Yiasouma also found cross-community work aimed at improving relationships and attitudes amongst young people of different communities to be a little ironic. “In a world not of your making, it’s your attitudes that need improvement,” she sarcastically told the young people in the audience. Yiasouma argued that improving relationships needs to be happening with adults also; the rest of society needs to do its part in breaking down divisions.
Expanding on the point, Yiasouma observed that whereas the rest of society needs to begin participating in the relational work that is often pushed on young people, young people need to be given a bigger voice in governing institutions. Yiasouma stated that children have an essential role to play and that this space hasn’t sufficiently been created. To the people who would prefer to keep young people out of the conversation around legacy, so as to spare them from its negative impacts, Yiasouma countered this stance by stressing that young people can’t be spared from the realities of their lives. She stated that the reality speaks for itself and to exclude young people from having a say in the kind of future that is being built is to deny them a fundamental right.
Lastly, Yiasouma emphasised that failing to give young people a role in determining how to deal with the past and move forward only serves to further marginalise and exclude.
The people of today
Phil Glennon of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum spoke after Yiasouma and built on her point about the exclusion of young people’s voices from governing institutions. He stated that there’s a vacuum where there should be mechanisms connecting young people to government that needs to be addressed. Glennon stressed the importance of events like this one, organised around issues affecting young people and how to support them at the policy level. He urged decision-makers to create a permanent forum for children and to pass a Bill of Rights that explicitly protects the rights of young people.
Reflecting on his own experiences growing up in Belfast and his experiences working with youth, Glennon shared some insights on navigating complex identities. He commented on the common experience of getting asked your name and where you’re from and shared with the audience that growing up, his parents strongly discouraged him from giving out that information. He wondered if young people today still feel cautious about sharing their identities. Glennon stated that young people have a lot to say about where they’re from and should be given a voice.
To finish, Glennon offered the audience a quote by Janusz Korczak, a Polish-Jewish educator who died during the Holocaust in 1942: “Children are not the people of tomorrow, but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. ‘The unknown person’ inside of them is our hope for the future.”
Last to speak was Thomas Turley of the Ardoyne Youth Club, who echoed a lot of the sentiment expressed in the Korczak quote. Turley highlighted the importance of youth organisations in giving young people a platform to fulfill their potential and “identify their own learning”. Proud of the work he’s seen young people do, Turley stated that young people in Northern Ireland are already great ambassadors for the country. Yet they lack consultation from decision makers on the important issues of the day.
Moverover, Turley argued that young people also lack the recognition that they deserve from the media. He noted that the media is quick to cover mass gatherings of young people at the interface, but when organisations like the Ardoyne Youth Club bring young people from the interface together to celebrate the progress they’ve made, the media is nowhere to be found. Turley called on the media to do more to recognise the achievements of young people in Northern Ireland and to be a platform that makes young people feel valued.
Reflecting on his many years of youth work, he stated that the teenage years of development is a pivotal moment in people’s lives. Youth groups play an important role in showing young people the path that they can take, in making them feel valued and in helping them to take ownership of their lives. Turley shared that growing up, he never thought that one day he would be standing on a stage speaking to a room full of people about youth work. It was because of people that believed in him that he is where he is today. Like him, young people need to be asked for their input and participation. They need to know that someone cares about what they think and believes in what they can contribute.
Questions and answers
In the second half of the event, the panel took questions from audience members. Catherine Morrison began the Q&A session by asking a question regarding paramilitaries. She asked whether the word “paramilitary” rather than simply “criminal” should still be used. Yiasouma responded first by stating that there is a case to be made that calling criminal groups “paramilitaries” romanticises what they’re doing and that this is not acceptable. She said that in her own work, she keeps two types of list, one having to do with politically motivated groups and another having to do with criminal gangs. In her opinion, those who brutalise children are in the latter category and shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that they’re “freedom fighters”.
Thompson largely agreed with Yiasouma but argued that although we shouldn’t glamorise the brutality, it is important to recognise the distinct experience of the victims of this threat. Thompson pointed out that the dangers that affect young people and their families in Northern Ireland are different than how criminal gangs affect people in other places. Thompson said that the importance of understanding violence against young people by criminal groups in Northern Ireland as different and as a legacy issue. Glennon agreed with Thompson’s point and shared that in talking to young people across Northern Ireland, everyone seems to know what “shooting by appointment” means. Whereas, when he talks to young people in Scotland or Wales, the same level of awareness is not there.
The next two questions came from the audience. The first question had to do with the role of youth organisations in getting the voices of young people heard by decision makers. Yiasouma argued that under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, government agencies must consult with relevant stakeholders in society when developing policy. Based on this, Yiasouma was of the opinion that it is up to the agencies to recognise young people as key stakeholders on a variety of issues and to reach out to them, which they are currently not doing.
The second question spoke to the disillusionment of many young people with the current state of politics in Northern Ireland. An audience member asked what was to stop the same conversations from being had 10-15 years from now. What changes did the panel realistically see happening? Glennon shared that in speaking to young people, a common complaint is that nothing is changing and he worries that because of this, young people might be tempted to just switch off. He told the audience, of which there were many young people, that it is important to continue having conversations that engage young people and to create and exploit opportunities to make their voices heard. He called for “youth champions” to put pressure on the government and noted that “this kind of work” takes time.
The next question was asked by Morrison. She asked whether the voting age should be lowered. When she asked the audience to raise their hands if they agreed with lowering the voting age,. only a small percentage of the audience raised their hands. The panel on the other hand unanimously agreed that the voting age should be lowered. Glennon said that he finds an apathy amongst young people when it comes to this issue and he thinks that this is because young people rarely get the chance to really think and explore topics like this. He argued that the education system needs to play a bigger role in creating these conversations. Koulla argued that young people are allowed to get married, drive a car, and pay taxes so why not have the ability to vote on things that affect them also?
The last question came from an audience member. He asked, “Is too much money being spent on the past at the expense of the future? Or is one a precondition of the other?” The panel was in agreement that the future isn’t being invested in as much as it should. Thompson criticised the amount of money spent on legal action for minimal returns. She argued that if addressing the legacy is about convicting people, results will never be produced. On the other hand, if addressing the legacy is about community healing, creating opportunities for families, and coming to a better understanding, then Thompson thinks that’s money well spent.
Yiasouma criticised the underinvestment in children and young people’s mental health. She noted that 75% of mental illness begins by the age of 17 so by failing to invest in young people’s mental health, problems for the future are being created. Her opinion was that money needs to be spent more wisely and that Northern Ireland is spending millions and not producing good outcomes for children and young people.
Overall, the panel gave a good sense of the challenges facing young people in Northern Ireland today as a consequence of the legacy of conflict. They strongly made the case that legacy issues affect the “ceasefire generation” also and as such, they should have a say in what Northern Ireland does to address it.