Northern Ireland risks losing a generation who will build their future elsewhere
In our special series this week, there are statistics which should concern all of us who have the best interests of our young people at heart. In our poll, carried out by LucidTalk, we talked to a representative range of people aged between 16 and 24. The findings showed that more than two thirds of those interviewed saw their future outside Northern Ireland, and some 25% wanted to leave the British Isles altogether and live in Europe, America or Australia.
It is natural for some young people to see their future away from home, but a potential brain drain of two out of three of our young people is absolutely staggering.
There is also little comfort for the politicians and those who have worked hard on many levels to build meaningful and permanent bridges across the community divides. As many as 70% of the young people in the poll felt that our politicians are incapable of agreeing on a shared vision for the future.
This is particularly worrying among a generation which ought to have benefited from being brought up during the peace process, not during the worst of the Troubles.
It is also worrying that 65% of the young people did not think that there was peace in this country. Given the dissident republican activities and also the trouble arising from the Union flag dispute and the marching season, this finding is not surprising – but if the majority of young people do not believe that a permanent peace is being bedded down, what does the future then hold?
One of the encouraging findings in the poll is the 50% of young people had met someone from 'the other tradition' frequently or very frequently.
However, there were significant religious dimensions to the findings. For example, proportionately more young Protestants wanted to leave Northern Ireland. More than 60% who wanted to stay were Catholics, just over twice as many as Protestants.
Another significant finding is that almost a third of the young people when asked about their religious background described themselves as 'none or other', and that a large proportion of these claimed to have no religion. This finding presents a particular challenge to the churches in our increasingly secular society. It also represents a growing tendency among the young not to want to identify with one 'tribe'.
Whatever people think of these results, the important point is that young people are being asked what they think, and for the next five days four boys and girls from schools throughout Northern Ireland will be gaining experience in the Belfast Telegraph, and visiting Stormont to see what happens, or does not happen, there.
By the weekend we will know more about what they have learned. These young people are representative of the adults of the future, and their views need to be taken seriously.
Most important of all, our young people need to be encouraged to think of Northern Ireland as a place which holds a promising future for them. Otherwise some of our brightest and best will build their future elsewhere.