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Politics: the next generation

Executive summary and recommendations

1.1 Young people are interested in and want to know about politics.

1.2 We found 75 per cent of those surveyed were interested in what is happening politically in Northern Ireland, with more than half saying they would like to be more involved in the political process. But only 3 per cent said they were involved in a traditional political party compared with 12 per cent involved in a campaigning group.

1.3 Seventy-nine per cent said young people should have the opportunity to learn about politics in school.

1.4 There was a link 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.

1.5 There was a link between education and political interest. Interest was higher in 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.

2.1 We have a strong body of young people with sharp and defined emotions and perceptions about the politics of the society they live in, 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 that they can sort it all out, buy they do believe they have a right to attempt to contribute, be it through 'youth coalitions' on the broader political agendas or political education in a new and practical form that is not wholly academic.

2.2 But there is an ambivalence about teaching of political education in schools: teaching about duties and responsibilities is accepted, teaching about rights and controversial issues is not. The concept of the citizen, not subject, is an uncomfortable one for large sections of the population. Resistance to political education is more likely to come from parents and politicians. The young people we surveyed and spoke to were unafraid of 'political education'.

2.3 Education for citizenship is important in a democratic society and cannot be left to chance. Northern Ireland presents the additional challenge of education for citizenship in a deeply divided society.

2.4 Pupils need more than knowledge. They need to be able to question received knowledge; they need skills, they need values and they need the opportunity to participate in situations which will allow them to practise these.

2.5 We suggest the delivery of political education based on four pillars: politico-legal, socio-economic, socio-cultural, and human rights with history.

2.6 The Council for Curriculum Examination and Assessment should research the name, content, design and delivery of such a subject.

2.7 At present there needs to be a statutory requirement for staff to attend certain EMU/CH courses.

2.8 Teacher training should introduce a compulsory module on Handling Controversial Issues/Political Awareness.

3.1 These changes need to be augmented by other agencies who offer services to young people.

3.2 Youth clubs can, by involving young people in the running of services, provide de facto opportunities to practise democracy, even where resources do not allow for formalised discussion.

3.3 Northern Ireland's media could create a regular prime-time slot for young producers, writers and journalists.

4.1 As many children as possible need to experience politics in other, more real, contexts for example through community debate, or in promoting their agenda to a district council.

4.2 Youth platforms could cluster geographically around district councils which would lend administrative support, and politically around the relevant agencies dealing with whatever issue was prioritised for their term of office (1-2 years ) - be it roads, health, education or whatever. District councils could initiate, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, discussions with local schools and youth clubs, to test the popularity of embarking on such schemes.

5.3 These youth district councils should be taken seriously, and the input from young people should be heard regularly- to help inform, or establish, council youth policy.

5.4 A Northern Ireland training institute for young politicians could be housed in the political training programme already offered by the Ulster People's College.

6.1 In our survey, there was a tangible desire for improvement in the quality of life locally and more broadly. This was coupled with a strong thrust amongst each focus group that the political process would have to be inclusive, with all aspirations represented and all voices heard. Compromise as a principle was desirable, and not feared.

6.2 The study shows that young people in Northern Ireland want representation and, moreover, they value it. They would welcome both the teaching of political education in schools and the creation of platforms upon which to practise this knowledge. They care; they want to connect. We must offer compelling channels for them to do so.

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Kate Fearon is assistant director of Democratic Dialogue

Tony Gallagher is a lecturer in the School of Education, Queen's University, Belfast

Paul Donnelly is currently undertaking a postgraduate certificate in education, in history and politics, at QUB

Barbara Lomas is head of politics at Belfast Royal Academy

Fergus Comiskey is a freelance trainer and consultant

Blanche Thompson is a community worker in Belfast

Clare Harvey is research and information officer of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland

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