Belfast Telegraph

Friday 24 October 2014

It's time for us all to listen - there's more to peace than the simple absence of violence

A symbol of hope as a soldier talks to a child on the Springfield Road in west Belfast
Young protesters make their voices felt during the flag protests at Belfast City Hall

Jaded with our useless politicians, disillusioned by what passes for peace in this country and determined to get out of here as fast and as soon as possible. That's how a striking number of young people see Northern Ireland and their place in it. And who could blame them?

This wasn't supposed to happen, of course. This generation were destined to be the golden ones, the children of peace, untouched and untainted by the years of horror and violence.

Born after the tremendous deal to end the conflict was struck, with no memory of what it was like to live in a state where politically-motivated murder was commonplace. They were to be the ones who would truly reap the benefits of the new arrangement at Stormont, flourishing in a society which was to be drained – gradually, but decisively, there was no doubt about that – of the poisons of sectarianism.

The fact that so many now despair of the place says much about the systemic failure by our political classes to grasp the promises of peace, to seize them and make them come good.

Hope was frittered away in suspicion and rancour and a woeful absence of the three vital qualities for peace-building: confidence, generosity and courage.

Which is why, presumably, 70% of the young believe our politicians are simply not capable of agreeing a joint vision for the future of this country. They see what we all see: a precarious state of bad-tempered stasis. Stalemate. Nothing to encourage, nothing to inspire. Just a grim holding-on from day to day, with little prospect of anything changing.

More than two-thirds of young people aged between 16 and 24 – that's a massive 67.5% – see their future outside Northern Ireland. More Protestants, in particular, are intent on leaving, which – worryingly – seems to echo the steadfast belief, common in loyalist circles, that they are being disenfranchised, excluded somehow, from a society that has left them behind.

Regardless of the reasons, has anybody stopped to think of the consequences – economically, politically, culturally – if even a proportion of the young act on their intention to depart?

Who will be the teachers, the doctors, the architects, the lawyers, the artists, the academics, even the politicians of the future? Who will be here to carry this place forward, if youngsters with ambition and hope and desire for a life untrammelled by petty bigotry and the weighty baggage of the past decide that their dreams are possible only if they go?

The so-called "brain-drain" was supposed to stop when the guns fell silent. Nobody imagined that – 16 years after the Good Friday Agreement – the exodus would continue.

A country without young people. Devoid of the boundless enthusiasm, vision and determination that only comes from new blood. What a frightening idea. Even more frightening and depressing if it becomes the reality.

But here's the figure that really brought me up short. An incredible 65% of the young do not think that there is peace in Northern Ireland. That's not the word that they would use to describe the current state of affairs in this place.

To those of us who were born and grew up during the Troubles, this doesn't really make sense. It's obvious that we have peace, however ramshackly and imperfect and unsatisfactory it is.

Just take a look around you, we say. The daily shootings have stopped. The days when you could hardly bear to open a newspaper, for fear of what fresh horrors you would read inside, have gone. You don't see the muzzle of a soldier's rifle poking out round a corner when you're heading into town to do your shopping.

There are so many things that we just don't hear or see any more.

The awful, muffled boom of a bomb going off – and the even more awful silence that followed. The fear of an empty car parked illegally with its hazard warning lights on, the way it made you pick up your pace, get past it quickly, get away from the danger – real or imagined.

Tense, watching, wary, keeping your head down: that's not the way the young live their lives today. They're free of all that. So, of course, we have peace. Don't we?

We do, but only in the most basic sense: an absence of large-scale violence. What we don't have – and this, I think, is what the young people are telling us – is a fully-realised peace, an authentic accommodation between enemies, a visible rapprochement which sets the tone for the rest of society to follow.

The quality of the peace is defined at the top and what comes dropping slow is not a bright, galvanised zeal for transformation and progress, but a weary, hostile embrace between old men with tired eyes. Hardly something to stake your long-term happiness on.

The view from Generation Y isn't all negative, of course. There is an acknowledgement that Northern Ireland has improved as a place to live. More than 50% said they met someone from the other tradition frequently, or even very frequently. Nobody is saying that the situation, as it stands, is hopeless, or beyond remedy.

But it's vital that we start listening seriously to what young people have to say, before they decide to walk away and leave this place devoid of a future.

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