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Our lost generation: What persuades our brightest talent to leave home and never come back?

In the year ending in mid-2015, some 21,500 people left Northern Ireland for pastures new, roughly half of them to other regions of the UK. Many inevitably were young people. So what persuades our brightest talent to leave home and never come back? Laurence White and Karen Ireland find out

By Laurence White and Karen Ireland

Nicki Shroeder (48) is married to Neil and they have three children Adam (17), Emily (16) and Edward (7). She says:

I am originally from Banbridge, and left Northern Ireland in 1987 to study law at Cambridge University. It was there that I met my husband-to-be and we were married the year after I graduated.

The wedding took place in my home town but then we went back to live in London.

The Troubles were still going in Northern Ireland at that time and it was quite refreshing to live somewhere where that was not an issue.

When I had gone to university it was interesting to hear people talking about other things rather than violence or sectarianism. There were a whole range of other political topics which were more relevant to their lives. I was mixing with people from all over the world who had come to Cambridge for their education and that was certainly different from what I was used to home.

As well there were more job opportunities in England, particularly London. Initially I worked in private practice doing media related law for about 14 years and then I took a 10-year break to bring up the children.

I came back into the workforce about three years ago working for the News Media Association and then moved to ITV about two and a half years ago.

I am currently head of business affairs for daytime television, which involves programmes like Good Morning Britain, Loose Women and Lorraine as well as factual programmes.

I do get to meet some of the personalities which people right around the UK can relate to and tune in to watch every day.

It is a great career and no two days are the same.

I do come back to Northern Ireland a couple of times a year to visit my mother, brother and sister who all live in Scarva and they come over to see us as often as they can.

I have never thought that I would come back and live in Northern Ireland. It is the whole package which keeps me in London - career and family. My children were all born here and have put down their roots and have their friends here.

I have actually lived here longer than I did in Northern Ireland. I realise that there has been a sea-change in life in Northern Ireland. I have a nephew who was born after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and I am conscious of the fact that he will have a very different upbringing and childhood to the one that I had.

I have been conscious of the recent election in Northern Ireland and the rows that have surrounded Arlene Foster, but I must admit that my eldest son follows political developments in the province more closely than I do.

However, if I am asked, I say that I am from Northern Ireland. I don't consider myself as English.

When I return to Northern Ireland people say that I have a very strong English accent, yet over in London I am said to have a Northern Irish accent. I live in a sort of a twilight zone.

Maybe one day we will think of retiring to Northern Ireland but we enjoy life in London. We have never thought of moving out of the city to other parts of England and we see ourselves living here for the next 20 odd years at least.

It is a fantastic city with lots to do and see and everything is on your doorstep, which is lovely."

Julie Ann Trainor (30) from Killeavy, Co Armagh, is a freelance journalist in London. She says:

When I was younger, I spent a week in London with my cousin and fell in love with the city. I studied journalism with English at the University of Ulster in Coleraine. While there, and after graduating, I wrote a weekly, gossip-style column for my local newspaper, the Newry Democrat.

After graduating, I worked full-time at Ulster Bank, but never gave up my hopes of a career in media. My second cousin, who incidentally now works for the Belfast Telegraph, got me a week's work experience with the Daily Mirror in London about five years ago, and that was my introduction to how the media operates there.

I was then offered a few weeks' work experience at a magazine, which led to paid commissions, including freelancing for OK magazine, The Star magazine, New magazine, Mail Online and The Sun's website.

My speciality is showbusiness news, and that really is my dream job. It is a tremendous area to work in, but obviously very competitive as many people want to move in those circles, so it is quite hard work. I have been able to attend red carpet events, film premieres, showbusiness parties and product launches, as well as conducting interviews with celebrities like Katie Price, James Arthur, Little Mix and boxers Anthony Joshua and David Haye.

One thing you don't need to be in this job is shy, but I have never met anyone who was rude to me. Perhaps my Irish accent helps.

I came to London because I thought it was the best place to get opportunities for a career in media. It has a better lifestyle than back home. There's much more to do, especially the nightlife and being able to shop around the clock. It's so cosmopolitan and vibrant, with many accents audible on the streets.

Amazingly, a message from my sister, Lorna, who is currently travelling in Argentina, alerted me to this week's terrorist attack in London. She was sending me messages asking if I was safe and then I found out what had happened when I went online.

It was really quite scary, but you cannot live your life in fear. Life in the city went back to normal very quickly with transport running regularly that evening, and by the next day things seemed to be back to normal for most people.

I still come home to Newry every few weeks to see my mum and dad, and I have a brother who is studying overseas. I also do my best try to keep up with local news. The death of Martin McGuinness made the front page in London newspapers, and social media makes it easy to find out what is going on back home.

Would I come home again? I never say never as life in London media is so unpredictable. However, at the moment, I love it. It is definitely a young person's city.

Carmel Martin (32) is married to Owen and they are expecting their first child in July. She says:

I always wanted to be a teacher, and the options for me growing up in Northern Ireland were to do a degree at somewhere like the University of Ulster, as it was then, and then gain a PGCE qualification, which would take another year, or I could go to London and do a specialist teaching degree. I chose the latter, attending St Mary’s at Twickenham in 2003.

I am fortunate that I have three uncles and an aunt living in England, and they were very supportive towards me when I moved over. The other motivation for going to England was that it would be easier to get a permanent job upon qualification.

I have friends who studied in England and then returned back to Northern Ireland and who are still doing subbing shifts several years later, being unable to get a permanent post.

I was fortunate to get my first post teaching in a primary school straight after completing my degree. I stayed there seven years and have been in my present school for three years.

The career progression opportunities are also better here. I now hold a senior teaching position, head of Key Stage 2, and am part of the leadership team. I would not have had that opportunity so quickly at home.

On my second year in London I met my husband, Owen, who works in marketing with Coca Cola. We have thought about moving to Northern Ireland, and both of us would be keen to do that if everything lined up correctly.

While we earn much more in London than we would back home, the cost of housing especially is much higher, so moving would not be a huge drawback.

In an ideal world, I would like to return to Northern Ireland in about five years’ time when there would not be the same pressure on me to remain in work. I could take time out to look after any children we had and get them settled in school.

But that plan would depend on my husband getting a job comparable to the one he currently has.

I do have an interest in current affairs in Northern Ireland but, obviously, it does not influence any of our day-to-day decisions, and some of the coverage is just bad press, in my opinion.

I grew up in Cushendun in the Glens of Antrim, and the Troubles never really impinged on our lives. I would have more concern about terrorist attacks in London in the present climate that I ever did at home.

Cushendun is still my home, and even my husband, who is from London, would move there tomorrow if things worked out properly.

Of course, we have a much more diverse range of friends in London than I would have had home. I met a lot of interesting people at university, but I also made friends with people from Northern Ireland who studied over here and then returned home and I am still in contact with them.

The great thing about London is that there is so much to do and see. We live just a 20 minute-train journey from the centre of London with all its attractions, and it certainly gives us a great quality of life.”

Catherine Wilson (45) is originally from Co Down. She now lives in Wiltshire, near Stonehenge, and works as head of customer operations with Game. She is a single parent and lives with her son, Adam Brittain (13).  She says:

I have lived away from home for more than 20 years. I worked abroad for a couple of years after school, and then my dad died, so I moved home to live with my mum and be there for her. I studied at Queen’s University and then worked abroad again since I had studied languages.

I met my husband, who was from Glasgow, and we got married in 2001 and moved to Germany because of his job, then  moved to Wiltshire when Adam was one. I got back into my career when he went to nursery school but, unfortunately, my husband and I separated in 2009 and got divorced two years later.

At this time, both my parents are dead. They had been the main reason for thinking of returning home, so now I have to think of Adam and what would be best for him.

He is settled in school and his friends are here. I also have a good group of friends who I had met over the years.

I am the youngest of seven girls. I miss my sisters and would like to be closer to them as they are all still in Northern Ireland, but they are focused on their own families.

I often think about moving back home, and Adam and I talk about it quite a bit, but for now being here makes much more sense.

I am a single parent and the breadwinner. I have a really good job and a salary that allows Adam and I to have a comfortable lifestyle. I don’t think I would find as senior a post in Northern Ireland, and I would be working for half the salary. Money isn’t the most important thing in life, but making sure Adam is cared for is my main priority.

I worry about what would happen if I got sick or lost my job, so I try to save as much money as possible when I am still earning a good salary.

Adam will be going to university in a few years’ time and I need to plan ahead for that.

Maybe that would be a time for me to move back to Northern Ireland. Who knows? I will decide when that time comes.

I love that Adam has been brought up in a society where he isn’t asked which school he went to or what his surname is.

I’ve brought him up to think if you are nice, you are nice and that is all that matters, not the colour of your skin or which church you belong to. I am glad life isn’t dictated by the colour of the kerbs on your street.

I do worry about what goes on back home and I keep an eye on the news all the time. I am fearful that we are going backwards and that politics is being run by parties from the extremes of life in Northern Ireland, while most people are like me and in the middle.

Our concerns are about things like good healthcare, pensions and job opportunities for young people.

Unfortunately, many of the people in the middle ground didn’t vote in the last election, and I think they are a generation who have become apathetic and frustrated by politics. It could be another generation before this changes again.

Will I ever come home? I miss my old friends who have known me all my life and who know me inside out, and I miss my family but, for now, the advantages of life here outweigh the negatives of moving back.”

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