I was looking at a group of them in Dublin the day after the Lisbon referendum vote wondering if they voted and if they did, how they voted.
What do they think of the current uncertainty and the marked pessimism that now exists in Ireland about the economy, about the future and, if much of the analysis of last week’s no vote is to be believed, the cynicism that exists about politicians?
When I did my Leaving Cert in 1989 there was a fair degree of that cynicism apparent and much barbed comment about the inability of politicians in the previous 15 years to come up with solutions to Ireland’s woes, but looking back on it now, the class of 1989 was also lucky.
We were on the cusp of the ‘new Ireland’. All of us did not have to emigrate, and when the Celtic Tiger roared we were able to enjoy its advantages while also being aware of the dark days that preceded it, making us informed critics of the downside of unbridled materialism.
We tried to resist bullying and refused to allow ourselves to be suffocated by the pieties that had worn down a previous generation.
We lost some of these battles, but won more. Quite simply, the tide of history was turning in our favour. We were encouraged to think and debate and many of us came from homes where politics and an awareness of right and wrong were being frequently discussed.
But, in my view, not enough stress was laid on how important young people are and we did not have, or were not allowed, as much of a say as we would have liked. As an avid follower of politics, one of my abiding memories of my school years is of general elections.
There were four when I was in primary school — 1977, 1981, January 1982, and November 1982. While I was in secondary school there was a general election in February 1987, as I prepared for the Inter Cert, and in June 1989 as I was doing the Leaving Cert.
There was one problem, however, for those of us interested in politics while we sat our final exams — none of us could vote because we had started school at the age of four, there was no transition year and we were doing our Leaving Cert at the age of 17, in some cases even 16.
Mention of all the general elections in the 1980s is a reminder of how much more stable the country is now, politically and economically. But lecturing teenagers about how lucky they are is a futile exercise. The reality is that all decades bring their own stresses and strains. Some things do not change. A path still has to be negotiated from adolescence to adulthood. That is never easy, and often seems to be more difficult for males.
Far too many Irish teenager boys are killed on the roads or kill themselves. Those celebrating this weekend are also living in an Ireland where there is a lot of uncertainty about the future for the first time in many years, and that lack of confidence is going to affect them all.
Last year I was asked to speak at a function in the secondary school I attended. I asked the organiser what I should speak about and he told me to say whatever I wanted, but suggested I avoid speaking about politics, which, of course, I ignored. The general election was impending so I told them to cherish their vote and use it; to engage with politics and debates about the kind of Ireland they wanted to see and wanted to live in.
Given what happened last week, it is even more important that their youthful voice is heard.
One thing the class of 1989 was sure of was that European integration was a very good idea and many students and parents admired Garret FitzGerald precisely because he seemed to suggest we should and could thrive as Irish Europeans, and many of our mothers agreed with him.
The year we started primary school the European Commission made its directive on equal pay binding on the Irish government, which had requested to be exempt from its provisions.
This is a reminder that Ireland’s entry to the EEC in 1973 was of profound significance for the advancement of women, as it offered the possibility of a different model of family life.
Equality legislation facilitated the participation of both parents in the workforce, so that dual-earner households increasingly became the norm.
Membership of the EEC contributed to significant changes in regulations governing the employment of women and the entitlement of married women to individual social welfare payments. These were measures that strengthened women’s economic independence.
Despite the problems of the 1980s, emigration in that decade was not always seen as negative. There was a chance for people to travel and become “educated young Europeans” rather than labourers in England and the United States.
Regional and structural funds helped to maximise growth, especially in the technology sector during the 1990s. This contributed to the ability of young Irish people to stay here and enjoy a high standard of living, and to the desirability of others to work here. Without membership, it is unlikely we would be a multicultural society to the extent we are now.
Despite all this, there were always those who believed that European integration increased rather than decreased our sense of being on the periphery, as we became a relatively minor member of a European state system dominated by powerful nation states.
There was also the suggestion that the shifting of the axis of economic dependency away from Britain towards mainland Europe and the United States increased our vulnerability and compromised much of our independence and, by extension, our defence policy.
ONE of the interesting challenges for those in the Leaving Cert class of 2008 who want to engage with politics and the fall-out from last week’s referendum is to figure out what it says or means about Irish identity in the 21st century.
Is this about a return to a more localised identity? During the week, one close observer and regular commentator on Irish politics, Tom Carew, suggested that what defeated Lisbon was emotion rather than the dissection of legal technicalities, and that this included a passion for localism — “just as Roy Keane is firstly a Mayfield boy, only secondly a Corkonian, and lastly an Irishman, we also feel (with Tip O’Neill) that all politics is local. And the root of all identity is local. Edmund Burke talked of the little platoon; Charles Kickham talked of the honour of the little village… People came increasingly to feel they were substituting the common name of European for the proud one of Irishman. That they were being handed down an answer to a question which was never theirs.”
It will be interesting to see if those born into an Ireland enthusiastic for Europe will have a very different attitude as they wave goodbye to their schooldays.