Indifference to the North among young people at odds with support for Sinn Féin 

We must educate a new and dangerously ignorant generation on the crucial nature of the Good Friday Agreement, writes Emma deSouza
Indifference to the North among young people at odds with support for Sinn Féin 

 Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern signing the Good Friday Agreement.

Half of young people in the Republic do not understand Northern Ireland’s conflict, nor do they want to. One in four say they do not know if they support the Good Friday Agreement — these worrying statistics come courtesy of a recent Sunday Times/Behaviour and Attitudes poll. 

The apathy and indifference of the ceasefire generation raises a question mark over the future of the globally revered Agreement and poses a challenge for the educators and leaders of today.  

In 1998, children as young as 11 were reading the full text of the Good Friday Agreement in class, such was the level of interest in what would become one of the greatest political achievements of the last century. In the run-up to the referendum, busloads of students crossed the border — in both directions, to debate the future of the island of Ireland and get involved in the campaign. Civic society, educators, and the media were all active in the build-up to that historic moment, culminating in landslide results in both Northern Ireland and the republic.

Reaching an agreement and securing a peaceful resolution in Northern Ireland took decades, and with that agreement came a collective sigh of relief. However, that relief has given way to complacency.

Today, young people in the republic who wish to read the full text of the Good Friday Agreement must actively seek it out, as it is not included in the curriculum offered by their education system. The agreement does feature prominently for those taking politics and society courses — a unit which was introduced in 2018 at Leaving Certificate level. For all others, however, it is only referenced — rather sparsely — in history courses at Junior Certificate level, and neither course covers the agreement in full.

 The 30-odd-page document was circulated to every household on the island of Ireland in 1998 — and despite what some British ministers might say, it does make for a cracking read — so why aren’t young people being given the opportunity to read it?

The polling also showed a worrying lack of interest in the history of the conflict among 18 to 34-year-olds, with 50% of respondents stating that they do not feel they understand the Troubles, and a further 47% stating that they are not interested in the history of the conflict. 

Families across this island are still seeking truth and justice for the loss of their loved ones, the weight of intergenerational trauma is carried on the shoulders of so many, and yet, in a world of increasing youth-led rights initiatives and justice movements, we have a generation in the Republic who appear to take little to no interest in the problems which beset their own island in living memory.

The reasons for this will vary, but it's clear that this is a generation removed from the direct impact of the conflict, whose focus is on the issues influencing their lives today — climate action, human rights, housing. A similar sentiment was evidenced in recent research from the Northern Ireland Youth Forum, who surveyed young people across the island of Ireland and found that only 7% of respondents were interested in the legacy of the past.

We are failing the next generation by not providing them with the knowledge and the tools necessary to take forward the peace process. If evidence suggests that young people do not understand the history of the Troubles, then a review of the history module and related curriculum should be undertaken, and there is absolutely no reason why the full text of the Good Friday Agreement should not be compulsory in the education system — North and South. 

Politics also has a role to play. It is perplexing that Sinn Féin — placed to take the position of First Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly and increasingly popular among young people south of the border — is the party of choice for the same cohort who appear to not fully understand nor take an interest in the history of the North.

 The latest Red C/Sunday Business Post poll showed 44% of 18 to 34-year-olds favour Sinn Féin, versus 16% for Fine Gael and 12% for Fianna Fáil respectively. The party’s growing popularity enables it to engineer and influence public discourse and thinking about the past. With that level of influence comes responsibility, not to put forward a one-sided version of history, but a shared version.

At some point over the last two decades, the notion that peace and reconciliation is something for the Nordies to deal with has been allowed to seep into the collective thinking in the south. It has been forgotten to some degree that sustaining a lasting peace is not just a Northern affair, but a responsibility borne by all of us on the island of Ireland.

The future of the peace process is in the hands of the youth across this island, and there is a real and pressing need to impart upon them the importance, and responsibility, which that peace heralds. 

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