Northern Ireland Culture Wars (part 5) – Youth, Education & Social Change panel with Siobhán McAlister & John Peto

The fifth of six posts shared by the organisers of a symposium exploring the “Northern Ireland Culture Wars” on Friday 22 November at the University of Ulster, Belfast.

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This year President Obama addressed an audience of young people in Belfast in a positive upbeat speech, telling them that, “you are the first generation in this land to inherit more than just the hardened attitudes and the bitter prejudices of the past… you now live in a thoroughly modern Northern Ireland”. However, young people are in many ways as marked by the years of the conflict as those who lived through them. The past surrounds this generation as it continues to be memorialised publicly and contentiously. Many children are growing up with little opportunity to interact with people from other backgrounds which promotes an odd mix of antipathy and indifference, intensified by a lack of knowledge or exposure to different perspectives.

When considering the role of the young in the culture wars it would be easy to be pessimistic, especially in this time of economic crisis, the consequences of which have fallen especially heavily on the young all over Europe. But survey data also suggests that there is optimism about improving community relations among the young and a marked liberalism on moral and social issues, which could open up avenues for new forms of activism and political engagement. What is crucially important is that young people have the opportunity to engage with both the past and the present in a way that allows them to challenge established narratives and pre-ordained outcomes.

Siobhan McAlisterSiobhán McAlister is a lecturer in criminology at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research concerns young people and she seeks to give a voice to young people generally but particularly to the marginalised.

In her presentation on youth identity/sectarianism in post-conflict Northern Ireland she reflects on the Childhood in Transition project, which draws on nearly 200 interviews with young people from areas struggling with the effects of deprivation and conflict.


John PetoJohn Peto is the Director Education for the Nerve Centre and his presentation focuses on one of his organisation’s many innovative projects Teaching Divided Histories.

The centre provides training and support for teachers and young people to engage with the recent past through digital technology and deal with contentious issues.

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  • BifterGreenthumb

    “The past surrounds this generation as it continues to be memorialised publicly and contentiously.”

    The great political philosopher Morgan Freeman said of how to end racism: “Stop talking about it. I’m going to stop calling you a white man. And I’m going to ask you to stop calling me a black man.”

    Naive and idealistic maybe but i cant help but think that this is exactly what needs to happen here regarding the sectarian issue. If we all just stopped defining ourselves and our culture by opposite responses to the constitutional question it would all just go away.

    Some people are genuinely religious but the vast majority of people in NI just call themselves, and are called by others, “catholics” or “protestants” to designate their tribal loyality. For the vast majority of people here being “catholic” or “protestant” says absolutely nothing of substance about them other than what flag flies in their neighbourhood.

    If we stopped raising our kids to think that our almost non-existent religious beliefs, or that our responses to one particular issue (the constitutional position of NI), define them in some profound way we could raise a generation of people for who politics and religion arent tribal identity issues and sectarianism would disappear.

    As long as nationalist fundamentalist and neo-nazi loyalists continue to raise their kids to think that the constitutional question is the most important thing in the world and that the local church (they dont go to) defines their tribal identity then every generation will have their lives and moral characters blighted by sectarian hatred.

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Thanks for posting all of these Alan.