Guest Blog

Northern Ireland: beyond sectarian politics

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Monday, 17 June, 2013

“It is clear that the legacy of the past still plagues our society.” After meeting the Elders last month to discuss the challenges facing young people in Northern Ireland today, 17-year old Fíachra Kelly-McElroy urges his country’s leaders to prioritise economic and social issues instead of sectarian politics.

Northern Ireland is not normal

Living in Northern Ireland is all I have known and so is what I am used to but I am acutely aware it is not a normal society – both in a civic and political sense. I know the sound of a helicopter buzzing overhead isn't the normal noise to fall asleep to.

I was born in a time of deep divisions in Northern Ireland between the Protestant/unionist and Catholic/nationalist communities in a conflict that divided civic society for decades and became known as ‘The Troubles’.

Although The Troubles may have ended, the divisions and separation of people based on religion and political ideology has not. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was supposed to bring about a peaceful society with a working political system based on equality – and respecting each other’s identity and ideology – to create a prosperous Northern Ireland. This in my view has not happened.

Plagued by the past

As a young person growing up in a time of supposed political change and moving on from the past, it is clear that the legacy of the past still plagues our society and will do unless a proper civic discussion and process takes place.

I have not directly experienced The Troubles, yet like every other young person, I am still affected by it in nearly every section of my life. The Troubles still dominates our news, our politics and sadly, unless something changes, our future. I know about events like Bloody Sunday and I know about Bloody Friday. Both saw a huge loss of life and both were extremely emotive killings, but we can't let them rule our future. It may be hard, especially for those directly affected, but we do need to ‘move on’.

Failure to address youth unemployment

Young people in Northern Ireland, like everywhere else in Europe, are dealing with a climate of rampant unemployment and widespread fear of what they can do for work. I am worried about whether I can get in the job in the future, but this is only compounded by our political situation. At a time when most other countries are discussing the economy, we were discussing the contentious issues of how long the union flag should fly from Belfast City Hall, and the annual Orange Order parades. This, I can assure you, does not instill confidence in our politicians!

It is not all politicians’ fault; it was the wider society that reacted. It was the people on the streets who deemed this important. Meanwhile yet another young person boards a flight to Australia unnoticed, and quite frankly uncared about, as long as we can play our songs and fly our flag. We need to ask ourselves: why?

Falling back on sectarian politics

I have my own constitutional beliefs: I know that I do want a united Ireland. And yes, this belief is quite strongly held, but so is my economic and social ideology – so why is my view on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status more important?

It seems, for the most part, that we only vote along traditional lines, unionist or nationalist. Everything in Northern Ireland comes back to that question no matter how hard we try to move away from it. Economic and social issues are firmly second thoughts to our political parties when it comes to the media, even though many of them do have good policies.

The sad thing is that those who vote most ardently for the sectarian divide are those most affected by it – working class areas suffering from the social deprivation that our politicians don't address! Politicians flee back to their sectarian bases when they are asked a hard question on our dire economic situation and backward social policies, yet we still vote them in. This is not good enough!

Civic society must lead the change

In the context of our social and economic situation we need to be able to change. All of us have to accept that in the long term we need to make compromises and vote based on our views on what we want in society, not what that society is called.

To do this, there needs to be a discussion and wider process that addresses The Troubles, both victims and perpetrators; not the limited process we have now. If we don't, we can't move on and we can't finally concentrate on the real issues. In ten or twenty years’ time I don't want to be talking about an event that occurred before I was born!

This task is a task for us all. We can't shift this onto the politicians that we continually complain about because, in reality, it's the voters who put them where they are. Politicians are only reactionary; it is the civic society and community leaders that need to lead this change.

Fíachra Kelly-McElroy is a 17-year old student from Derry. He is involved in a memory bank project with the Peace and Reconciliation Centre, collecting interviews with ex-paramilitaries and community leaders in Northern Ireland. In March 2013 he met with Martti Ahtisaari, Ela Bhatt and Gro Harlem Brundtland to discuss some of the challenges facing young people in Northern Ireland today.

Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.

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