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?