Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

The Young: The Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk poll confirms young people more concerned about issues like drink and drugs than political ones

The Stormont parties should take note, says Malachi O'Doherty

Concerns: political parties can win the support of young voters by engaging with the issues that affect them

If young people really think it is important to vote and aren't just saying that because they think it is the responsible answer to give, then politicians had better take note.

Indeed, it may be that the findings of the Belfast Telegraph/ LucidTalk survey underestimate the value young people put on democracy, for some will think it more cool to say there is no point in voting at all.

Political parties now preoccupied by the sequence of elections they are facing into might be advised to take these findings seriously.

They may not be able to meet the expectations of many young voters and do much to transform the world to their liking, but many of them will be voting for the first time and it would be a good idea not to disillusion them at the start of a life of engaged citizenship.

Lose these voters now and the impact will be evident in elections for another 70 years.

The figures are more remarkable for so few of the visible members of political parties being young themselves.

Do any of them look like role models for modern youth? Mark H Durkan is a minister at 36, Simon Hamilton at 37, but that is not young in the eyes of a teenager.

And, while Hamilton may have a bit more dash and aplomb, he has some interests that make him look chauvinistic and precious. He is a True Blue and a Rising Son. All of which might give him some electoral advantage among some young Protestants, but they are of the demographic that is less interested in voting.

The greater interest in voting among young Catholics may reflect several trends, the lower educational attainment of Protestant boys and the greater likelihood of educated Protestants leaving Northern Ireland; why vote if you don't expect to stay?

It may also indicate a greater coherence within the Catholic community.

What we call a Protestant community is more fragmented and there may be less of a sense within it of all elements progressing together.

The survey also found that young people over 18, who have the vote, are less interested in lowering the voting age to 16 than are young people who have not yet reached voting age.

While this may be taken to indicate a respect for maturity, the finding endorses an old political adage: that those who have power seek to hold onto it.

It may also be a sign of young people giving the answers they think older people expect of them, rather than speaking frankly, or even having thought the issues through.

When asked if they think that drug and alcohol abuse are important concerns, most said they did. Only 1.6% thought they were "totally unimportant".

But what does this mean? The figures don't tell us if the answers reflect personal experience and worries about drugs and alcohol, or opinions young people hold about others in wider society.

A teetotal young churchgoer, who has never sipped a shandy, or smoked a joint, may think abuse is terribly important, but that concern will be different from the same view expressed through the fug of a hangover.

One reassuring finding here is that there was no evident sectarian divide in opinion. While a young Catholic is likely to be a more conscientious voter than a young Protestant, each are as likely to be concerned about drug and alcohol abuse.

And how concerned is that? Very.

The top two levels of concern embrace 82% of the young population. In a society which routinely divided all issues, even concerns about foreign wars, on communal lines, issues which dissolve consistently throughout society remind us of our similarities rather than the assertions of difference.

Politics may divide young people, but a social issue like substance abuse matters more to them.

Political parties will be studying these figures and trying to work out how to translate them into votes for themselves.

The unionist parties will find confirmation of their fears that they have more work to do in animating the youth of the communities they traditionally expect support from.

They might consider that, if they really want the youth vote, they should do more to engage with those communities, but they might also see sense in canvassing more among young Catholics.

If young people care more about social issues, like drug use, than they do about politics, then some might switch community allegiance to politicians who share their social concerns.

The nationalist parties may think they have an easier job, in that more young Catholics are motivated to vote.

And that may be true. But if a less factionally-minded voter is coming forward, that confidence will be challenged.

As for the question of whether the parties should now argue for the lowering of the voting age: that may be one way to further stimulate political interest in young people and get them debating issues earlier.

The evidence suggests, however, that many of those demanding such a reform will have changed their minds again in two years, when they reach 18.

So, no grounds for panic there.

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