Northern Ireland’s prejudice against its young people has to change, says Paul Smyth
This society has a problem with its attitude to young people. Pick up any newspaper, or tune into any broadcast outlet, and the bulk of the stories about young people are driven by moral panics, painting them as a generation out of control, in need of discipline.
In many ways, young people were taken more seriously during the Troubles. After all, we did not depend on old (mostly) men to be the foot-soldiers of the security services and paramilitary organisations. Young people were disproportionately both the victims of the conflict, and the perpetrators of the violence — and were often both.
When it comes to the touchy issues of ‘community relations’ and racist violence, we again portray young people as ‘the problem’ without looking more deeply at the sectarian and racist attitudes and the deep segregation that underpins the structure of our society.
The draft Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration recently launched by the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister is an odd document. There is not really much in the way of strategy in it and it lacks a clear sense of vision.
Instead, it is full of statements that very few would disagree with and an eclectic list of examples of government initiatives and government-funded projects.
Indeed, it only gets a little more concrete towards the end, where a series of options for new structures are suggested — all of which assume either the demise, or the reining in, of the Community Relations Council from its current role as an arms-length independent body.
When it comes to young people, they are barely mentioned — and when they are, the document portrays the anti-youth prejudice which, I believe, permeates our society.
In a section entitled Empowering the Next Generation the document suggests: “. . . some young people have made flawed judgments about their futures and have been taken or been led down paths that they might not have taken had they grown up in a society free from conflict.”
I wonder if the four ministers in that office reflect on their own past with such critical hindsight.
The document fails to satisfactorily address some fundamental questions about the future of our society. Are we determined to continue organising our education system, public housing and other services on a tribal basis?
Isn’t interface violence a natural outworking of a deeply segregated society? And don’t we put enormously disproportionate resources into separation when compared with those we put into bringing communities together?
Frankly, the gestures toward shared education, mixed communities and shared work spaces in the document are churlish when there is no commitment to re-engineering our society towards a shared and integrated future.
Another vital omission from the document is any talk of reconciliation. I fail to see how we can separate peace-building and sharing from the need to address our past failures and the pain we have unleashed upon each other.
Young people report that they want to know about the Troubles, but they are (largely) not being taught about it in school and find it difficult to get adults to talk about this dark period of our history.
Building a shared future, a more democratic, inclusive and pluralist society, is an extremely challenging task. It will not be achieved through a quick-fix.
In my view, it will certainly not be achieved unless we learn to harness one of our greatest assets — the energy, hope and passion of our young people.
Paul Smyth is the director of Public Achievement, Northern Ireland’s leading youth-focused civic education organisation