Years of Hope — Young activists plant a seed of hope for the future of Northern Ireland
by Hollie ENNIS
22 August 2022
Six young activists from various backgrounds across Northern Ireland and the border county regions came together to discuss the pressing issues of the present and future at an event held in the Linen Hall Library, as part of its Years of Chaos and Hope project, funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Reconciliation Fund.
Women’s rights advocate Bronagh Hinds chaired the discussion. Hinds served as a fitting chair for a panel on youth activism due to her impressive career, including her role within the Women’s Coalition during the negotiations that led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and her role in founding the Northern Ireland Women’s European platform.
The panel of activists included:
- Beth Elder — the education officer for Queens University Student Union, and is passionate about advocating for greater student inclusion in decision-making and achieving greater equality and accessibility of education;
- Joel Keys — a young loyalist and advocate for enhanced cross-community relations and dialogue to promote greater understanding and peace;
- Dara McAnulty — an environmentalist and award-winning author of the book Diary of a Young Naturalist;
- Dara McLaughlin — Alliance for Choice Derry activist and passionate about the issue of reproductive rights and the importance of increasing dialogue on crucial societal issues;
- Inez Murray — policy officer for a local, youth-led mental health charity, Pure Mental NI, and is motivated to address the stigma surrounding mental health and ensure the provision of services across schools; and
- Cohen Taylor — LGBTQ+ activist and Lagan College queer straight alliance chair, and is passionate about ensuring inclusion and equality for all youth across Northern Ireland.
Amongst the panellists and in response to questions from the audience, three topics emerged, which the panel in unison seemed to agree were the most pressing issues within society.
Political gridlock and division appeared as the central issue identified by the panel. Taylor expressed how young people today feel ignored by politicians and those in positions of power. McLaughlin followed up by stating the lack of benefits of green and orange politics, which in her view is simply a divisionary tool separating classes of society from joining together to address the key critical societal issues.
Mental health was the second most common issue for all panellists, particularly Murray. She passionately expressed the need to look at inter-generational trauma and its impact on our society. Further, she called for efforts to reduce mental health stigma and the need for greater investment by politicians to prioritise mental health through the provision of services. Keys added to this by highlighting the need to address drug and alcohol abuse — along with McAnulty, who raised the issue of eco-anxiety and its contribution to affecting the mental health of young people within our society.
Thirdly, the reform of the education system. Keys expressed his view that complete reform is needed to shift away from an exam and grade-based system, stating our education system to be “high grade but low tier”. McLaughlin followed up by advocating for reduced stigma and greater levels of reproductive education, with greater inclusion for LGBTQ+ identities. Elder and other panellists often referenced the importance of increasing integrated education across Northern Ireland.
The discussion concluded with the question: what is a dream for the future which would make you want to stay in Northern Ireland? Responses varied — Elder wished for a change in the definition of success and achievement, Keys and Taylor expressed the desire for a more reconciled and inclusive society. McAnulty hoped for a greater focus on environmentalism and McLaughlin a new era of forward-looking politicians. Lastly, Murray expressed hope for better resources to tackle mental health issues.
“Years of Hope” seemed a fitting title for this panel event, as it appeared to be an image of hope to see young people passionate about their causes come together and speak enthusiastically about creating a better future for Northern Ireland. Such visioning appears in great contrast to our current elected representatives, who cannot sit together within an executive to discuss and address the ever-pressing issues within our society that these young activists have raised today. As Taylor expressed, “As a generation, we inherited a country that we don’t understand and that nobody has helped us understand… we do not feel reflected in the structure of our society. We need to rebuild our society rather than accepting the deal we got.”
Images © Allan LEONARD @MrUlster