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

CAIN Web Service

Politics: the next generation

Discussion and dissent

Paul Donnelly

This chapter examines the views which emerged through discussion in three focus groups, held after the questionnaires had been distributed and subjected to primary analysis. Varying in geographic, social and religious composition, the groups provide a complex but valuable insight into the political perceptions of young people in Northern Ireland.

It would be dishonest to claim the participants attempted to provide solutions to political questions or even clearly demarcated a distinctive area that could be called a 'youth approach'. But we can see different political priorities, a more candid directness and a definite tinge of scepticism, paradoxically combined with a refreshing and energetic enthusiasm to tackle issues. One of the most appealing aspects of dealing with the group discussion as compared to the survey analysis is the qualitative emphasis on the emotions and temperament which emerged in the sessions and the messages they provided.

In each group the opening salvo was directed at the political parties, their preoccupation with the constitutional/border issue and its seemingly monolithic domination of the political agenda. As a sub-plot to this, sectarianism and politico-religious identity, as the main factor dictating voting behaviour, was criticised in each group. This is not to suggest, however, that at other points these same features did not manifest themselves amongst participants.

When pressed to identify other political issues to be addressed, the urban groups emphasised employment, health, the environment and housing. While the rural group also suggested all of the above, it did tend to become focused on local issues, for example, of leisure provision. Naturally the thrust of each group was that jobs should be created, the environment improved and homelessness alleviated; but when faced with how, as young people, they would render these concerns priorities on the political agenda, there did not appear to be any clear response. Whether this reflects a reality that there is no practical way young people can shape the political agenda, or it indicates that young people have inadequate intellectual tools to foresee and develop that agenda, is not immediately apparent but it is certainly one area to which all involved in projects such as this should give further attention.

While public cynicism is often viewed as a 'weariness' about those who represent us, and the apparent deadlocks and futility of initiatives, the cynicism displayed in the groups was vibrant, energetic and raw. Perhaps the natural negativity manifested in other areas of youth culture and psychology transmits itself to youth attitudes towards politics, and this is enhanced in the already negativist world of Northern Ireland politics. At each session, disdain was directed not just at parties and personalities but towards the system. In effect, district councils, statutory bodies, boards and the body politic in general were beyond the realm of experience of the participants.

The sense of frustration this created was captured in one group when a person declared that what young people needed, wanted and did not have was "social inclusion, social empowerment!" Pressed, they explained that social inclusion meant you could "take part in your community". Thus not only were the participants politically disempowered and alienated from the mechanics of the political system, but they felt excluded within their own communities.

When directly asked about voting as a means to exercise political power, scepticism was rife. One person dismissed the practice of one vote every year or two as not "participating" in politics, while another drily added that they spoilt their vote habitually not as a protest but so "nobody else will use it". (Thus even if your franchise is worthless you still must protect it from others!) The one solid and coherent idea that emerged as a way forward was the suggestion that, just as the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition had provided a vehicle for previously unheard voices, a Youth Coalition based on the same broad principles of representation could allow potential for youth influence.

The mechanics of the 'peace process and particular events within it drew quite similar responses from all three groups. Again, there was frustration combined with humour but strongly underlined was a desire that the process bring about a balanced resolution of the conflict. High on the list of episodes that each group seized upon was the debate over George Mitchell's appointment as chair of the inter-party talks. What was portrayed as farcical in the media and beyond was universally so perceived in all three groups, across the spread of religious, social and political opinion. The attack on Senator Mitchell's position due to his perceived background was ridiculed with equal vigour by all.

One of the areas of disagreement between groups, however, was the international element of the process. While Mr Mitchell was welcomed as chair, the role of the United States was questioned by some. Not from the view that the us enhanced the nationalist perspective and weight, but simply that the equation was complex enough without the addition of other factors. Between the two non-Belfast groups in particular, however, there was concurrence that the two governments played pivotal roles. A suggestion by one of the facilitators from Democratic Dialogue that perhaps the regional politicians could resolve the issues between them met much derision.

One of the most striking manifestations, in all three groups, was the feeling that Sinn Féin should be included in the talks process. While in an all-Protestant group there was genuine reticence about this ("there will be a rumble!"), overall it was felt that due to both SF'S electoral mandate and the sheer necessity of political inclusion it would have to happen. Beyond this, there arose an extremely interesting viewpoint expressed from a mixed-identity group concerning the probability of any constructive outcome from the talks process. Essentially the argument was that the 'fringe' loyalist parties, negotiating with SF, would produce a cohesive and workable solution, and that in reality those who had waged war were more capable of constructing peace.

When pressed about the other 'mainstream' parties it was recognised that obviously they would have to be there, but despite their 'constitutional' natures they were still inherently rigid and non-accommodating because they had not undergone many of the personal and social experiences of loyalists and republicans. Allied to the above sentiments was the notion that to stop two people fighting you encourage them to talk, and this applied to paramilitaries just as in any other area. Perhaps the final word should be left with a 16-18 year-old participant who described the behaviour of politicians since the ceasefires and at the talks as simply "immature".

Obviously in the discussions certain persons and parties tended to become the focus of comment. Sometimes this reflected the status of particular individuals, such as Ian Paisley or Gerry Adams, within the region's political landscape, and in the case of paramilitary organisations it reflected their pervasive influence in everyday community life. This presence was not cohesive but basically it manifested itself in two forms, with the various organisations being perceived partly as necessary defenders of the community and simultaneously as oppressors and a self-appointed police force. Given the sensitivity of this issue, the remarks cited below are not even vaguely attributed.

On the issue of 'punishment' attacks and beatings, viewpoints diverged sharply. Nobody explicitly reviewed the broader issue of policing in Northern Ireland, but all focused on the morality and practicality of paramilitary policing in their communities. Typical of the comments recorded was the following exchange: "It's the paramilitaries controllin' the situation on the ground ... and all that talkin's wasted ... they're too busy shootin' people in the ankles ... Well they shouldn't be breakin' into houses."

A further opinion was ventured, critical of the paramilitaries, to which the retort came: "If it wasn't for them this place would be in chaos." A particularly interesting viewpoint, whichever way it is examined. Some argued that the paramilitaries were a necessary evil, while others forthrightly attacked them in all their roles: "Sure look at 'Drug Dealers will be Shot' - they're only saying that so they can sell their drugs." Also manifested was a distinct antagonism to the authority of some of their peers already involved in paramilitary activity, producing statements such as: "You have an 18-year-old dickhead telling you you can't go here at this time of night."

Overall there was an ambivalence about the paramilitaries: some saw the beating of 'hoods' as necessary, whilst others were antagonistic, and there was natural resentment towards them as the local authorities. However, there was no or little direct criticism of the wider paramilitary role in political violence directed against people outside the groups' communities. It is possible, of course, that in the period of the ceasefires the young people involved had quickly pinpointed the paramilitary activity they saw and experienced, in their own areas.

What was also interesting was that the groups, while happy to condemn elected representatives and the system as not catering for them, did not view paramilitary activity as evidence that democracy was not working. Those who accepted the role of paramilitarism in their community only began to reevaluate earlier statements about politics in the light of a debate on the representativeness of community figures.

In terms of personalities whose profiles were raised, Mr Paisley, not surprisingly, was dominant. In one group this produced two distinct schools of opinion, reflecting the 'Paisley as Saviour' versus 'Paisley as the Grand Old Duke of York' debate that their parents' generation had had. Mr Paisley's supposed populism and his authenticity were closely examined in young laypersons' terms and, as indicated, the results were not unanimous.

One extremely interesting point raised at this point in the discussion concerned one individual who felt that of the republican personnel they tended to believe what Gerry Adams said, although they strongly distrusted Martin McGuinness. Given the then still fresh memories of Mr Adams carrying the coffin of the Shankill bomber Thomas Begley, it was a very brave sentiment to express and one which it would be very interesting to compare with responses from a wider Protestant audience.

To draw a cohesive, all-embracing conclusion from the material is a difficult task. There were certainly areas of general consent: nobody wanted a return to the 'war', and all agreed that compromise as a principle was desirable. But there did not appear to be an obvious road to travel which made compromise achievable and the 'war' avoidable.

Cynicism and doubt about the status quo were evident throughout and there was a tangible desire for improvement in the quality of life, locally and more broadly. Occasionally sectarianism was evident, but it tended to arise in off-the-cuff comments and certainly did not permeate discussions as a major theme or backdrop. Against this, there were no radical mould-breaking voices challenging old sacred cows or really testing the boundaries of each community. Yet there was a strong thrust amongst each group that the process would have to be inclusive, with all aspirations represented and all voices heard.

What was clear was that we have a strong body of young people who have sharp and defined emotions and perceptions about the politics of the society they live in, yet who do not have any positive avenues through which to contribute to its civic or political life. It is this which frustrates them and which they wish to see addressed. They do not believe naïvely that they can sort it all out, but they do believe they have a right to attempt to contribute, be it through 'youth coalitions' on the broader political agenda or political education in a new and practical form that is not simply academic.

The final word rests with one person, expressing their frustration, who said: "I have a wand in here and I can have as many wishes as I want." If only.

[Report Contents] [List of Reports]

Democratic Dialogue {external_link}
53 University Street, Belfast, BT7 1FY Northern Ireland
Phone: -44-28-9022-0050 Fax: -44-28-9022-0051

Back to the top of this page