Are young people getting a fair go politically in Northern Ireland? Ctd

David McCann really got me thinking when he asked recently: Are we giving young people a fair go in Northern Ireland?

I have a few observations I’d like to ventilate on the issue. Having studied at Queen’s and lived in Toulouse and New York I’ve come to see it that young people in Northern Ireland possess certain characteristics that are unique to the province and which are relevant to any answer we should provide.

You could say that the basic canon of Northern Irish and Irish life can be defined by our modesty, our reticence and our more traditional hierarchical social structure. Compared to the young people in America and Europe, I found that whilst we’re no less gregarious, the young people in Northern Ireland don’t have the same well of initiative or the impulse to be a self-starter – typified perhaps by the fact that we have proportionally fewer entrepreneurs compared to the other regions and also by the grammar school mentality that says a good career can only be found in the traditional professions or in the civil service which are themselves inherently hierarchical.

My view that young people in Northern Ireland are more reserved was echoed by Seamus Heaney when he spoke to The Paris Review in 1997. When asked of his impressions of the American students he made a response by contrasting them with his experience of students in Northern Ireland. He said:

“When I came here first I was very aware of their eagerness to be in contact with the professor. At home in Ireland, there’s a habit of avoidance, an ironical attitude towards the authority figure. Here, there’s a readiness to approach and a desire to take advantage of everything the professor has to offer. That unnerved me a bit at the start, but now I respect it. Also, the self-esteem of American students tends to be higher. They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.”

For me it’s that congenital Irish, whether protestant or catholic, leaning toward scepticism, stoicism and oftentimes fatalism. Then on the ironical attitude towards the authority figure I’ve certainly found that young people are more deferential and more willing to do their time and wait for their chance.

I felt that the Fine Gael Eoghan Murphy TD gave voice to this culture and attitude when he attacked the Dail’s mentality of “know your place lad and bide your time.”

On a more practical level, when it comes to the political inaction of young people it would be right to say that Mick’s description of Stormont’s “drift from real world governance” definitely switches young people off. L.P Hartley said that the past is another country, that they do things differently. For many of the young people, Stormont is a different country.

I’m on Alex Kane’s side when he says that the old boys on the hill can’t deliver and that we need a new generation to make credible progress. That leaves the question: can we encourage a culture and education system that encourages young people to more readily use their initiative, to become more entrepreneurial, to have more self-esteem and to have less of an ironical attitude to authority figures?

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  • Ruarai

    Anyone with any familiarity with the US university operation and its feeder schools’ culture of obsession with building self-esteem – i.e ludicrous levels of uncritical, unwarranted self-confidence – can only smile at this masterly understatement from Heaney:

    “They come to college with positive beliefs in their abilities, whatever they are.”

    Where partition has become culturally real, in at least one respect beyond politics, is in Southern Ireland’s entrepreneurial spirit where it’s much more pronounced than most of the rest of Europe.

    I agree with BJS that the grammar school set-up in NI is woefully tied to the ‘taker’ industries of law and accountancy, beyond that its medicine or the civil service.

    “You could say that the basic canon of Northern Irish and Irish life can be defined by our modesty”…yeah, you could say that if you’re on an Improv stage or willing to overlook how one of the favourite topics of any Irish person abroad is their Irishness, Ireland, and gossip from Ireland – regardless of who else is at the table.

    Trying to get northerners to give over about NI politics in the company of foreigners is basically an impossible task. (MEMO to fellow countrymen and women: They’re listening because they’re polite, not because you’re fascinating.)

    But the underlying problem in NI is plainly obvious: why would entrepreneurs stay or emerge in a socialist state?

  • Tir Chonaill Gael

    Heaney echoed your views? Aye, right then.

  • New Yorker

    I know two grammar school graduates who started quite successful companies with headquarters in NI. It is true that many grammar school graduates go into the traditional professions, but that is true in the US as well. I would agree that not many bright grammar school graduates go into politics in NI, that is because they are bright.

  • Drumlins Rock

    might I suggest our media dosn’t help either? Going for the cheap headline, usually negative.

  • aquifer

    No proper salaries for trainee politicians, the parties are not resourced to seek out the brightest, and the easy way to get the vote out is with the flag waving sectarian split.

    Our politics are awful, of course.

    Trouble is that the surviving grannies will vote as they always have, outnumbering the young who can emigrate to somewhere sensible like Britain where votes for 16 year olds are proposed, or to Europe where political parties are state funded.

    The early schooling in deference identity and rote learning makes local young people excellent employees though, or cannon fodder for middle aged male autocrats with redundant political ideas.

  • Drumlins Rock: I represented Progressive Youth on a 3 member panel at the launch of the PUP’s “Transforming the Legacy”. Progressive Youth had discussed the document, which is on reconciliation, and we wanted to use the opportunity to reach out to other young people, especially Republicans. The BBC, UTV, etc. were all there. I wasn’t asked a single question. When I did say my bit at the end, it wasn’t reported. And yet these same media figures had been writing for months about the need to get young loyalists involved in constructive politics.

    It’s much easier to set Jamie Bryson up as being representative of young loyalists, and then to mock him. (Note that Jamie is often mocked for his grammar, the way he speaks, etc. From “Flegs” to “Fwegs”. It’s disgraceful; and then we wonder why it is so difficult to encourage working-class kids to become politically active).

    A lot of hard work has been put in by volunteer activists, and we now have a very professional training program that aims to build up self-esteem, among other things. Today young working-class members of the PUP have taken centre stage at the PUP conference, and issues such as education and marriage equality have been debated. And yet today Brian John Spencer — a writer who was “raised in the cosy and conflict free suburbs of South Belfast” and is committed to “climbing the publishing ladder” — is again posting on his twitter account about rats on the streets of Belfast. We are served a string of quotations from Heaney and Camus and Hitchens, but there is little substance to the social and political commentary.

    There is far too much patronizing, pseudo-intellectual drivel in the media. I suspect that Brian John Spencer is genuine but misguided; I hope that he will do some serious research into loyalism (and cognitive, affective, and social psychology, I should add) and start to provide us with some constructive criticism. It’s only within the past couple of years, for example, that I’ve come to see myself as Irish. Change of opinion is possible, but it doesn’t come about through stereotyping and mockery, especially when those being mocked aren’t the powerful or the elite in society.

    I also encourage everyone to support organizations like Where Is My Public Servant?. As a loyalist and flag protestor, I can say that I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with WIMPS. This is the future for Northern Ireland: young people from all backgrounds coming together in a genuine effort to understand and help each other.

  • derrydave

    Absolutely agree with you on this subject Brian – having studied and lived abroad for many years, the contrast between the natural characteristics of young people from the north and those from continental Europe, and the US particularly, is stark.

    Whilst many of the characteristics i would associate with young people from the North – relative modesty, reticence, deference to authority, self-depracation etc etc – are very attractive qualities on a personal level, there is no doubt that they drag us down somewhat in the face of the self-confidence which bursts out of many of our European / US contemporaries.

    Undoubtedly, the lack of entreprenurial spirit in NI is at least in part linked to this – it takes an amzing self-belief and self-confidence as well as drive and determination to enable someone to start up their own business. Something you see little of in young people coming out of the North. On a personal level, despite building a successful career in finance, the thought of starting up my own business and relying purely on my own abilities in order to build a future would absolutely terrify me to be completely honest – no chance I would ever even contemplate it ! Very interesting subject, and I have to admit I really have no idea of what is particular to NI which has created this set of characteristics amonst the young (and not so young :-)).

    It is apparant in my travels around the world that the young people pouring out of the Republic at the moment seem a different breed to us entirely in this respect – much more in line with the American model in terms of confidence, self-belief, and expectations in life. This is a great sign for the Republics future and to me at least, indicates that there is something that they are doing right which we are not ? Just not sure what it is exactly – maybe it just comes down to wealth and success at the end of the day ? Wealth and success begets confidence, belief, and increased expectations, which in turn begets more success. Despite the terrible economic times in the South at present, there is no doubt that the boom in the South has created something which will not be eliminated by the current recession.