Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's children are victims of division

By Koulla Yiasouma

Many of our children experience reduced life chances caused by a conflict which "rumbles on" to varying degrees in their communities.

Children living in interface areas are likely to suffer sectarian abuse and be involved in, or witness, violence. Since 2009, the PSNI has recorded 39 paramilitary-style attacks against children. Due to under-reporting, the reality is likely to be much higher.

The highest levels of child poverty and mental ill-health are in those areas most impacted upon by the conflict. Our children experience unacceptably high rates of mental ill-health, with more children in Northern Ireland dying through suicide than anywhere else on these islands.

I first came to Northern Ireland in 1990 as a volunteer on a cross-community scheme which brought children together to tackle segregation. It is unacceptable in 2015 that many of our children still experience segregation in housing, education and leisure .

While the discourse on a "shared future" is understood to mean the two "main traditions", Northern Ireland has become increasingly diverse. Newcomer children are invisible in these conversations and this is untenable.

There have been a range of peace-building initiatives since the 1998 peace agreement and, like the agreement, they make little, or no, reference to children or their positive contribution to society. Government strategy refers to the need to "improve attitudes" among young people, so they can play a role in building good relations. The implication is that divisions are caused by young people - they are obviously not. Division is perpetuated by adults.

The paradox is that children - all of whom were born after the 1994 ceasefires - continue to be deeply affected by a conflict not of their making and of which they have little knowledge.

Children must be given the relevant information to make sense of our past. Their voices and experiences must be integral to building a peaceful and democratic society. We, as adults, have a responsibility to listen to them in shaping their future.

Koulla Yiasouma is Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. She is speaking today at the Community Relations Council's annual policy and practice conference, One Place - Many People

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