There is no doubt this has been a difficult week for young people in Northern Ireland. The controversy over Pastor McConnell’s remarks has left a very telling bruise on the confidence of our younger generation – a quick scan over social media comments makes that very evident. Many young people in Northern Ireland, particularly students, adopt a much more open and welcoming world view than the blatant hatred which was expressed at the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle.
Our First Minister’s subsequent endorsement of the Pastor’s comments created even more damage – further undermining confidence in an administration that has been characterised by inaction and sectarian squabbling. This was then further compounded by the decision of Anna Lo, a principled and hard working MLA, to announce that she would not be running again – her decision heavily influenced by the increasing number of racially motivated attacks on our streets.
Hidden amongst all of this news was the disappointing economic news that in real terms the number of tourists visiting Northern Ireland plateaued in 2013, despite Derry’s UK City of Culture status, the All-Ireland Fleadh coming North and a myriad of publicity designed to entice people here. Despite big ticket events people are once again becoming worried about travelling to Northern Ireland. All of this can hardly inspire any hope in a generation that is already plagued with worries about their future. It hasn’t been a great week.
It would be very easy for most of my generation to lose hope in the face of this week’s events. They compound a foreboding sense of failure that has formed in the mindset of my generation. Youth unemployment has remained almost stuck over 20% whilst the cost of becoming a student has become almost punitive. I know too many of my friends who cannot wait for their opportunity to leave and never come back – I’ve even battled with the idea. Many see Northern Ireland as offering little or no opportunity for them. They’ve worked hard to expect a standard of living which they feel simply doesn’t exist here.
A recent Belfast Telegraph/Lucid Talk poll suggested that 67% of young people do not see a future for themselves here. I don’t think I need to elaborate on that figure too much.
Sixteen years after 1998 this generation feels like it hasn’t seen the dividends of peace that their parents believed they were promising them when they voted for the Good Friday Agreement – perhaps the most devastating failure of power-sharing government. Furthermore their faith and confidence in public representatives is rocked on an almost weekly basis by politicians who spend months on end feuding and acting fecklessly in the face of a pressing public need for unity and positivity.
In short – Northern Ireland’s millennials are closer than ever to forsaking hope. I don’t believe they should be allowed to, and neither should you.
Opportunity comes when people take action to make aspirations more achievable. I have long believed that where hope and ambition exists young people can become unstoppable. Their tenacity, energy and belief in the possibility of something better has often been at the forefront of political and social changes across the globe. When President Obama addressed an audience of largely young people in the Waterfront Hall last year he began closing his remarks by saying: “You have to remind us of hope again and again and again. Despite resistance, despite setbacks, despite hardship, despite tragedy, you have to remind us of the future again and again and again.” It is through the persistence and arrogance of youth that Northern Ireland will change again.
So how do we deliver those opportunities in a social and political climate that is hostile to change? Individual action is as much part of it as anything else – learning to love and appreciate each other as equal human beings with the same set of fundamental and inalienable rights. Equally important are the new and inventive efforts that we must encourage young people to make – start initiatives; become engaged in social and political activity; amongst others.
Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said: “the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort or convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” In the spirit of this creed Nigel Macauley and myself began working together earlier this year to create something very special – Horizons Belfast.
We want to showcase the multitude of employment, education and training opportunities available to young people aged 16-30 in Northern Ireland. We will seek to demonstrate that Northern Ireland has a future – and it will be shaped by the generation that chooses to stay here to work, learn and grow.
On Thursday night at 7.30pm in the Hudson Bar, Gresham Street, we will launch our project to potential stakeholders, public representatives and those interested in supporting us. We are asking people to join us and have a conversation about the next steps in encouraging young people to stay here. If you, like me, feel that our young people should be able to have a future here then you should come and meet us, and other like minded activists, business and civic leaders and commentators. I hope to see you there.
You can follow Horizons Belfast on twitter @HorizonsBelfast or like us on facebook at www.facebook.com/HorizonsBelfast.