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Our failure of the Good Friday generation is criminal. We're still a sectarian society mired in old hatreds of the past

Many post-Troubles young people are flying the coop. We must offer them hope for the future if we're to persuade them to stay, says Fionola Meredith.

By Fionola Meredith

Published 06/05/2016

Back in time: John Hume with Bono and David Trimble campaigning for the Good Friday Agreement
Back in time: John Hume with Bono and David Trimble campaigning for the Good Friday Agreement

Almost eighteen years ago exactly I marched into a voting booth with my one-month-old daughter in my arms and said yes to the Good Friday Agreement.

I didn't hesitate. I was 24 years old and I was sure I was doing the right thing: for her, for me, for all of us.

It was a vote of passionate hope for my daughter's future. It was a vote against the terrible squalor of the past; I wanted none of that to taint her fresh new life.

The consequences of voting yes - all the crazy, confounding ramifications of our collective pact - did not disturb me. That would come later, when we realised that our relief at an agreed settlement had blinded us to the fact that when local politicians seized power they would shamelessly manipulate it to their own ideological ends, continually trading on our gratitude that the Troubles were over.

But on May 22, 1998, I was motivated by the simple conviction that anything would be better than what had gone before. And it seemed I was not alone. Inside the booth someone had written on a scrap of paper: 'Vote yes, for your children's sake'. I did. All we wanted was for the killing to stop for good.

Now my daughter has turned 18, and she has cast her vote for the first time. The "peace kids": that's what they call these young people. The first generation to grow up after the signing of the Agreement and the end of the Troubles. It hasn't worked out the way we hoped for them, has it?

What happened to the big, beautiful vision of Northern Ireland, evoked by Ian Paisley (below) of all people? That most improbable peacemaker spoke of "a dream in which children can play together, in which people can work together, and in which families can live happily side by side, regardless of their community or ethnic background or their religious beliefs".

Some dream.

The truth is that many of these youngsters can't wait to get out of the place if they can.

The killings have indeed stopped, for the most part - though try telling that to the family of murdered prison officer Adrian Ismay - but we live in a land that remains shot-through with sectarianism, ineluctably bound to the divisions of the past.

The kids see the same dead-eyed politicians mouthing the same old intransigent mantras and they want no part in it. Most of them don't bother to vote, and I can understand why: they see no possibility of change.

Earlier this year I spoke to a range of young adults who were turning 18 in 2016 about how they saw Northern Ireland, and their place in it. "I feel disconnected: this sense of despair, a feeling of helplessness. It's like there's nothing you can do about it," said one boy. "Why should young people grow up in a new world in Northern Ireland when it's still being plagued by the past?" asked another. "We didn't make the past, and we can't change it. It's not fair that the lives and actions of the older generations are having such an effect on us."

It was the same story from a 17-year-old girl. "Always harking back: it's not relevant to young people," she said. "The Troubles were an awful thing but we need more forward momentum for the sake of the new generations coming up. It wasn't a nice time, but we need to get over it."

Most of these young adults don't see any problem with abortion rights or gay marriage, and politicians' failure to deal with these prominent social issues alienates them still further. They regard their homeland as illogical, backward and embarrassing. They are indifferent to crude so-called dog whistle politics, and they rightly despise the use of fear tactics as an electoral strategy.

My daughter is leaving in September, to go to university in England. "Northern Ireland is my home, but I want to live in a more progressive culture," she says. "Politics here is an old person's game, they don't care about people like me and the things that are important to me. This place is in a rut. It feels like nothing ever changes."

Our children are flying away because the future we built them wasn't good enough. If they are ever to come home again, we need to give them something more than a bitter, intolerant society obsessed with past injustices and current moral panics. We need to offer them hope that we can change.

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