Northern Ireland youth and the critical importance of mobility…

There’s an interesting longitudinal research just published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on the problems faced by 18 young people growing up in Northern Ireland. Each were interviewed up to seven times since the research began back in 1997. They’re all now aged 25 to 33.

It tells a series of stories (without pretending it is the real and definitive story) about the first generation to grow up in a largely trouble free society. But it’s work in trying to match what the researchers consider to be the key issues mapped in the studies to possible interventions that is likely to make this study of use to politicians.

One general characteristic from the initial reporting is “the centrality of place and [the young people] described the significance of the local spaces and boundaries they negotiated regularly.” It gives one example:

…we heard how young women took tentative steps across these boundaries in pursuit of a growing leisure industry, making connections and friends and, in some ways, re-evaluating their own strongly held attitudes and prejudices. At this early stage, the young men from working class communities merely watched as ‘their girls’ moved into other spaces, ‘plucking up the courage to move over the town’.

Over the timeframe studied, mobility was not always confined to middle classes and those in third level education:

Unlike those who travelled for education, young working class men who left Northern Ireland for work in the construction industry, for example, hooked into and identified more strongly with diasporic communities that provided a connection with and an extension of their communities and place of origin. The linkage and flow between local (communities and place) and global (spaces, networks, ideas, communication) enabled an easier return to their communities of origin for these young men when, for example, work opportunities evaporated abroad.

Given that contact with the respondents through the latter stages of the study was facilitated through the use of social media in the latter stages of the study, it might be argued that with the enriching of communications forms, this is a pattern that is likely to grow in importance. Not least as the search for jobs is likely to push people outwards rather than inwards.

Risk, in view of some of this study group, has become less calculable:

Despite the ceasefires, the paramilitary organisations continued to have a pervasive influence on the lives of young people, and on their actual and perceived sense of safety and security. Living in areas where paramilitaries continued to exercise a level of control, and where sectarian attitudes were openly displayed, affected the life journeys of both young women.

A growing drugs culture and a culture of binge drinking, fuelled by the energy of an expanding night time economy, compounded the perception of and reality of risk for many in this generation of young people.

One of the themes it picks up is the general disengagement amongst young people from mainstream politics. This is not just Northern Irish thing. Just this afternoon I noticed that my former colleague from the Daily Telegraph Iain Martin noted on Twitter this morning, “On 87 bus. Boy (looks about 10) pointing excitedly at Houses of Parliament: ‘What is it?’ His dad can’t tell him or explain. Heartbreaking”.

None of the group was able to name the First Minister and Deputy First Minister accurately, though some came close: “Martin McGuiness, he’s a minister for something, he power shares with that Paisley guy, Ian Paisley is it? They’re in power share, I think Ian Paisley is the main guy, and Martin’s the deputy isn’t he?” And from another, when asked if he could name the First Minister: “Not at the minute, no, it’s all been changed. Couldn’t tell you. It was your man Paisley, was he in it?” Another young man came closer and was able to visualise the First Minister: “Ay, I know what he looks like but I can’t remember his name, is it Peter somebody? Is that what he’s called?”

There’s an acknowledgement by the team that the data here does not lend itself easily to policy recommendations. This is complicated by the particularist (ie, divided) nature of the political settlement here. Even more so now that Whitehall cut backs are kicking in to local budgets: almost anything that comes with a price tag (or political controversy) stands the risk of immediate ministerial defenestration.

Some of the recommendations may be more applicable than others.

In education for instance:

– Vocational training should be accessible to all students, either on site or at local further education colleges or neighbouring schools.

– Informal education (e.g. youth sector) should be invested in, especially for young adults aged 16–25.

– Shared teaching across neighbouring schools (especially across community divides) is recommended from early years to offer students greater flexibility in terms of subject choices, and to increase confidence in accessing alternative courses and establishments.

In Employment and training:

– Investment should be made in youth and community provision for this age group perhaps in the shape of a forum where support, training, career guidance and personal development could be easily accessed.

– Opportunities for apprenticeships and training should be expanded and supported to allow young people to get experience in the workplace and the opportunity of employment.

In politics it calls for more of the kind of civic engagement organisations of the sort WIMPS.TV are already heavily involved in. And Stormont, to be fair to its engagement team and in contrast with Leinster House, must be the most school visited regional parliament in the western world. There’s one suggestion there though that might usefully be accomplished:

– Opportunities should be fostered for young people to work alongside community leaders and civic officers, including the opportunity to work with the police as police cadets in local communities.

There’s also a welcome call for greater flexibility to allow lifelong learning in a society which is particularly poor at providing high level technical skills for its population, not least when you consider than migration is likely to remain an important facet for many young people for some time to come.

There is also, no doubt a greater role for civil society groups, like business, philanthropists and the unions to play here too. In London, organisations like Arrival Education, look to enhance leadership qualities in young people in some of the most challenging circumstances.

Our problem is that, as the report hints, but is never explicitly damning of, we start from a long way back. Discussion of education is caught in an ideological swamp around principles of selection at the same time children and young people are being sent out into the world ill equipped to survive where the life expectancy of the average small to medium sized enterprise has slipped to eleven years from over forty in the 1950s…

The world we slipped away from and into communal conflict in 1969, is very different to one we are slowly re-emerging into in 2011. There’s little spare cash and even the prosperous zones of Europe where the personal debt burden of other countries is threatening to restrict both the public function and economic growth.

I hope this piece of research will at least prompt politicians to think again about what their constituents are going through, and what they might do differently to help…

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty