CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Politics: The Next Generation (Report No. 6)

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Politics: the next generation

So what do you think?

Tony Gallagher

Young people in Northern Ireland are alienated from political parties and politicians, but not from politics.

Young people feel they are excluded from the political Process and that their concerns are not addressed. This is not by choice, as young people clearly say they would like to know more about, and have a greater influence on, political decisions. These are the key messages emerging from the survey.

The survey questionnaires, produced in full colour, were distributed to young people through a variety of agencies and organisations. Each contained a total of 15 items. In addition, the young people were invited to add their own comments on their views of the past, their hopes for the future and what they felt were the most important political issues. This chapter describes the responses to the questions on the survey.

A total of 1,300 young people, 653 women and 647 men, completed questionnaires. Most respondents were aged between 16 and 20. A little under a third of our sample were in government training schemes and about the same proportion were at school. Of those at school a little over half said they were in secondary schools and about a third in grammar schools. About a quarter of the sample were in further or higher education; fewer than one in ten were employed.

We began by asking the young people a number of questions on aspects of their identity, including religion, class, national and political identifications. Of the total sample, 48 per cent said they were Catholic and 42 per cent members of Protestant denominations. This latter group comprised 20 per cent who were Presbyterian, 12 per cent members of the Church of Ireland and a further 10 per cent from smaller Protestant denominations. One in ten of the young people said they had no religion.

When we asked about their social class identity, 49 per cent said they were middle-class and 46 per cent said they were working-class. A little under a quarter said that the head of their household was unemployed. Catholics in our sample were a little more likely than the others to describe themselves as working-class, and to report that the head of their household was unemployed.

Our sample was asked to choose between a list of national identities. Thirty-nine per cent described themselves as Irish, 23 per cent as British and 22 per cent as Northern Irish. Not surprisingly, national identities were linked to religion. Thus, 70 per cent of the Catholics described themselves as Irish, while 43 per cent of the Presbyterians and 57 per cent of those in the Church of Ireland said they were British. The Northern Irish identity was always chosen by a minority, but tended to be chosen a little more frequently by Protestants than by Catholics.

When we asked about political identities we found that 35 per cent described themselves as nationalist and 28 per cent described themselves as unionist. A little over a quarter of the entire sample said they were neither nationalist or unionist. Again a link with religion was evident and unsurprising. Eighty-eight per cent of the young Catholics in the survey said they were nationalist, while 60 per cent of Presbyterians and 65 per cent of those in the Church of Ireland said they were unionist. Among the minority who said they had no religion, 44 per cent also said they were neither nationalist nor unionist.

Percentage saying they were
involved in …
a political party
a trade union
a campaigning group

Our main interest in the survey lay in the young people's views on political issues. We asked questions in three areas. First, we were interested in the extent to which young people were politically active, particularly in social movements of one kind or another. Secondly, we were interested in their assessment of how far politicians and political parties addressed the needs and concerns of young people. The final area concerned young people's sense of empowerment: did they think they could, or should, have more involvement in political activity?

Our survey suggests that very few young people are actively involved in political organisations. Of the entire sample of 1,300, fewer than 40 said they were members of a political party or a trade union. To the limited extent that young people were involved in political groups, clearly they preferred campaigns to the older-style organisations: we found four times as many young people involved with campaigning groups as with political parties or unions.

Clearly other factors influence this pattern. Most of the sample, for example, were too young to have had the opportunity to join a trade union. Yet, when we looked at the relatively small number who were in employment, only 12 per cent said they were a member of a union. This compares with an average of about 30 per cent union membership found regularly in the Northern Ireland social attitudes survey. The limited extent of union membership, even among the small number in the labour market, may be a reflection of the type ofjobs that are now on offer to young people.

A link emerged between gender and political involvement. While only 3 per cent of our sample were in a political party, this applied to 5 per cent of young men, but only 1 per cent of young women. By contrast, 13 per cent of young women, as against 11 per cent of young men, said they were involved with a campaigning group.

The very low involvement of young women in political parties was perhaps not that surprising, especially when we remember the male-dominated line-ups of practically all the parties in Northern Ireland. The greater involvement by young women in campaigning groups is important, however. It would appear to refute the notion that women are not involved in political parties because they do not want to be involved.

Do you think politicians in Northern Ireland are ...? (%)
doing a very good job
doing a reasonable job
not doing a good job

How well do the political parties in Northern
Ireland address the concerns of the young ...? (%)
very well1
reasonably well 20
not at all well 78

Our sample did not give top marks to politicians or parties for their performance. Over half thought politicians in Northern Ireland did not do a good job; fewer than one in 50 thought they did a very good one. On how far the political parties addressed the concerns of young people, the picture was even more negative. Only one in five thought they made a reasonable job of this, while almost four out of five thought they did not address the needs of the young.

The younger respondents appeared to take a more sanguine view of politicians: while 47 per cent of those aged 16 or under thought politicians did not do a good job, this applied for 56 per cent of those aged 20 or older. Catholics were somewhat more likely than Protestants to say that politicians were not doing a good job (56 per cent as against 45 per cent). And in the light of the low female take-up of party membership, it is perhaps unsurprising that while three-quarters of young men in our sample thought that political parties did not address the needs of young people, this was so for 81 per cent of young women.

How interested are you in what is happening politically in Northern Ireland? (%)
very interested
fairly interested
not very interested
not at all interested

Would you like to be more involved in the political process? (%)

While large numbers of young people may not be involved in political organisations, or have a high regard for parties or politicians, this does not stem from lack of interest in politics. Indeed, three quarters of our sample said they were very or fairly interested in what is happening politically in Northern Ireland. And more than half said they would like to be more involved in the political process. Not surprisingly, interest was highest amongst those already involved in parties or campaigning groups.

There was, however, a further dimension to political interest. The proportion who said they were interested in Northern Ireland politics was high among a number of sub-groups, including those at university (91 per cent), the employed (86 per cent), those at school (80 per cent) and those at further education colleges (79 per cent). By contrast, only 62 per cent of those who were on government training schemes said they were interested in Northern Ireland politics, a view echoed by only 50 per cent of the small number of unemployed in our sample.

In the final section of our survey we asked a number of questions on empowerment. Clearly young people felt ambivalent about the influence they exercise: a little over two in five agreed that their vote did not count for much; only slightly fewer disagreed with this proposition. Our survey shows the effects of other social pressures that constrain political discussion and involvement. Almost three in five agreed that the situation in Northern Ireland made it difficult to be involved in politics. The wider significance of this was to become clear in the focus group discussions we held with young people.

With all the constraints our sample felt under, and the limited recognition they said was given to their concerns by the political establishment, it was hardly surprising that more than three-quarters agreed that young people did not have enough influence over political decisions. Once again, however, the evidence suggests that this sense of alienation from politics is something young people would like to overcome, as almost four in five said they would like to learn more about politics in school.

Do you agree or disagree that...? (%)
young people do not have enough
influence on political decisions
my vote won't change anything
the situation in Northern Ireland makes
it difficult to he involved in politics
young people should have the opportunity to
learn about the political process in schools

We also looked at our survey results with the views of party (3 per cent) and campaign (12 per cent) members distinguished.

Overall 38 per cent said they were very interested in politics, while an additional 37 per cent were fairly interested. Not surprisingly, interest among members of political parties was much higher: 30 out of the 39 party members (77 per cent) said they were very interested in politics; in fact, only four of the party members said they were not interested in politics. The pattern was similar, if less pronounced, for members of single-issue campaigning groups. Here, 54 per cent said they were very interested in politics and an additional 28 per cent were fairly interested.

We described above the poor views of politicians' performance taken by the sample overall. The balance of responses shifted only slightly among those who said they were members of parties. Of these, 44 per cent said politicians were not doing a good job, while 46 per cent say they were doing a reasonable job. Only 8 per cent said politicians were doing a very good job.

By contrast, the balance of responses shifted slightly in the other direction as regards respondents who said they were members of single-issue groups. Here 59 per cent said politicians did not do a good job, only 39 per cent said they did a reasonable job, and less than 1 per cent (in fact, one person out of 158) said that politicians were doing a very good job.

Respondents grouped by party, campaign and non-affiliation[2] were invited to offer their views on issues which are important', 'the past' and 'the future'. These views were assigned to three categories. The first was 'neutral': respondents in this category offered no comment on the Northern Ireland conflict, or were non-judgmental when they did. The second category gave recognisably unionist views, while the third posed recognisably nationalist perspectives. The frequency of the categories is recorded alongside:

Political party members
Single-issue campaign members

These responses can be characterised as 'pragmatic' regarding the Northern Ireland situation. The words 'accommodation' and 'compromise' were obviously untainted for these young people, and used regularly to describe how progress should be made. While some members of political parties did offer party lines, even in that category the majority took a non-judgmental position.

This survey outlines the views of 1,300 young people in Northern Ireland on politics, politicians and political parties. The main conclusions are unequivocal. Young people feel alienated and let down by politicians and by the parties. They do not feel their interests or concerns are being addressed. To the limited extent that they are active in politics, it is more likely to be through campaigning groups rather than more traditional social movements. This is particularly true of young women, who are less likely to be involved in political parties and more likely to be involved in campaigning groups than young men.

Young people display ambivalence about the influence they might have, but there is no doubt that many, if not most, are interested in politics in Northern Ireland and- would like to be more involved. They would even like to learn more about politics in school. Thus, while young people feel marginalised from the political establishment, this is not because they are marginalised from politics. They feel excluded, but want to be included.

1. Since not everyone responded, these figures do not add up to 100 per cent
2. A random sample of 100 non-affiliated respondents were analysed from the 458 who offered opinions in these categories.

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