Belfast Telegraph

Our 'bigoted' politicians need to fight racism

The latest Young Life and Times survey shows teenagers are turning their backs on politics, but racism continues to blight them. Robin Wilson reports

Bring down peace walls and throw bigoted politicians out of Stormont." That was the concise comment of one 16-year-old who contributed to the latest Young Life and Times Survey, a joint-project of Queen's University Belfast and the University of Ulster, whose results have just been published.

As in previous years, the young respondents were asked questions about community relations, identity, politics and so on. What emerges might be called the 'Don't Fence Me In' generation.

One respondent commented: "It is difficult to answer a question about what religion of people you prefer to be around, or what race you prefer to be around, because this does not reflect my view that I choose to be around, or not to be around, someone as a result of their personality, not what their race or religion is."

Analysing the findings, Professor Gillian Robinson of the University of Ulster and Dr Paula Devine of Queen's University detected a trend towards individualisation among these youngsters, born just months after the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994 and "making more personal judgments based on an individual person, rather than their community background".

Which was, after all, the message of the famous 1963 speech by Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character."

Robinson and Devine point out that one-in-five respondents now reject being lumped into either of the Protestant or Catholic communities - nearly twice as many as when the comparable survey began eight years earlier.

Of course, this is partly because there are now somewhat more non-indigenous children in Northern Ireland's schools, for whom this is a meaningless question.

A worrying finding is that 42% of youngsters claim to have witnessed racist bullying or harassment in their school.

But, more positively, the two academics also highlight the strong cross-sectarian friendship patterns evident in the survey.

Only 22% of 16-year-olds have no friends from the 'other side' - 50% less than in 2003 - and a quarter now claim to have more than 10.

Robinson and Devine also note that two-thirds of their sample have been involved in a cross-community project and that the vast majority have 'positive feelings' about these activities. These young people are more likely to have developed cross-sectarian friendships.

Much more likely still to do so are children attending integrated schools. They are also much more likely to play sport with peers from other backgrounds.

All this confirms what many experts have been saying for years. Tolerance is about treating everyone as an individual, rather than a stereotype.

Friendships across ethnic dividing-lines foster tolerance - remarkably, other research in Northern Ireland has found that even having friends who have friends across the divide has a beneficial impact. And integrated schools break down the segregation that education and sport have fostered over decades.

And the bad news? Well, apart from that disturbing sign that racism is alive and well, there is none - unless, that is, you happen to be a 'bigoted politician'.

A number of questions indicate a withering disengagement on the part of young people who have other things at the forefront of their minds.

Fifty-nine per cent say they know little, or nothing, about Northern Ireland politics. Sixty-two per cent say they have little, or no, interest in what is going on in politics.

Sixty-four per cent are neither satisfied, nor dissatisfied with the way the devolved government is working, or say they 'don't know'.

And 54% say things have not changed for children and young people as a result of there being a government at Stormont, or, again, they don't know.

Some politicians might be tempted to put all this down to the supposed apathy of youth.

But still other research on young people in Northern Ireland has shown that they are disengaged, rather than apathetic and could be engaged if more politicians appeared to want to communicate with them. The excellent work of the Spirit of Enniskillen Trust shows how young people can be exercised by political discussion and debate when they are invited to take part.

Nor can ignorance simply be blamed.

These youngsters have all taken part in the 'local and global citizenship' strand of the revised secondary curriculum.

There are no excuses for facing the harsh reality, after the smoke of the Troubles is, finally, clearing.

What is emerging is a young, individualised generation who tend to think of Northern Ireland politicians - if they think of them at all - as irrelevant to the dreams they want to realise.

The survey - an offshoot of the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey targeted at adults - received 1,434 responses from individuals turning 16 in February or March 2011, their details obtained from the Child Benefit Register. Fieldwork was conducted in November/December 2011.


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