As we approach an election in Northern Ireland, the signs are that more young people than ever are registered on the electoral roll. The Chief Electoral Officer further encouraged participation in the election by writing to schools asking for their help in encouraging those aged 18 and over to exercise their right to vote.
In the UK, the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18 in 1970 but, back in 2015, the BBC ran a story entitled “Much of Northern Ireland’s youth shows indifference to politics”. This was the same year that a surge in young people’s engagement in the political process across the border helped to deliver a positive result in the same sex marriage referendum. The Northern Ireland Youth Forum’s recent research indicated that young people here are just as interested in what is going on in the world, especially issues such as climate change, education, mental health and human rights. However, the perception of young people in Northern Ireland is that the current political class here does not see these as priorities.
The cynic might suggest that the requirement to be on the electoral register to claim the £100 COVID-19 High Street voucher in 2021 was more of an impetus to register rather than any new-found enthusiasm for what passes as politics in much of Northern Ireland. Will the young people who comprise this spate of registrations actually turn up at the ballot box?
Additionally, how well equipped are young people to make decisions about whether to exercise their vote and, if so, how they decide to vote? The two main communities in Northern Ireland tend to vote along community lines, a fact which, you may remember, came as something of a surprise to a previous Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, who was much derided for her lack of insight. It may well be that young people will follow their parents and grandparents in repeating this behaviour and vote for the same parties or, more daringly, they may choose other parties from within the Unionist or Nationalist bloc which match their community. And that may be fine. Perhaps these politicians do fully represent their needs and aspirations and those of their communities and, it may be no surprise to anyone, other than Karen Bradley, that young people may not diverge too far from the choices of others in their communities.
However, it is concerning that a recent Young Life and Times survey indicated that, if young people aged 16 and over could vote, a significant number would choose not to do so. In fact, 46% of young people would either not vote at all or did not know who they would vote for. A hopeful take on this might suggest that many young people are still making up their minds; an alternative interpretation may be that these figures demonstrate either a high degree of apathy for political processes in Northern Ireland or an active rejection of how politics operates here.
Who prepares the young, and indeed, any of us for engagement with democracy? Who equips us with the wherewithal to engage in the political process, and to help distinguish the spin from the substance, the half-lies and occasional mistruths? Let us assume, charitably, that many politicians are people of principle and are determined to deliver what they promise in their manifestos, but how can we be sure?
The place of Citizenship education at the core of what is required to be taught in Northern Ireland’s schools is testament to how this subject, if delivered as intended, can make a significant contribution to the development of a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. Schools have a critical role in translating these intentions into reality, playing their part in helping to prepare young people to be informed citizens about how society works, how to make their voices heard and to hold politicians, democratic structures and the law to account.
If one of education’s key purposes is to prepare young people to be as effective citizens, then schools must embed democratic structures, values and practices into what they do – both in the classroom and the wider life of the school. For example, to provide young people with a voice in the decision-making process, schools are encouraged to set up Student Councils – and many have done so. Running elections for positions on the Student Council is yet another way for young people to engage with democratic processes. It is through experiencing ‘democracy in action’ that the capacity and confidence of young people to bring about change and make a difference is nurtured and developed.
In the classroom, young people should experience democratic learning through approaches which promote inquiry and collaboration with their teachers and peers, rather than more traditional knowledge-led teaching. In addition, the classroom should also be a place where young people engage with contemporary issues, both local and global, which cause controversy, ensuring that all shades of views and opinions are explored and listened to. It is experiences such as these which help to foster a respect for difference as well as heighten young peoples’ interest in and engagement with civic issues. Citizenship education provides a multi-layered lens on life to explore ‘the past’, ‘the present’ and ‘the future’. The polling booth is the perfect outworking of a young person’s education in Citizenship – where each young person as a citizen of Northern Ireland has his or her say, often for the first time, on issues which will affect their lives now and in the future. Surely it is this empowerment which we want from our education system?
And yet, in the most recent Transforming Education Briefing paper from Ulster University, the slow but inexorable demise of Citizenship education has been charted. In the midst of competing priorities and pressures on schools and teachers, Citizenship education is often sidelined for other subjects which are deemed to be more important for young people to learn. However, having a politically informed population who can fully engage with the political process would seem to be important in any democratic society, but particularly in Northern Ireland as it continues its journey towards becoming a socially cohesive, peaceful society underpinned by secure democratic structures and institutions.
Is there the political will to reinvigorate Citizenship education in Northern Ireland? We can be sceptical and ask whether it really suits most politicians to encourage young people, and the rest of us, to question the status quo, and query beyond the flag-waving rhetoric and the threats of ‘them-uns’getting elected? Of course, even if young people’s political antennae are honed to political spin, they may still choose to vote for the traditional political party of choice in their communities. And, if they are doing so after deliberation, critical consideration and debate, then of course this is excellent. But how many vote in a particular way because they feel their communities expect them to do that? Or because the conversations with families around kitchen tables or with their friends have influenced them to vote in that way without fully considering alternatives? It may be that some politicians are at ease with the prospect of continued generations of young people who are not fully equipped to be critical, independent thinkers, who unquestioningly follow the voting patterns of their families, many of whom do not challenge the position of political parties on, for example, social and environmental issues. A cynic might argue that some politicians are even happy for a degree of apathy among young people. If the young don’t vote, the old order will never be challenged, and that might suit some politicians very well indeed.
The traditional pattern of voting in Northern Ireland has been described as ‘tribal’, and it will be interesting to see if anything fundamental changes on May 5th. Identity involves issues which mobilise engagement around how people choose to use their vote, trumping the cost of living and the impending climate catastrophe for example. While there is considerable evidence that young people are interested in issues-based politics, it is debatable how much traditional politics captures their interest and, in turn, their votes. Indeed, not ‘showing up’ on May 5th might be as political as casting a vote, with young people saying ‘no’ to what is on offer.
We in Northern Ireland must not take the democratic journey already undertaken for granted. This does point to the critical role of education in preparing young people to engage in the democratic process and civic life. If we are to have a functioning and stable democracy, we must have generations of young people who are well equipped to truly engage with the process.
After this election, it will be important to analyze voting patterns and degrees of engagement, particularly among young people. This will provide an important indication of how well- equipped young people are to for take part in the democratic process and how effectively the political classes are at engaging them. If that engagement is underwhelming, this should provide an even greater impetus to halt the decline of Citizenship education – our futures depend on it.
Dr Stephen Roulston is a Research Fellow at the UNESCO Centre in the School of Education, Ulster University. You can follow him on twitter.
Dr Clare McAuley is a Lecturer at the School of Education, Ulster University.
All papers produced by the Transforming Education Project are available to view. View Documents Here…
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