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Will the ‘peace babies’ change Northern Ireland’s politics forever?

Young people born since the Good Friday Agreement are ditching traditional identity labels and demanding action on issues such as climate change

Emma DeSouza
Emma DeSouza
20 April 2022, 12.01am

Young people in Northern Ireland are increasingly rejecting the labels that have long divided society

Scenicireland.com / Christopher Hill Photographic / Alamy Stock Photo

Northern Ireland has long been divided by segregation between the two dominant communities, but a generation nurtured by the Good Friday Agreement, have different priorities. Surveys show that Northern Ireland’s young people, who have grown up in a period of sustained peace, are increasingly discarding traditional binary labels, opting instead for more nuanced and inclusive identities.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2020 shows that 49% of people aged 18-24 define themselves as neither Unionist nor Nationalist. They are also far less likely to identify as ‘British’ than older generations, with 14% doing so compared to 46% of over-65s. Meanwhile, around a third of young people describe themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ and a third as ‘Irish’.

As Unionist opposition to the Northern Ireland protocol continues to dominate the political discourse ahead of the 5 May assembly election, new research from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum suggests that young people have a different set of priorities than the current political class. According to the forum’s interim report, the most pressing concerns were climate change, mental health, education and human rights.

“We need to vote for people who will act on climate change,” said 18-year-old environmental activist Grace Allen. According to Allen, the political system is “flawed”. She now campaigns in the Youth Climate Association Northern Ireland, because, she says, “I wanted to learn how to make a wider difference through politics”.

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The Youth Forum’s research was overseen by a steering group of children and young adults aged between 13 and 23. The overwhelming majority reported feeling comfortable with their identity (81%), and a further 96% claimed to be comfortable with the identity and culture of others. Further, when asked to cite the issues that mattered most to them, over half of respondents (54%) cited mental health, whereas Brexit (7%) and the legacy of the Troubles (7%) were not considered significant.

Cabrini Brown, 24, grew up in a Unionist area, but has developed a passion for playing GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association) – sports traditionally associated with Irish culture. “Sport has no religion,” says Brown, who has faced pushback from within her own community over her choice of sport. “I come from a Unionist background, but I don’t really associate myself with that in any way shape or form. The club, [East Belfast GAA], has given me a really good insight into another faith.”

Young people are realising we can’t be fighting over the past, it has to be [about] right now and the future

Brown is not alone in challenging outdated concepts of culture and identity. Matthew Taylor, who co-founded Pure Mental NI, a youth-led charity campaigning for mental health education, recently announced that after four years as a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), he has joined the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

“Obviously, there are my own personal reasons for doing that,” said 19-year-old Taylor, “But in the back of my head I was thinking that this is a statement as well. I came from a very Unionist background and a lot of my friends were Unionist because of the area that we were in, but in my head, there was never a traditional orange and green.”

Taylor wants to encourage young people to vote. “That’s the only way that campaigns like Pure Mental will get any ground in the long term,” he argued.

“I think it’s really important for the politicians to know that their future in politics relies on the emphasis they place on the future of the planet, so if they’re not going to take it seriously, they’ll simply be voted out,” said 18-year-old climate activist Emer Rafferty. “Over time that’s going to happen because more young people are waking up and realising that we can’t be fighting over the past, it has to be [about] right now and the future.”

Taylor believes that young people “should vote based on policy and the… social and economic values that are important to them because otherwise you’ll be stuck in the same situation of orange and green”.

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While Northern Ireland is gearing up for yet another election where identity and Brexit take centre stage, many young people will be looking for candidates who instead prioritise climate action, community investment and education. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said his party will not return to Stormont if the Northern Ireland protocol stays. The protocol created a trade border in the Irish Sea, which the DUP says undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. But the party leader may find that placing identity politics over people is anathema to thousands of emerging young voices that believe in better.

This year, more than 40,000 young people in Northern Ireland will be eligible to vote for the first time in their lives. If enough of them are motivated to go to the polls, then they have the potential to finally realise the shared aspiration of many who came before them: to transform politics in Northern Ireland for the better.

Emma DeSouza is standing as an independent candidate for Fermanagh and South Tyrone

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