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

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Politics: the next generation

Old dogs, new tricks?

Fergus Comiskey

In the past 10 years I have been training activists facilitating political dialogue and anti-sectarian work. In this chapter I try to bring my experiences to bear on the themes and implications raised by this research.

Although it indicates a very high interest in politics-more than 70 per cent-among young people in Northern Ireland, less than 3 per cent of those surveyed were members of a political party and only 12 per cent were affiliated to a campaigning group. Dozens of workshops on overtly political themes with adult workers suggest most of the latter have no connection with party politics either. Despite this, many young people hunger to be included in the political process and have some sense of influence beyond the limits of the franchise.

Such contradictions reveal a need for self-preservation and anonymity To be involved in party politics in Northern Ireland runs the risk of having the assumptions and position statements of the party tagged on to one's identity, with all the resulting dangers such labelling throws up.

Working in the area of dialogue and sectarianism brings up the personal impact of sectarian discrimination, consequent misinformation, competing ideologies and implicit fears of violence. These ever-present themes ensure deep reserves of painful, often unexpressed experiences. During anti-sectarian training workshops, experiences of terror, shame, silence and withdrawal are common; rage, anger and blame are equally evoked. Fears stirred by mere discussion of sectarianism are often met by efforts to constrain opportunities for contact and dialogue. What better trigger could there be than political discussion to unleash the vengeance and rage of generations?

In teaching the skills necessary for working with such emotive issues, I have discovered that most participants in discussion harbour deep-seated fears, almost uniform in their prevalence. These include the fear of being misunderstood and mistakenly labelled, of risking vulnerability by revealing personal opinions on the history of the state and its influence, or of expressing individual long-term constitutional aspirations. Adults frequently cite their fear that working relationships may be irretrievably soured by the rancour which uninhibited political discussion in the workplace may raise.

Of course, there is always a risk element in any learning experience. The tendency to get stuck in the 'what if?'s and the 'why should we?'s hook many learners when initiating a political dialogue workshop. Parallel to such fears, however, are the excitement and optimistic desire for greater skill and understanding and the consequent freedom to change which may accrue. I know few other issues which evoke such well-grounded anxieties, based on previous painful experiences: threats of sectarian intimidation, violence and the destructive power of the 'chill factor' - being ostracised through sectarianism in the workplace.

In their responses to the survey, and in the focus groups which augmented the research, young people echoed many of these concerns. The data indicate a consensus about the risks they face in breaking ranks within their own community by daring to speak out on political issues. Young people express fear of neighbourhood paramilitary misunderstanding, disagreement, consequent risks of isolation, cold-shouldering and threats or violence. Some mentioned their anger with and fear of the police and dissatisfaction with the absence of access to politicians. This anger was not confined to one section of the community.

Avoidance of the untidy, difficult and uncomfortable work involved in exploring the causes, impact and potential for a just resolution to the political conflict in Ireland is based upon fear and the desire for safety. Fear perpetuates isolation, depression and a sense of disenfranchisement, as prevalent among adults as young people.

The resulting experience of inertia, inactivity and frustration is a springboard for many adults who work with young people into what has been euphemistically termed 'focused community relations work'. The limitation of such titles for the work I do, like 'cultural traditions work' and 'education for mutual understanding', lies in their palliative woolliness - open to an abundance of interpretations and often dismissed in the absence of political analysis. Despite some criticism of community relations, however, examples of excellent critical analysis and focused experiential learning and practice do exist.

My appetite for dialogue facilitation was whetted when working on cross-border/cross-community exchange programmes with young people and their leaders, parents and teachers while developing Co-operation North's Youth and Education programme in the late 80s. I saw young adults begin to open up and take risks of disclosure and conflict with each other, surviving the work to emerge more self-confident and aware of their own socio-political origins and current frameworks, while developing an appreciation of the dynamics which predispose their peers to opposite political perspectives. The key ingredient was a climate safe enough for this experiential learning to take place.

So, how and when it will be safe enough for teachers and youth workers to lead critical political discussion in the classroom or youth club?

Major policy initiatives have failed. The recent University of Ulster study[1] on EMU shed light upon a frightened and reluctant teaching profession, still reeling from a decade of downgrading by an erratic and blaming government administration. EMU is the Cinderella issue in education, despite significant funding and rhetoric claiming commitment to change. There has been little qualitative training or support for teachers, with a resulting dearth of good practice or policy.

The youth contact programme, now devolved from the Department of Education to the education and library boards, has fared just as badly. Internal research sponsored by the Youth Council in 1995 revealed that only a tiny proportion of youth organisations had engaged in contentious discussion work. And only a fraction of youth workers had participated in any kind of professional development focused on politics, political education or political discussion.

These results come in the wake of almost a decade of European-and Westminster-funded community relations initiatives. Without qualitative action research, development and implementation strategies, this work will remain the preserve of hard-pressed enthusiasts working in isolation, ineffectual in creating strategic support for social change.

If over 70 per cent of young people have an interest in politics, those who provide this service to the population are obviously delivering well below demand. Why? Caution, manifested in our well-renowned politeness and banter behaviours, are designed to maintain the taboos on discussion of the politics of sectarianism. Sectarianism and our responses to it are embedded in the culture of institutional life in Northern Ireland.

It is therefore no surprise that print and broadcast media, education and youth work institutions are peculiarly devoid of any substantive, targeted programme to address youth politicisation. A handful of courageous teachers and youth workers, and the occasional risk by independent TV, such as Channel Four's Speak your Peace, have kept this work alive. The findings presented here imply a demand for urgent redress by these underdeveloped sectors.

Northern Ireland media pundits have been no less affected by the urge to self-preservation and censorship than the youth and education sector. If the survey findings have it right, and 70 per cent of young people are interested in politics, surely the BBC, UTV and independent radio stations must begin to address this market?

A more entrepreneurial and creative approach from Northern Ireland broadcast media controllers could contribute quality, focused opportunities for young people's participation in the political process. But how?

A start might be a regular, prime-time slot for young producers, writers and journalists, working in concert to pursue youth participation in, and control of, broadcast discussion fora. A young people's equivalent to the excellent Channel Four After Dark series would be an interesting prototype.

Scope for experiment should be unlimited. Any change from the predictable, and lamentably stale and superficial, discussions often presented by TV's Counterpoint and BBC's Spotlight would be welcome. Young people working with young people, supported by seasoned practitioners while developing their own 'product', could be very attractive to younger audiences.

Any policy initiative needs to be seen as safe enough by teachers, youth workers and broadcasters. Those at the top of the decision-making hierarchies in education and the media have their work to do. They must lead by example, and risk making open discussion of political issues an educational priority.

A comprehensive strategy to address this work, including all the educational and broadcast stakeholders, is the fundamental first step to greater participation in politics. Such a plan must incorporate directed funding, expert facilitation, support and training, and be focused by action research and practice initiatives.

Those responsible for facilitating political discussion - whether through youth work, education, youth training, trade unionism or journalism - require access to personal and professional development opportunities. Highly skilled support and supervision will be necessary to deal with the inevitable dilemmas, personal and professional, which ensue from the work.

At a moment in history when, throughout Europe, adult rights and responsibilities towards young people are so sharply in focus, it is timely that these challenging data are brought into the policy domain and used as a basis for action.

1. Alan Smith and Alan Robinson, Education for Mutual Understanding: The Initial Statutory Years, Centre for the Study of Conflict, Coleraine, 1996

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