Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Where have all the young political idealists gone to?

Thousands of our young people are opting out of politics here just when new ideas are so badly needed, says Alex Kane

In the decade between 1964 and 1974 a veritable avalanche of movements, protest groups and political parties took to the streets, doorsteps and ballot papers in Northern Ireland.

That's hardly surprising, for those were the opening, launch-pad years of The Troubles and all sorts of new ideas, solutions and would-be leaders were tumbling over each other, vying for attention and support.

The NI Civil Rights Movement; People's Democracy; Alliance; SDLP; DUP; Vanguard; the 'new' UVF; the UDA; the United Ulster Unionist Coalition; Brian Faulkner's Unionist Party of Northern Ireland - not to mention the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein. And the indices of various histories will show you just how many other fringe groups and political off-shoots were coming and going in the period.

The Stormont parliament fell, the replacement Assembly was toppled. Reform packages and political initiatives followed one after another and the world's media beat a path to Belfast and Londonderry.

So it's really no wonder that 'change' was in the air. No wonder, either, that so many people and parties - often with competing and entirely contradictory stances - believed that they had the answer to the Irish Question, or the right response to terrorism, or the solution to sectarianism, or the formula for lasting peace and stability.

In the decades that followed 1974 all sorts of other groups - some one-sided and some cross-community - emerged, burned brightly and then shuffled off into the index pages and the long memories of political anoraks. The Peace People; the Campaign for Equal Citizenship; the Ulster Movement; the Third Force; the United Kingdom Unionist Party; the Campaign for Labour Representation etc., etc.

In the mid-1990s, at the start of the peace process another slew of parties appeared on the scene: the Ulster Democratic Party; the Progressive Unionist Party; the Women's Coalition and the NI Conservatives; all of them seeking to represent groups and communities they claim had been ignored or left behind.

Again, none of this should surprise us. That brief period between the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993 and the Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 was a genuinely exciting period, a moment, when we dared to speak of a 'new era' for Northern Ireland.

But the really surprising aspect of the post-Agreement period is that we haven't seen the emergence of any post-conflict parties or movements - 107 of the 108 MLAs are intimately connected with parties which have their roots in the politics of the conflict years.

The Executive Committee is dominated by the DUP and Sinn Fein, both of whom rely on mutual veto to keep the other in check. The UUP, SDLP and Alliance - albeit with differing degrees of enthusiasm or relevance - are trapped in the same Executive and similarly constrained by the language and policies of their past. There is no-one on the Opposition benches and, consequently, little or no opportunity for new thinking.

Should we be surprised, perhaps even worried, that the post-conflict era has seen so many people opt out of electoral politics (indeed, tens of thousands of younger voters have never even bothered to opt in!), while most of the others seem content to endorse sectarian parties and old-era headcounts?

History suggests that when the electorate is disinterested in politics and government, you usually end up with very bad government and broadly irrelevant policies.

Come on, there must be some young idealists out there.

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