Turning on the news or radio in Northern Ireland and hearing the usual disagreement, squabbling and downright hatred between many of our elected politicians would make even the most optimistic observer despair. However, one thing that would definitely give even the most cynical of onlookers cause for hope is talking to young people about politics in Northern Ireland. There is a seismic generational rift between millennials and even their parents’ generation.
Much of the bitterness which still exists in huge swathes of the population as a result of our troubled past simply is not there in anywhere near as much force in those born around the time of the Good Friday Agreement.
I am from a largely Protestant family who tend to swing towards the DUP come election time. When I ask why they vote DUP they would say “to keep Sinn Fein out” or “to keep unionism on top.” It is this kind of attitude that is majorly lacking in the younger generation. I would have probably followed their lead had it not been for my keen interest in politics which lead me to explore the policies that this party advocated and my interest in issues like social justice and social policy.
I decided to look at the policy and the delivery of this party who I was “supposed” to be voting for. What I seen shocked and appalled me and needless to say was the polar opposite of my political views. I saw a party that inflamed old tensions come election time to gain support which angered me intensely given that we are a fragile post-conflict society in a healing process. I saw a party that would not allow my female friends and family to have the choice to access reproductive healthcare should they have needed it. I saw a party that consistently resisted any kind of rights for my LGBTQ friends and even went as far as unapologetically insulting them with unrepeatable hateful phrases. Not only did this motivate me to not support them but it convinced me that I must take a radically different approach in the way I viewed my politics.
I decided I would throw my support behind the Alliance party, a party that I thought spoke for me. I heard a message of reconciliation and of cross-community cooperation which appealed to me. But then it didn’t take me long to realise that the progressive credentials of this party lacked on some issues. I noticed the lukewarm stance that the party took when it voted in the past on Equal Marriage and noticed that they deemed women’s right to bodily autonomy a conscience issue (the party allows its members to have their own opinion on this and therefore are neither pro-choice or anti-choice). I then decided that as much as I agree with many members, it was not the party for me.
I looked for a more unified socially liberal and left-wing party. Fortunately, a friend of mine was a member of the Green Party and she invited me to the party’s manifesto launch. That day I’d found my political home and I remain there today as a party member and activist. But that’s just my story, many others of my generation and of all generations in fact are putting their position on the constitutional question aside (if they even have one) and concentrate on issues that matter to them more. The shift in that regard in looking at millennials and older generations that can remember the troubles is seismic.
My generation are the most likely to not designate themselves to be “unionist” or “nationalist” but to call themselves other things such as “socialist” or “conservative.” The number of MLAs elected who designate as “other” rather than “unionist” or “nationalist” has noticeably went up since 1998. In 1998 only 8 “other” MLAs were elected whereas in 2016 it was up to 12. The surge in support for the Green party in South Belfast and for People Before Profit in West Belfast and Foyle is a clear indication of this. These parties gained 3 MLAs for the “other” tradition in 2016 which in my view was definitely aided by youth support for their different brand of politics. People Before Profit’s Eamonn McCann subsequently lost his seat in this year’s snap election albeit in a reduced assembly with fewer seats up for grabs but the vote is still there for these parties and it will only grow further as more people reach the voting age.
The constitutional question is becoming less and less important to the young in Northern Ireland as they tend to focus on having a more left – right or liberal – conservative debate. For me personally the constitutional question is very low on the list of things I think our politicians should be talking about, everyday issues like rights, social change and putting a stop to the suffering of our ailing health and education systems takes on a lot more importance.
A conversation I find myself having more and more is when a classmate or friend explains to me that they could never bring themselves to vote for the DUP or Sinn Fein despite their parents and grandparents all voting for one of these parties. Nothing gives me more hope than when I talk to a young person whose family votes Sinn Fein and I tell them my family votes DUP and then we both shake our heads in equal amounts of despair. The bitterness is quickly evaporating from the politics of this country with the circa 1998 generation being the battering ram of this.
The only issue with this is the fact that young people tend to be far less likely to vote and many are disillusioned with the entire process (especially in Northern Ireland). Studies show that the younger you are the less likely you are to vote. 18-22-year olds are the most apathetic when it comes to voting in elections and the most enthusiastic voters are the 65+ age group. But the generational shift in attitude is significant in itself regardless of voting patterns. There is a young force there to be harnessed to affect change and it’s up to the politicians to harness it. Many of Northern Ireland’s political parties had better be warned, the youth of this country are a political force to be reckoned with and change is coming.
Jamie Kennedy is an 18 year old Politics student at University of Ulster and a Green party activist